Sunday, February 2, 2014

Do Good Work — Or Else!


"A school board met recently in California to discuss the severe budget cuts. Reflecting on their own experiences as schoolchildren and surveying students in the local schools, story after story came out about boring classes, dull worksheets, mean teachers and the feeling that especially in today’s day and age, with machines to instantly do the work,  math was more irrelevant to real life then it had ever been before. And so they cut the math program in every school in the district.

This was the story I told to a group of elementary music teachers as the invited speaker at a recent State Convention. I then asked how many thought it was true. Predictably, most did not. Then I asked them to imagine the same story told substituting music for math. Not only did they believe it, some had lived it. I went on.

“Here’s the shocking news. I don’t blame the decision-makers. If I was on that Board of Education and had to make some hard choices about what was essential and what kids could do without, remembering my own sad and boring music education in elementary school, I’d cut it too without a moment’s hesitation. It’s the shame of our profession that one of life’s most joyous gifts is one of school’s most dreadfully taught subjects. If school boards and the culture at large don’t value music education, we have only ourselves to blame.”

A pause here for dramatic effect.

“Still, though, if my school music classes were boring and less engaging than they might have been, so were a lot of my math, history, language arts, science classes. Why isn’t someone giving this talk at a math conference, warning his fellow math teachers that they better do good work or their jobs would be eliminated. Or worse yet, they’d be moved to another job and have to teach (gasp!) music! Never happens. But why not? Look at the list circulating these days about 21st Century Learning Skills and what’s important— creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, leadership, social responsibility— music wins hands down!

“So let’s say it out loud. IT ISN’T FAIR! Our jobs are hard enough without the constant shadow hanging over us that we are uninvited guests at the banquet of education and can be asked to leave at a moment’s notice when the food runs low. In addition to having to master the complexity of our craft, we have to constantly defend our profession, learn how to advocate for our jobs, keep up on all the studies showing why music is important. No other teacher has to do that! I’ve never heard a reading teacher speak at a parent meeting and spend most the time trying to convince the parents that reading is important for their children. Let’s say it again. IT ISN’T FAIR!

What can we do about it? Here's the bad news. Until such time as music is accepted unquestionably as essential, we have to be extraordinary teachers. We have to make our classes engaging, dynamic, child-friendly, we have to make ourselves indispensable to the children’s daily experience and indispensable to the culture of the school. We can’t ever rest wholly satisfied with what we’re doing, but must relentlessly probe, reach, seek out the next step to do it better. Knowing all the while that even when we are extraordinary, they still can (and do) cut our program.

“And here’s the good news. Until such time as music is accepted unquestionably as essential, we have to be extraordinary teachers. We have to make our classes engaging, dynamic, child-friendly, we have to make ourselves indispensable to the children’s daily experience and indispensable to the culture of the school. We can’t ever rest wholly satisfied with what we’re doing, but must relentlessly probe, reach, seek out the next step to do it better. Knowing that if our work is stellar, we stand a chance that the kids, parents and colleagues will speak up on our behalf when cuts are threatened.

"It isn’t fair that we have to be amazing teachers or else, but hey, if it helps motivate us to reach the children we teach one step wider and deeper, then we can turn it to a good result. And that’s why I imagine all of you are here at this conference, looking for ways to do what you do well even better.

“So here’s the music teachers' three steps to preserving our jobs:

  1. Do good work.
  2. Do good work.
  3. Do good work.
“We can’t wholly control what happens in the halls of political power or effortlessly convince administrators who have never experienced an inspired music class or insure a solid and healthy economy. But when the door to the music room closes and we’re alone with the children, that’s where the pedal hits the medal and we are in control of what happens. Alone with the children, we are free to do good work.(Though I recognize that even here the long arm of ignorance is reaching in and making us dance to someone else’s bad tune, with proscribed keywords and official procedures and machines that must be used just because. That’s another talk.)

“And just what is good work? Ah, there’s a subject. Well, you know it when you see it. Anything that has kids shouting “Can we do it again?” that sends them out humming happily into the hall, that raises a goosebump, that surprises everyone when a child is graced with a breakthrough expressive moment, that lights up the room with “Aha’s!," that leaves both you and the children feeling better at the end of the class than you did when it started. And so, let’s repeat it: 1. Do good work. 2. Do good work. 3. Do good work.

And then one more.

  1. Tell about it.
“Yes, it’s not fair that we have to explain to people who haven’t experienced it what good music education looks and feels like, but it’s not their fault that they don’t. We need to educate them. And as W.B. Yeats suggested over a century ago when lamenting the state of the arts in the culture, ‘We need to baptize as well as preach.’ Don’t just tell, but share and show. And don’t just show, but invite the parents and fellow teachers and school boards to participate and feel for themselves on the inside what they can’t understand until they’ve done it. But remember that you can’t invite them into something less than good work. You have to astound them by revealing the hidden music inside of them, show them that quarter notes and sonata form is just the surface stuff that their bad music teachers gave too much weight to, that the real deal begins with simple gestures like clapping the rhythms of their names and then drumming them, conversing with a neighbor using just the first sound of their name, creating an instant dance to a simple song and then choreographing a variation, playing five well-chosen notes on the xylophone over the teacher’s blues piano and astonishing themselves with how cool they sound.

"One more piece of good news. My time to talk is over. Back to the workshop and let’s go play some blues!"

3 comments:

  1. Thank you Doug. I'm going to print this out and hang it on my wall at school!

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  2. Well said, Doug! Thank you...

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  3. Doug, this is just what I needed to hear at just the right time! Thank you!

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