Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Back 2 School... or not

Today just over 1 million New York City public school kids and teachers joined millions more of likeminded individuals across the country to end the summer with their first day of school. For the first time in 24 years, I was not one of them.

I, like so many other musicians, have followed an academic calendar in one way or another since the day I first got on that yellow school bus as a shy 5-year-old. Whether as a student or teacher, the waning hours of daylight, the resurgence of new TV episodes, and those first tentative scents of apple cinnamon and ginger molasses have translated to one thing: the start of classes. But this September I will not be joining the ranks of the pencil wielders and rule givers. This past June I decided to quit my elementary school and not look for a job replacement. I feel very passionately that when a teacher reaches burn-out, they have a responsibility to themselves, their students, and the profession to not remain in the classroom. So out of the classroom I have removed myself. I have also been frustrated with the direction my composition career hasn’t taken, and the seeming necessity for a musician to have to teach in order to earn any significant form of income. And so I enter this fall curious to see how life functions without lesson plans and hopeful that I can I figure out a way to make an actual living off of composition, sans teaching.

Ah, to be free from 55 minute time intervals and name memorization! Yet, I must admit to feelings of guilt as I watch my friends’ Facebook statuses announce their reluctant return to school. The concept of the Teacher Musician has been successfully hammered into my psyche. It seems a necessity, even an obligation, for musicians to also be teachers. I certainly agree that when someone has honed a talent and skill, it is their duty at some point in some way to pass on their knowledge. If they didn’t, then the skill would die, or never evolve. But this transference should only happen when the giver is ready to give. It should not occur simply because it could, and definitely not because others think it should. Yet it seems society dictates that in order to be make a career out of music, if primarily only for financial support, one must also teach.

Or is that really society’s voice and not a lemming-like tendency to simply follow what others before have done? Too often musicians “fall back” to teaching as a way to supplement, or support, their income. It is incredibly frustrating that after years of studying and practicing, the reality sets in that playing music, particularly jazz music, does not pay the bills. Even professionals are forced to take up college jobs to make ends meet and that is part of the lifestyle we have come to expect from our chosen profession. Teaching seems like a natural solution as it still involves the music we are passionate about, and usually pays better than the hourly wage at Starbucks.

But teaching is not a cake job. Teachers are not people that drift in and out of lives unnoticed like this morning’s barista. Teachers have a profound effect on their students and that responsibility should not be taken lightly. I firmly believe that aside from practicing medicine, or perhaps construction, teaching is the worst profession to mess up. To me, a bad teacher is one of the worst things in the world. We’ve all had them, and they suck! If we are lucky, a bad teacher simply teaches us nothing and inspires even less. In the worst case, a bad teacher can give us false information, confuse us, ill-prepare us, set us on the wrong paths, or even inspire a self-doubt that takes years to overcome.

What makes a bad teacher? What makes a good teacher? Teachers are fallible. They are not perfect and like parents, they are destined to make mistakes that have unintended effects on their students. What makes a teacher excel is the desire to recognize and overcome these mistakes; to remain humble and continue the learning process; to listen to criticism and be willing to try new things; to adapt to changing times and attempt to connect with the student; to have patience and keep the student’s potential a priority; and to be able to know when to keep their own insecurities, frustrations with administration, and day-to-day troubles out of the classroom. In order to do these things, a teacher must have a passion and love for teaching. They must recognize and enjoy the small rewards of teaching enough to endure the multitude of stress and frustrations that accompany education. If a teacher does not have a sincere desire to help the students, everything that the teacher preaches will become hollow, and the students will know it, and it will not pass unrecognized.

In addition to the academia, teachers are responsible for an invisible curriculum. These are the lessons that teach children (and adults) how to respond and interact in different environments and circumstances. Students observe and often mimic how their teacher treats others, how problems get resolved, and how discomfort and stress is dealt with. For me, this was one of the hardest parts of teaching. Every time I disciplined a child, I hoped that I was teaching a positive lesson, and not creating a monster (which I feel happens way more than we like to admit). Teachers are the ultimate role model. Again, a job not to be taken lightly. If a person does not have the awareness to deal with all of this responsibility, if they can not balance their personal life with their educational life, that person should not teach.

For the past year I have been privately teaching a first grader to play recorder. She has probably been my toughest student to date. For about 4 months I could not crack a smile or a joke without her completely disregarding my authority and acting like a spoiled brat. Our lessons were like boot camp with me relentlessly in her face informing her in my firmest voice that I was her teacher and if I said she played a B instead of a G then she should not argue with me and instead play the G correctly. Eventually I earned her respect and now our lessons are as they should be- fun, lots of smiles and jokes, and significant progress on learning to read and play music (both Bs and Gs!). Last May we were preparing a trio of “Scarborough Fair” for her spring recital. We had been working on this song for almost 4 months and there was one part in the song where she held 2 tied half notes over the barline while my alto part moved in quarter notes. For some reason she missed this part EVERY time. Now, I don’t know if it was because I had been correcting this measure and isolating it for months to no avail, or if it was simply because when she missed the tie and moved on to the next measure I didn’t get to play my pretty counterpoint, but on one particular day in May, I lost it. LOST IT. I have never felt such rage and violence erupt inside me, EVER. I have no idea how I ended that lesson with out completely tearing her to shreds both verbally and physically. I was shocked by the depths of which I could feel such hatred for such a small child. It was a wake up call to me. I realized that day that my patience reserves were bone dry. I also realized that I had lost the perspective that teaching is not exclusively about the music. Did it really matter that she missed this tie? Large scale. Did it? Did the world really depend on whether or not this 7 year old let the 30 year old play the counterpoint? Did her action warrant my reaction?




And it was then that I realized that I was no longer fit to teach.

At least not right now. I had reached that point of burn-out that can erode teachers away to bitter, bitter creatures. I did not want that for myself, or for my students.

I found that I was blaming and resenting the teaching and by extension, the students, and music in general, for taking away precious time that could be used to advance my rock star composition career. So I am taking time off. I fully expect to return to teaching after a little break, and to be honest, I have kept a little private teaching on my weekly schedule. But I’d like to take the jump and see what it’s like to be a full time composer. (We’ll see how that goes and I’ll keep ya updated!)

Meanwhile, I am obviously back from Australia and have a bunch of things from the trip I’ll be posting over the next week or so. Unfortunately, my laptop decided it could not function in the southern hemisphere so I wasn’t able to post real-time (note to self: ditch the PC and get a Mac).

Good luck to all those teachers who returned to work today, or within the last few weeks and weeks to come. I admire your commitment, and I wish you the clarity, creativity and patience that I myself lost. I also hope that if your heart is not in it, you will have the wisdom to recognize this, and pull out or reevaluate before you drown in that cold, bitter sea of resentment. I will soon rejoin the ranks and help to pass on the passion for music and composition that I hope to rekindle in all my upcoming “free” time.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.
-- Anonymous


Gregory Dudzienski said...

You are to be admired....thanks for sharing this

I wish you the very best of luck!

D0nnaTr0y said...

Thanks GD!

jeanne said...

Wow. This was a GREAT post, and a lot of what you said rang true for any teacher, regardless of the discipline. Can I share this with some of the people I work with?

D0nnaTr0y said...

Jeanne- did you like the part where I said that teaching was worst career to mess up, with the exception of medicine? That was because of our discussion several years at your house. Do you remember that?

Anyway, thanks for reading and of course you can share it!

Hope you have some good students and classes this year. I am still waiting to hear how the new admin is going!

jeanne said...

Kelly, that was the part that really grabbed my attention, and I think I do remember that conversation! It seems like a lifetime ago! Anyway, I really admire that you recognized that you need a break from teaching...as you know, I went through that as well.

I have great kids and classes this year! Definitely the kind of classes that help me remember exactly why I chose this profession. New admin is good...student behavior is much better now!

Anyway, I hope we can find some time to actually talk soon! I want to hear all about Australia, and I'd like to start planning my next NYC visit!

Andrew Durkin... said...

Wow, this a great essay.

I admire your honesty, your integrity, and your willingness to give yourself a break to see what happens -- as opposed to sticking with the job "just because." Good luck!

I myself fell into a elementary school music teaching gig this year for the first time (I wasn't looking for it at all, but here I am). Already my head is spinning. I'll be keeping these words of wisdom in mind as the year evolves...