“Do as I say, not as I do” was one of the more stupid aphorisms adults in my childhood liked to say. Even as a kid, I could feel the hypocrisy of them trying to excuse their dubious behavior while demanding something better from me.
And yet, as teachers, don’t we sometimes carry on a version of this? Be honest here. How many times do we tell the kids, “Behave!/ Do a better job! / Sing better! / Feel the beat!” without giving them a single clue as to how to actually do those things? How many times has someone told us, “Relax!” or “Calm down!” and how many times did that actually help us to relax or calm down?
So the true teacher has to think deeper about how to lead the students to the desired result. We have to give them an embodied experience that gives them both the tools and the pleasure of doing something well or better. If we want them to relax, some stretching and breathing exercises can help. If we want to sing better, it’s our job to understand how to do that. To do some echo singing, for example, and when a kid sings back too low, to sing it again starting at the kid’s pitch and then raising it up one half-step at a time. If they’re having trouble internalizing beat, why, there are a hundred strategies of patting the beat, walking the beat, gently tapping the beat on their back, always with a song to tie it together. And then the many beat-passing games where getting off the beat means getting out (temporarily) from the game and upping the motivation.
One of the talks I give to kids (elaborated in Chapter 7 of my Teach Like It’s Music book) is about music class as the place to learn two essential things: How to Blend In/ How to Stand Out. The kids quickly perceive that these are apparent opposites, but the punchline is to learn which of the two an activity calls for. I then demonstrate with a concrete example of everyone singing Twinkle Little Starand me singing with them, but off key. Then in a different tempo. Then with different words. Then louder than everyone else. In each case, I show how just one person singing poorly can destroy the beauty of 25 kids singing perfectly in tune and in time.
So singing is the time to blend in and if you’re singing badly on purpose, we need to have a little private talk about your obligation to both the group and yourself. If you’re singing poorly because you have trouble with pitch or beat, then it’s our job together to get better at both through all the efforts and strategies available. And then when you’re really singing well, why, perhaps you can sing a solo— the perfect moment to stand out!
So even though my colleague/mentee and I gave that talk to one of the four 5th/6thgrade groups we’re teaching, even with that example, he reported back that they’re having trouble achieving a harmonious group energy. As a teacher, I can sigh and complain about kids today, the horrible models of human beings they see in the news, the confusion parents show in child-raising, the addiction to video-games and social media, the canary-in-the-mine ways in which kids are reflecting a world in chaos. All of which may be true. But so what? The kids still are walking into the classroom. How can we help them?
As reported recently, I had a success story with one child where the activity broke through the wall that my words kept bouncing off of and we both left the class refreshed. So the challenge tomorrow is to choose fun, relevant activities that can help create a joyful working group energy while still holding the disrupters accountable, hopefully convincing them that it will be more fun and satisfying to do things well than foolish. That’s what I signed up for when I stumbled into this worthy and glorious and supremely difficult endeavor called teaching. That’s what a true teacher does.
I’ll let you know how it goes.