Saturday, December 4, 2021

Soulful Education: Part III

Criticism is an essential first step in righting any wrongs and it’s a good start to notice that teachers are discouraged and exhausted by jumping through the unnecessary hoops of some administrations’ obstacle course. And if the teachers aren’t at the peak of their passion for education, you can bet that the children will suffer as well. There is something rotten and it ain’t in the state of Denmark.


But the next step is looking at what actually is helpful in mentoring teachers to be their best teaching selves. The first step is to agree on vision, a conversation that begins with why a teacher teaches, how they felt called and why they responded. If the answers are fame or fortune or couldn’t think of anything else to do, the conversation is over. Guide them out the door into another profession that won’t hurt children. But if they have a sincere hope to guide children to their best selves, then the conversation moves to seeing how the school’s vision matches with the teachers. Without that agreement on what’s important, the north star by which to guide all decision-making, both school and teachers are liable to fall short.


I was recently asked if I could formally mentor a teacher who had studied for a long time with me in different venues— the Orff Levels training, the Jazz Course both in San Francisco and New Orleans, the Orff-Afrique Course in Ghana and many, many one-day workshops. He felt like his teaching in the last few years had strayed too far afield from the center of the Orff approach and was asking for some guidance. Wonderful! One of my visions for retirement that the pandemic nixed— the chance to follow my Level III Orff graduates back into the classroom and give them some useful feedback. My decades of experience, longtime habit of pedagogical reflection, practice in mentoring through the Intern program I started and recent book (Teach Like It’s Music) more than qualified me for this role and I was thrilled for the opportunity to exercise it. 


So I went to both guest teach and observe a class of 7thgraders in this teacher’s school and wasn’t that delightful! I had no checklist in my hand with all the current jargoned clichés to tick off. I simply was present to the energy in the class, observing how the kids responded, how the teacher moved amongst them and his pacing and his posture and his voice, how he asked questions, how he responded to student’s answers, how he observed if they needed help and either left them to figure it out or guided them (either can be a good strategy). I looked at the overall shape and design of the class as to whether it unfolded like a piece of music, noted how he piggybacked on my opening lesson and referred back to it in what came after. I paid attention to how much he smiled, laughed, how we praised the students, how he challenged them to dig deeper. But instead of that soul-killing list or pre-packaged rubric (Teacher laughs appropriately for 10% of the lesson time ______), it all had to do with precise observation of what makes a class swing, what keeps kids engaged and feeling welcomed and competent and challenged, what choice of material is meaningful beyond the lesson, touching on contemporary cultural issues and awakening students’ knowledge of what they need to become responsible citizens. 


After the class, we went out for a cup of tea and “de-constructed” the class. First he spoke about what he thought went well and then about what needed a little work. I began by praising him for the overall tone of the class— 24 7thgraders very engaged, respectful and actually playing some pretty good music— and then dove into the details of what to consider next time. Some of them musical ( layer in each xylophone part before the percussion and don’t forget to sing the song!), some practical (put all the bells out on the table ahead of time before they walk in), some a reminder (talk a bit less, eliminating sentences like “Next we’re going to…” and just jump in and do it!). This very process of mentoring is 1,000 times more effective than the supervisor’s checklist, more real, more helpful. It follows one of the guidelines of my “Teach Like It’s Music” book—Do it first. Discuss it next. Do it again. First teach the class, then discuss it and then teach again. 


The most interesting part of the discussion was around the boy Luke (name changed for privacy). In the lesson I taught, I noticed that the teacher sat next to him and he was on the feisty side of things. When it came time for the kids to try a motion I showed them, he did a fabulous expressive version of it. I stopped the class and called him out to show the kids and have everyone copy. It was great! At the end of class, I called him over to me and asked if he studied music or dance. He said no and I said, “You should.”


No surprise when the teacher told me that Luke was one of his more difficult students and I said, “Get him on your side. Teach him how to use his energy to contribute to the class instead of distract from it.” I told him about a kid in my granddaughter’s 2ndgrade class who had a similar energy when I was a guest teacher. I did a game that allowed kids to make up a motion and his was great! So I called him up to demonstrate and have others copy. The next year, he showed up in the Zoom singing classes I did with them and I remembered him and watched him move as we sang. Last month, I visited the class yet again (now 4thgraders) and did a body percussion/ speech piece and he did well. After the class, he came up to me and gave me a Capri Sun drink. I thanked him and thought, “This is such a lovely gesture, sacrificing his drink because he felt some praise and blessing from me.” (Or at least that was my interpretation.)


But there you have it. There is detail after detail to attend to in the craft of teaching, but at the end is the child who either feels known and appreciated and affirmed and challenged and loved— or not. That is the heart and soul of education and without attention to this simple vision, the next world will look exactly like this one— and right now, it’s not a pretty sight. Administrators, lay down your lists, teachers, stand up for children and sit down with children and kids, pay attention, work hard, have fun and get in the habit of being even better tomorrow than you were yesterday. As a wise Zen teacher once said, “You are perfect as you are. But we all could stand a little improvement.” And that improvement comes both from our own self-mentoring efforts and the presence and guidance of a mentor who sees our promise. 


PS Watched an interview with Stephen Sondheim yesterday (R.I.P.) and he says how he learned everything he needed to know spending one day with Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein had read Sondheim’s first try at a musical when he was 15 and told him it was terrible. And then proceeded detail after detail to tell him what needed work and why. 




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