Saturday, October 26, 2013

Teach Like a Rock Star


"You're a saint!" whispered the special ed teacher as she helped the kindergarten teacher shepherd her class out of the gym.

This surprised me. I had just had my best half hour all year with this particularly unruly litter of feral kittens, and while they'd been just as active and demanding as ever, the presence of two other adults throughout the class made things far easier for me. I didn't have to worry, for instance, about a particular boy bolting for the exit, or another boy leading a race-around-the-room rebellion. So I'd just had fun with them, leading a movement activity, teaching them to play two different clapping games based on the Spanish pronunciation of "chocolate," and telling them a story that included the ABC song. I had two helpers that day because the classroom teacher had quickly come to capacity with this group's impulsive behavior, and after getting assistance from the special ed teacher, had decided that both of them would stay with the class through their time with me.

Later that day, I passed through the cafeteria as the kindergarten was having lunch, and was greeted with a chorus of cheers from them and the first graders who are also in there at that time. This despite the fact that much of my teaching time with both age groups during the first month of the year had been spent trying to corral them, often sternly. Things have settled down with the first grade thanks to the edition of a third classroom, bringing numbers down from as many as 42 to a much more manageable 25-26, but these children do still try my patience on occasion.

Fortunately, I don't have to hold onto that patience for long. Music lasts for 30 minutes, and then the next class comes in, and I start fresh, flushing any flavor of frustration the previous group may have left on my pedagogical palate. And really, I don't get frustrated all that much. I seem to be settling into the right balance of strictness and silliness, two qualities vital to these children, many of whom come from chaotic and stressful home environments.

Even on days when my frustration leaks through, enough that students see my scowl, I can be sure of smiles and cries of "Music teacher! Mr. A!" and, in one case, "Mr. Gym!" when I'm spotted during recess, lunch, or dismissal. It's as if a rock star has just strolled on the scene, and they all want my autograph.

I have not always engendered this reaction from children. Eleven years ago, when I reentered teaching after a long detour into ministry, I spent most of my day floundering, struggling to present stale canned lessons from whatever curriculum I found in my classroom to children who wanted nothing more than to be out of the chairs I made them sit in, moving to the music I played for them. After a year of subbing and two years teaching music full-time, I encountered the Orff approach, and instantly knew which direction I needed to go if I was going to thrive in this profession. The transition took time; in particular, I had to get over myself, as all improvisers must, and find in my heart the sense of play I don't remember ever having, even as a child.

It was awkward at first. Dancing with children, singing in falsetto so they can match pitch, putting more expression into my story-telling--none of these things came easily. But with practice, and in cooperation with the deep empathy I have always felt for children, they became more natural. Still, I was just really settling into my full Orff teacher persona when the lay-off notice came.

The most frightening part of the lay-off was the fear that I might never again be in an elementary setting. A year of nothing, followed by a year of extreme part-time, then two years of half-time, all at the secondary level, and I was finally learning to relax with teenagers; but band and choir directing at that level is a whole other thing from teaching music to small children. It's performance-oriented, more like artistic coaching, and there's little real opportunity to be silly, to play games, to really relax into a lesson. Rehearsals have to have a level of intensity that would never fly in a third grade music class. There's just too much at stake: festivals, scholarships, the self-esteem of every member of a high school group hinges on how well that group performs when it's on stage.

It took me just a few days to slide back into my general music persona, and I was delighted to find that three years of improv have significantly heightened my ability to turn a floundering lesson around. The evidence of this is, of course, the rock star treatment I'm getting.

I've had inklings of it before. In both Hood River and Banks, there were classes that I loved to see come through my door, and who clearly loved being with me. In Hood River, I even took to subbing for a particular kindergarten class on my off days, and we had a great time together. At Margaret Scott, there seems to be much less of a favoritism thing happening: almost every class I see is happy to be with me, and even with the troublesome fifth grade I have a significant number of fans.

Because, make no mistake, these children are fans. They give me in spades something I have not had at all in my foray into high school teaching, and rarely encountered prior to that: adulation.

It's strange that compliments from adults don't affect me. I've been hearing them every Sunday, as my efforts playing for the Parkrose UCC service have been very well received. I frequently hear them after a Comedy Sportz show, as well, especially if we've knocked an improvised musical or opera out of the park. I used to get a fair number of compliments after every sermon I preached, or when I played my trumpet in church. And all these compliments, put together, can't hold a candle to what I feel when a child's face lights up because I'm the music teacher, the guy who helps children learn to sing and dance and play.

They smile, they laugh, they wave, they call me (sort of) by name, and often, they hug me. It's amazing. Even after a hard day, when I'm worrying how much frustration has leaked out of me, the children still bring me back to home base with their affection.

Yeah. It's good to be a rock star. You should try it sometime.

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