Once, I quietly sat in on a conversation between a student and her former teacher. She told us that she does not feel appreciated by her new teacher.
“I had a solo with the clarinet, and he hadn’t said anything about it. Well, the very first rehearsal, he said ‘We might need this to be just clarinet.’ But nothing since. And after the concert, when you told me my solo was great, I realized that it was the first time anyone had said something good about it.”
The new teacher in question is a brilliant teacher that I really, truly respect. He has a reputation for fairness in his classroom, and for fostering an attitude in his students of learning for the sake of learning (be the best you can be), rather than competition (be the best). But regardless of that great philosophy, this student slipped through the cracks.
I have always felt that having a personal connection with your students is one of the most important factors in teaching. Kids don’t want to hear what you have to say unless they know you care about them. It took me five years of working with middle school aged students to realize that caring about your students doesn’t necessarily mean that they like you, and showing that you care is sometimes providing a sense of consistency for them to live by. This becomes especially important in discipline.
This particular student had a younger brother who shared similar sentiments. In the past, with his former teacher, he was one of the biggest behavioral issues in the classroom. He received more infractions than the rest of his class combined. And regardless of all of this, he came back one day and said, “Thank you. I understand now what you did for me back then.”
These two students gave me another one of my most important teaching moments: the power of a name. Their names. In music education, in a large ensemble setting, it is very difficult to give individual recognition to every student – some classes may have 50, 70, 100 students! (Even more if you teach a large marching band!) But those tiny moments are important. They don’t have to be public declarations, but can often be quick moments between classes or during passing time in the hallway. To the kid who regularly disrupts rehearsal with unrelated xylophone music but manages to keep his mallets behind his back today: “Hey Brian, I really appreciated your focus in class today. Keep it up!” And to the kid whose scales normally sound like one note but actually go up and down in pitch this time, “Nate, your scales are improving!” Praise effort. Praise improvement. And keep pushing them to be even better. The middle school bands that I worked with in my student teaching were utterly impressive in ways I had never experienced before. (Who would have known that 7th graders could know all 12 major scales?!)
Once, I had to attend this professional development day with my music education comrades (all seven of us!) and we sat in the corner and were probably borderline disruptive. We showed up that day wishing we were in our classrooms working with our kids, and instead, we had to sit through a bunch of lectures. However, we ended up attending two gems: one was a lecture on classroom management, and the other was on at-risk youth. The lecturer for the latter brought up that many kids will go through a day without a single person, let alone a teacher saying their name aloud. Let’s be realistic: maybe greeting every student at the door isn’t an option because your classroom is on a cart and you barely have time to get set up in a transition time. But every effort to connect with them counts, even the quiet little clarinet player in the third row that barely speaks above a whisper. Especially that little clarinet player.
Maybe all this particular student needed was one sentence, one little affirmation to know that her hard work was appreciated. And here is the sad truth: we are not always going to be able to keep everyone from slipping through the cracks, and it can be heartbreaking.
But you know what? We have to try.