In August of 1986, I began my teaching career inauspiciously in a smaller rural town in Florida. I was the new band director at the junior high in a program where the former director had retired on the job years before he actually quit, leaving an undisciplined mess. What a learning experience that year was…as has been every year that followed on this wonderful journey. Monday marks the beginning of my thirtieth year of teaching, a career that has taken me from public school band rooms to university clarinet studios and orchestra halls. How grateful I am to be doing what I love every single day.
On this anniversary of three decades of teaching, I can’t help but remember the special students who I have been so fortunate to work with over the years. Unlike a typical classroom setting, I teach the same students for several years in a row. Watching them grow and change- both musically and as people- is such a joy, and knowing that I can help them along their journey is the most amazing gift. I have always wanted to pay forward what my music teachers did for me. Their dedication and obvious love for their students and their craft was life-changing. I can only hope that I have done and will do the same for my own students. I have never had children, and so I’ve always felt that teaching was my opportunity to give back to young people and help shape our world in my own small way.
Getting to know my students and developing that special bond that sharing music brings, I have at times been more than a teacher, sometimes needing to be a councilor, a sounding board, a mother figure, a task master…so many roles. I have had students come to me in joy over accomplishments large and small, in sadness over illness and death, unwanted pregnancies or abuse. They have come out to me bravely concerning their sexual orientation, often too afraid to tell their parents. I’ve given them food when they were hungry, and a bit of money when they were in need. They have talked through life choices, relationships, their hopes and dreams. In each instance, I felt honored that they trusted me, and I’ve always tried my best to give them understanding and acceptance, safety, to listen without judgement and be there for them the best I can be.
The priceless part of teaching is what I learn from my students – so much more than I could ever teach them. They remind me to be my best to set a good example for them. They teach me understanding and patience, and to be humble, to have the willingness to admit that I need to change course when what I’m doing pedagogically isn’t reaching them. They inspire me with their determination and enthusiasm, and lift me up with their dreams of changing the world through music. I believe in them, believe in their power to make the world a better place. Every single one of them. Sometimes that is all they need- to know that they are worthy and someone believes in them. Those gifts alone can change lives.
In all these years, the excitement of a new school year has never faded. The challenge of learning how my new students ‘tick’, figuring out how to reach them and help them grow. Seeing the proverbial lightbulb go off when one of them understands a concept that unlocks the next step in their development. Feeling the warmth of genuine smiles and hugs from returning students or graduates, knowing I made a difference for them in some small way. How did I ever get so lucky? Here’s to another year of learning- for the students and the teacher.