When I taught high school in Antioch, I was following in the footsteps of a beloved choir teacher--never and easy prospect. My students did not want her to leave and resented me for taking over. I, in turn, was young, naive, and really not ready to take over a high school choral program. I knew about singing, and music...I did not know about teenagers, or running a machine like that one.
When I think back on those days, the memories that stick out are the number of times my students questioned my musical knowledge, as though I was an idiot. Nevermind my degree in music, the years I had already spent studying piano, clarinet, singing, theory. I wasn't Mrs. H., and therefore, I couldn't possibly know anything. In hindsight, I know they would have behaved this way towards any person who had the audacity to take Mrs. H.'s place. At the time, it sliced deep.
Fast-forward six years, and perhaps I know a thing or two more than I did when I fled Antioch. In those five years I worked in a part of Stockton, California that would make a less intrepid person's hair stand on end. I got fired. I lost 90 pounds. I became a runner. In other words, I survived, and even more important, I grew up a lot.
So by the time I took over at my Large Suburban High School last year, I was able to put aside any doubts students might have about my abilities and ready to remind them--every day if need be--that I know what I'm talking about. I put my Chico diploma on proud display in my office so anyone in there could see the piece of paper that represents years of work.
But the most amazing thing happened. Everyone just assumed I know what I'm doing. There was never any cry of, "You are so wrong!! I've been taking voice lessons since I was three years old and no one has ever told me to breathe like that!!" (Yes, I got that one in Antioch. That student lasted one semester as a music major at Sac State.) My colleague, Lynn, from the start, respected my opinions and even asked me, one morning, to listen to her jazz band and give some feedback. When I said, "Not enough bass--can't hear you!" she turned to him and said, "Turn up your amp!!"
It's the same with my kids. They trust my judgement, my ears, and my training. They forgive me for not always immediately knowing the answer. "Let me hear you sing that again," I'll say. "I heard a lot of right notes, but there was something--I just don't know what yet--that was off." They do it, without complaint. We fix things. They grow.
I've learned, too, to open it up to them. A fantastic teaching trick is to make kids assess their own performance. "Why did I stop you just now?" I'll ask them, instead of just correcting right away. Answers will come forward. "We didn't do the cut-off right," or "We missed that one note again." This is often followed by, "Can we hear that one more time, please?" Always, dear students. I'm happy to help you.
I admit, I've been a little daunted by my piano lab class. It's crammed full with students ranging from the very first page of the Level 1 book to students who can play Debussy. And each one of them looks to me for guidance and advice--obviously, some more than others. But when an advanced kid asks me a question, and looks to me for an answer, I sense this quiet respect that was so lacking from many of my students in Antioch. It's as though they are confident that all these years I've studied music, all the time and effort and passion I've put into it, are reason enough to trust me.
This week, as I've wandered through my crowded piano class, answering questions, listening to their first play test, discussing music and seeing them respond with smiles, with trust...it's been amazing. I realized, today, that finally, not only do the people around me know that I'm cut out for this job--I know it, too. And that's huge.