Teaching in the Now


Every music teacher has a story like this:

Last Friday, the lesson had wings. The second grade class I was teaching it to were completely in tune with me. We were riffing off each other, sharing a vibe that was magical. When I told the children we were out of time, they sighed: how could it be over? It felt like we just started! I left that classroom feeling great, knowing I had a winner here. This was especially important to me because I'd be teaching the same lesson to a different class Monday morning with my principal observing as part of my annual evaluation.

I walked into that class on Monday, confident, assured, ready to tackle this group. The principal was a few minutes late, but that didn't faze me: this was a great lesson, I knew, fast-moving, action-packed, with plenty of opportunities for students to interact with the material in creative ways.

But the kids weren't having it.

Something was off: the children just weren't feeling it. The high flyers were out of sync with me, and needed frequent reminders not to distract other students. Transitions were nowhere near as smooth as they'd been with Friday's class. This was much more work for me than it had been then. I could feel myself struggling against the tide, and as the half hour neared its end, I knew I needed to find some way to put a bow on this battered and bruised lesson. And then, out of nowhere, it came to me: I told the children to sing and play the song game I'd just taught them (Doug Goodkin's arrangement of "One Potato") as they walked back to their desks. It worked beautifully: their voices sounded more unified than they had at any point in the lesson, and by the time they finished singing, they were all sitting in their own seats, alert and ready for their classroom teacher to take over from me.

Later that week, when I had my post-observation conference with the principal, I told her I'd been disappointed in the lesson overall, but felt very good about that final, improvised trick I'd just pulled out of thin air, and which, I said, I'd been using with every class since as a way to both summarize the lesson and move children out of the music space and back to their desks or into a line. She smiled, and told me many of her best teaching moments had happened in the same way. Sometimes teaching magic just happens.

But only in the moment.

Twelve years ago, when I began teaching elementary music full time, I worked from lesson plans. At first, those plans came from whatever music education series I found in my classroom when I took up residence there: Share the Music, Silver-Burdett. I'd have children pick up a text book as they entered the music room, turn to the page for today's lesson, and we'd work our way through it as it was laid out in the teacher's edition. Three years later, when I had my first Orff level training, I discovered a new way of teaching: take a piece--a song, a dance, a game--and teach that, keeping myself open to all the possibilities to teach concepts from that piece, and to expand it into other areas of musical and movement education. At first, it was awkward, especially with older children who expected much more visible scaffolding than came with this approach. Over time, I settled into the method, finding ways to rework lessons to accommodate, affirm and, ultimately, be transformed by whatever the children brought to them. Instead of serving them fully-cooked dishes from the McGraw-Hill restaurant, I was inviting them into the kitchen to share the cooking duties with me, encouraging them to offer up their own ideas of how to create unique gourmet experiences.

Teaching like this is not for the faint of heart. One has to put an enormous amount of trust in the learning process, and that only comes with experience. One also has to be prepared for sabotage: when teaching is improvisational, it can be hijacked by an aggressive child who wants it all to be about whatever turmoil he or she is experiencing at home. That means trusting the administration to deal with these high flyers, to find ways to address the underlying causes of their dysfunction and help them participate appropriately, and frankly, that's not a trust I've been able to have during my two previous years in this building. The children have to be able to trust their teacher, as well. Those two years have shown these children that I care about them, and most of them now realize that my presence in a room means were going to do something that's as fun as it is educational. That makes it possible for the magic to happen more often.

More often is not, of course, always. When the magic isn't happening, that's when it's most important that, like the children in that first class, I'm completely present in the moment, riding whatever wave I'm on all the way to shore. I can't spare any of my bandwidth for thinking about the emails I need to answer when I'm back in my office, how I'll work out after school, or what we'll have for dinner. The children and the lesson I'm teaching them demand my all.

This sounds like hard work, and it is, but I'm not aware of how hard it is until I'm done. I can't afford to think about how hard it is: I've got to be fully present, no part of me grumbling about those high flyers, how long I'm waiting for an administrator to remove one of them, or what I'll be writing on the referral form once I finally have a moment to reflect on how naughty that child was. I'm not teaching for that later: I'm teaching now. This is my teaching moment, and their learning moment. I'm doing all I can to maximize that learning, separating children from their chatty friends, sending an especially challenging child to sit in a different part of the room, scrapping part of the lesson that just can't work in this atmosphere, adjusting the remaining activities to better accommodate the jittery vibe of the class, pausing everything to reteach basic music class behavior.

As hard as it is, it's also invigorating, inspiring, immensely rewarding. I complained a lot at the start of the year about the setting for my classes: the echoing gym, the cramped rugs in classrooms, the difficulty of only being able to use what I could carry with me from room to room. Hosting a workshop with Doug Goodkin helped a great deal, reminding me that this is much more than a job, it's a vocation, and part of that calling is to be utterly dedicated to making every teaching moment the best it can be. Accepting the constraints this year is placing on me, I've been able this last couple of weeks to simply teach: to transcend setting and give these children the best musical education they've ever had.

In doing this, I find I'm entering a whole new stage of my career. I'm actually moving beyond teaching as vocation, to teaching as spiritual practice. I'm finding that, as with my outdoor adventures, I'm feeling vibrantly alive as I teach, present, focused, conscious, creative, connected to all my students and to the music I'm teaching them.

This is what I commend to you who read this: embrace the now of your teaching moment. Plunge into it, wrap yourself up in it, let it penetrate your being. Like the best of improvisers, make every one of your students a scene partner as you create a new world right here, right now, surprising each other with all the wonders it contains.

This is the Zen of teaching. It is, I am coming to believe, why so many brilliant people have chosen this career path rather than something more lucrative and predictable: we are never more fully ourselves than when we are partnered with students, opening our hearts, opening their minds, changing their world and our world for the better.

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