In my teaching days, I attended an annual music conference where I enjoyed finding new gems in middle school music literature. It was December of 1994 and I’ll never forget the lesson that I learned while not attending a speaker’s session. I enjoyed frequenting the displays and speaking with publishers and composers about their new music. This was very helpful. One day while speaking with Ann McGinty, (a very popular composer) I shared a problem with my band’s trumpet section because Yuki, my 1st chair trumpet player, had just moved back to Japan and she was my rock. Without her, my trumpet section’s ability was depleted to a degree that they were my weakest section. I was in a spot. I had the students for only one more semester and state contest season was upon us!
In speaking with Ms. McGinty, I expressed that I was searching for a composition that met certain criteria, but didn’t feature the trumpet section much because mine was rather weak. After lamenting the loss of Yuki and sharing my desire to find an arrangement that would “hide” the less than stellar section, Ms. McGinty said something to me that I’ll never forget. She said: “I guess you’ll have to teach.”
After I picked my ego up off of the floor and stumbled through a few excuses, she kindly directed me to some great music; however, her assertion has haunted me ever since. That is when I learned that I had power in every situation. That is when I understood that I could make a difference. Ms. McGinty taught me that where there were weaknesses, there were opportunities. She reminded me that I needed to roll up my sleeves and get to work on my “problem” because I already had the answer…I had the power… I could teach.
The book, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care by Allen Mendler, contains many great pearls of wisdom and practical strategies for teachers. One bit of wisdom is found on page 28. “Although we cannot make it impossible for students to fail, good teaching requires that we make it extremely difficult for students to fail. This attitude enables us to emphasize success while maintaining high expectations.” Before we can motivate students who don’t care, we as teachers must be motivated to help them. I know that it is very frustrating as many have tried every trick in their bag and sometimes success just seems to be elusive. What we sometimes forget is that we are only willing to implement strategies that are within our personal comfort zone. If we have tried and failed with all of the strategies that we are comfortable trying, perhaps it’s time to try some other ideas. This premise has application to many situations.
Teaching difficult/struggling learners is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. Perhaps those teachers who find their own learning easy have the most difficulty understanding this concept. Wouldn’t it be nice to teach only students that had great families and were already set up for success? Wow, think of what I could have done back in 1994 if my students’ previous teacher would have just taught them better when they started out in trumpet class. I could have done some even cooler stuff if the students were stellar before they came to me. Think of all of the great performances we could have had if I didn’t have to do any teaching! (Oops…I forgot that I didn’t conduct the Boston Philharmonic…)
I firmly believe that there are two characteristics that set the very best teachers apart from the good to mediocre teachers. One of those is that the very best teachers have an undying sense of hope. That hope is transferred to a belief that as a teacher, one has the power to affect any student’s life that they choose. The most powerful teachers will continually try different tactics and will never give up…even if he/she doesn’t see success during that school year. Will you be one of these teachers?
There are no “bad kids,” but there are kids that we may not have reached yet. You don’t know the impact you have on students until they have had a few years and other adult advocates in their lives to put a few things together. Learning is as much about timing and prior knowledge as it is about anything else. Perhaps your job is to simply create that prior knowledge about character and effort. Maybe the experience of having SOME success will stick with a child and s/he will subconsciously remember that with effort comes success.
Teaching is a process, not a product. We will not and we cannot expect students to fail; however, some students will. My question to you is: what impact will you have on that student’s life in 3, 7, or 9 years? I promise that you do have an impact on that student. I learned from Ms. McGinty that teaching wasn’t always fun, but teaching is a must. If I am unhappy with a situation involving students, I have the power to teach. I am a teacher. In the end how much impact you have on each student, especially those who are less served by their families or your colleagues, is really up to you. You have great power. You…are a teacher.