I No Longer Teach in a Gym

Scott entrance photo

School's in! And I'm in--in the building, that is.

All last year, my increasingly discouraged educational refrain was "I teach in a gym." To be more precise, I taught in two gyms, because I divided my year between two schools, both of which had phased out the music room when they cut back music during the recession. Last year, the Reynolds district partially restored music education, putting half-time teachers in every building but one (more about that later). At Scott and Hartley, they also restored PE half-time. Having the PE and music teachers trade places at the semester worked out conveniently for the schools: no need to force anyone else to move! Music could be in the gym when PE was in the other school, schedules did not have to change midyear, administrators were happy, teachers were happy...

And I was not.

Initially, just the chance to teach elementary music full-time carried me through the challenges of having a space that was far too big, far too loud, for music teaching. I experimented with many things in the first month at Scott, figuring out what would and would not work with movement, singing, and my own voice. I began using an amplification system so I could be heard better. I discovered that kindergartners and first graders were having a hard time being restricted to just one part of the gym, so I looked for ways to break up the space. I experimented with safety cones, risers, chairs, carpets. Eventually I was able to create a "kinder corral" using the flip-form risers which, I discovered, could be stood on end and turned into a wall--though that didn't keep the kinders from climbing inside them and occasionally knocking them over.
Wenger flipFORM - Blue Top/Grey Base
Keeping children from running and screaming in the gym was, it turned out, a lesser problem next to that of sound. The amplification system helped make my voice loud enough to be heard, but it did nothing for the echo chamber effect of children playing instruments in a space without any acoustical dampening. The room was just too live for music teaching to take place. I struggled through months of recorder classes that could make only incremental improvement at Scott, and finally abandoned recorders altogether at Hartley.

That's the main reason I was thrilled to be coming back to Scott full-time this year: there was simply no way I could be put in the gym. We would still be having PE for at least half the year, and the PE teacher would, of course, have priority in using the gym. This did make me nervous I might have to teach from a cart, visiting classrooms, and all summer I worried about it, finally discovering when I reported back on Monday that I had, in fact, been given a classroom--mostly. I've been given the former ELD classroom (and why this couldn't have happened last year is beyond me), with one side of it partitioned off for a computer room. I don't know yet how that will work, whether there will be children on computers while I'm teaching music, or if a more permanent wall will be installed at some point. We'll have to see.

Meanwhile, it seems the district had other plans it was not sharing with me. There's another school in the district I had never heard of: Four Corners, a much smaller school than Scott that has some students with extreme behavior issues. It's just a mile from Scott. The reason I'd never heard of it is that it had neither music nor PE last year, and someone in the district office had just realized that meant the district had been violating Oregon law. If any school in the district had music and PE, every school had to have it. The district went hunting for spare time in specialists' schedules, discovered I had some sections free, tried to claim more of them than I really had, were convinced by my principal that they could only have two (as opposed to the seven they wanted, which would have meant bringing another teacher into Scott for the five I didn't have free), and decided finally on a crazy quilt mish mash of music and PE teachers for Four Corners. Two afternoons a week, I'll finish my day teaching one class at Four Corners.

I'm not thrilled by this. It constitutes an involuntary transfer, in fact. But I'll live with it, because for at least the next year, I'm in Reynolds to stay.

Given the challenges I faced last year in those gymnasiums, the insistence by administrators that there was no solution, and the crazy commute (35 minutes to Scott, 40-45 to Hartley, and that's with good traffic), I spent the summer looking for a position home. I nearly got one: a school so close I could have bicycled to it. That didn't ultimately pan out (and that's a good thing for us, as it could have caused the bank to nix our mortgage), but just yesterday, I had a call from another Beaverton school asking me to interview. I said no. Why? Two factors:

My colleagues, teachers so dedicated to their challenging students that they inspire me to pour more of myself into teaching. Reynolds is a poor district. Teaching here is as much a calling as a career. Now that I've passed through the rude awakening year, and done it under conditions far worse than what I'll be experiencing this year, I'm embracing this challenge with gusto.

My students: all last year, despite the difficulties of behavior issues amplified by the gym environment, I saw again and again that kids are kids. However disadvantaged they may be, however challenged they may be by issues of socioeconomic status, language, and ethnic barriers, these are children like any others. My two weeks in Ghana underlined this truth even more: children everywhere are curious, playful, trusting, affectionate, eager, hopeful--and I can make a difference for them. As I was unpacking a box, I came across a note a fifth grader had written for me on my last day at Scott before I moved to Hartley. It moved me all over again.

It could be argued that, were I to change schools now, I'd get to know another group of dedicated teachers and sweet children who are just like the kids at Scott, whatever their SES may be. But here's the thing: I'd be starting from scratch with them. I did that twice last year. Returning to Scott, I get to build on what I started last year, picking up where I left off in my curriculum. More importantly, I get to come back to five grades of students who already know me, and continue building the relationships I initiated with them. Being able to see children grow and develop in knowledge, ability, and personality is one of the perks of being a music teacher, but only when one comes back.

As I am doing.

I can't wait.


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