Variations: Being comfortable in your teacher skin
I recently met a passionate young teacher who told me this story: "One of my students came up to me the other day and observed: 'Mrs. L., you either love what you do, or you just can't find another job!' The child, only seven years old, had already intuited society's adage: 'Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.'" We laughed together over this story, yet, at its heart, it isn't funny.
Earlier in the week, I had encountered another young teacher. She asked me the poignant question, "What do you say to relatives who, when I say I teach piano for a living, ask 'What else do you plan to do?'" She had tears in her eyes.
As a teacher who has taught for forty-six years, it would have been easy for me to respond, "Just follow your passion for teaching. Let go of others' expectations and do what you love." While I believe this advice, I instead stood with this young woman and vividly remembered a painful experience from my own late twenties. At the time, the feminist movement was in full swing. One of my friends took me to task for continuing to work in a profession, which, along with nursing, was an expected career path for women. "You are betraying the sisterhood," she insisted.
Even movies portray teachers, especially piano teachers, in less-than positive ways. The 2015 animated movie Inside Out features an eleven-year-old hockey player who is moving with her family from Minneapolis to San Francisco.The child's emotional memory bank is depicted as a series of different-colored balls (blue for sad, for instance) stackedside-by-side in long, winding rows. One scene presents two janitorial types who are cleaning out the young girl's fading, less-significant emotions to create more room for new ones.At one point we hear one of them say, "Seven years of piano lessons! Those can go. Keep 'Chopsticks' and 'Heart and Soul' and get rid of the rest!"
As piano teachers, we are not alone in society's often negative view of teachers. In her book The Teacher Wars:A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, Dana Goldstein writes:
Teachers have been embattled by politicians, philanthropists, intellectuals, business leaders, social scientists, activists on both the Right and Left, parents, and even one another . . . Americans have debated who should teach public school; what should get taught; and how teachers should be educated, trained, hired, paid, evaluated, and fired. Though we've been arguing about these questions for two centuries, very little consensus has developed.1
My stepson Eric, is a gifted, hard-working high school choral teacher dedicated to his students. After ten years on the road as a member of Blind Man's Bluff, a highly successful a cappella rock group, he chose to become a high school choral teacher. Eric not only earned an MAT from Northwestern University, but he also completed the rigorous course it took to become a nationally certified teacher. For eleven years he taught in a Chicago Public School just south of Midway Airport.
Eric is a challenging teacher who is a firm believer in teaching students to be responsible for their own learning.When Eric's choir performed, they often sang from memory in as many as seven different languages. Could they read music? Yes! Eric combined his performance program with rigorous theory instruction. He expected his students to come to class having already sight-read the music for that day's rehearsal. In addition, he expected every student to be able to sing all the major and minor scales as well as the modes.
During Eric's tenure, he and the theater teacher reestablished the school's long-abandoned musical productions. Students with little or no prior training, and with next to no school funds, found props, made costumes, and put on spirited, excellent performances of such shows as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Sweeney Todd. Eric arranged the music to fit whatever instruments students happened to be able to play at the time. Parents participated, too, by making and serving what amounted to dinner at every performance.
Eric also reached out to the Chicago music community to find a private voice teacher for interested students. A member of Chicago's famed Music of the Baroque, this stellar musician taught students as a volunteer. Many of the young men and women in Eric's choir won city and state awards, singing classical repertoire such as oratorios and Lieder. The choir itself also won many commendations and was frequently asked to sing at important Chicago functions.
Yes, there are many outstanding teachers like Eric out in the world. What makes this a special story is the fact that Eric's school, which serves a largely Hispanic population, is underfunded, understaffed, and in continual threat of closure. I once adjudicated a contest at his school in a room without heat—in February. Eric had no office, and, due to lack of space, he frequently taught his chorus in a hallway instead of a classroom. Every year, Eric's job was in danger of being eliminated. He often had to wait until a few days before the start of the school year to learn if he would be reinstated.
Despite years of working with the Chicago Teachers Union, often as a public spokesperson, and despite his efforts to recruit students to his high school from the neighborhood elementary and middle schools, the budget for Eric's program grew smaller and the teaching conditions more deplorable. This year the school board once again threatened to shut down the school.
In addition, the current Illinois governor left the state without a budget for nearly a year, leaving the Chicago Public Schools without funds. The new budget, signed in haste on July 1, 2016, is only a temporary, patchwork solution. To top it all, the governor recently implied that half the teachers in the Chicago Public Schools are virtually illiterate. While he later apologized, this gross untruth took its toll on all teachers. This fall Eric did the only reasonable thing: he took a job in a suburban school district where ninety-five percent of the funding is local. He shouldn't have had to make this choice. He loved working with the students at his South Side high school, and they will suffer his loss.
We teachers are neither the saviors of society nor the main cause of its many ills. Goldstein points out:
Many extraordinary men and women worked in public school classrooms . . . Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B DuBois, and Lyndon B. Johnson are just a few of the famous Americans who taught. They resisted the fantasy of educators as saints or saviors, and understood teaching as a job in which the potential for children's intellectual transcendence and social mobility, though always present, is limited by real-world concerns such as poor training, low pay, inadequate supplies, inept administration, and impoverished students and families.2
Children need us now more than ever. Whether they are impoverished and unsupported or privileged and pressured, as Eric's work proves, all children can grow and succeed. They simply need the sustained support! They need us to witness their real lives, to model the advantages of living a life full of intellectual curiosity and excellence that is also balanced with time to daydream and imagine, and to guide them as they pursue their own passions.
As independent music teachers, we can sidestep the political and social maelstrom of expectations and criticism that continually threatens to cause the collapse of school systems everywhere. Because we have the privilege of working with children over several years, we can design a curriculum suited only to them; allow them to develop at their own natural pace; sit with them during fallow periods and times when they need us to teach sideways; test them when they are ready and not at some mandated date; and, most importantly, teach them the important skill of working on their own.
When will society begin to value and support teachers? When will relatives and friends look at us with pride when we tell them what we do? Maybe soon. Maybe never. No matter what outside response we receive, we need to be comfortable in our own teacher skin. Only then can we look the world in the eye and say, "The contract between student and teacher is sacred. Unlike contracts made in many other jobs or the contracts society often gives its teachers, it will never let me down. If I travel into the world of music with children, at the end of our journey, each of us will find ourselves transformed by the other. Why wouldn't I choose this profession?"
1 Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, Anchor Books, 5.