By Jenny L. Neff, Ed.D.
I read a saying in graduate school that classified teachers as either sculptors or gardeners. The sculptor molded students into masterpieces, while the gardener added nutrients to the "roots" to help students grow and blossom into their potentials. It was shortly after reading that saying over 24 years ago, that I began my “gardening career.”
Spring brings with it thoughts of new life, seasonal growth, fresh air, warmer weather, and increased daylight. In education, it marks a point in the year where there is a buzz of activity - concerts, festivals, final projects, and culminating activities - all balanced with a well-deserved Spring break and time to recharge for the final "push to the end.”
While the outside world views December as an end-of-the-year reflection time, Spring is perhaps an opportune time for the educator to reflect on the school year. For me, it has always been a time to answer the question "how does your garden grow?"
One's educational philosophy can evolve over time and it can be helpful to revisit what your core values are in your day-to-day teaching. While your district may have a valuable mission statement to guide the majority, it is more likely to be your personal philosophy that steadily guides your workweek. Over the years, I've found these philosophical ideas confirmed and sometimes challenged. In overcoming the challenges, I've always tried to keep the best interests of my students at the forefront. I would ask myself, does this do the right thing for kids? Do district initiatives align with my moral compass? What or who is at the top of my decision-making hierarchy? Answering these questions can help maintain balance when situations are thrown your way. Sometimes keeping the big picture in mind can help avoid getting bogged down by details.
Cultivate and Maintain
How did your garden grow this year? Did the lessons you taught show student growth? Were lessons meaningful? Did students engage in meaningful music making? Were you and your students happy with the results? What could have gone better?
This is a great time to reflect on some lessons or units you have taught to see if there is room for growth. You might want to plant a seed for a new idea or unit. Maybe what you have been doing is working but you want to branch off into something that keeps it interesting for you and the students. Perhaps sharing ideas with colleagues in the field is helpful, or developing a new perspective from talking to others about what works or might work for you.
Weed and Feed
Our role as educators has evolved into both that of educator and advocate for what is best for our students. We are faced with pressures from the outside and some weeds may have even seeped into our gardens. In getting rid of the weeds, it's important to make sure what we do on a daily basis is seen by others as essential and not dispensable. Does what you do with your students demonstrate purpose and value?
Many programs have faced cuts or over pruning to make room for tested subject area time. In districts where I have experienced this (and even addressed from an advocacy role), I’ve found the following steps to be successful:
· As a matter of daily practice, explain the “why” of what we do and continuously demonstrate that it is a process that leads to a product or engaging musical experience – not simply a product for entertainment sake. Although we may share a product at concerts, public engagements, etc., students experience growth throughout a process.
· Know your department’s stance on how your program is delivered. Many districts stunt the growth of a program by saying they still offer a program, while cutting back on the time in which it is delivered. If appropriate, share a statement from the department through the appropriate channels – such as a curriculum committee or department chair. This should be a unified message and not various ideas that might be construed as ambiguous or scattered.
· Parents and other stakeholders are some of our biggest supporters. In many districts, I’ve seen parents provide a unified message and ask pre-planned questions to help save programs. When these questions are based on facts about the program (e.g., how many minutes classes meet, how many hours per year, etc.) and presented in student-centered language, the conversation stays more focused.
Don’t be afraid to advocate and educate with all stakeholders on a regular basis - whether that be with colleagues outside of your department, administrators, parents, community members, or local and state decision-makers.
Sharpen Your Tools
What skills are you missing? Perhaps you have been assigned a new course to teach, or you would like to improve your skills on an instrument. Maybe you would like to update a lesson you’ve been teaching for a while, or learn to play the ukulele for a new unit you would like to teach. Planning coursework and professional development for yourself will ensure you get what YOU need and not simply what your district requires. Many educators benefit from the collaborative nature of coursework, but you can also benefit from spending time reviewing resources, searching lesson ideas, or even choosing a book to read over the summer on a topic that will help your teaching. How might these ideas fit into the spiral, sequential curriculum you are delivering?
Harvest and Prune
So how does your garden grow? Have you planted on fertile ground? How diligently do you till the soil? Do you take the time to weed the unwanted growth and feed the new growth? If you can manage all this, you can have a beautiful garden as your career and teaching style develop. Then, remember to take time to celebrate successes and reap what you have sown, especially after those big projects, events, or concerts. Creative ventures take time to cultivate, and those take time and energy. Equally important, is taking time for yourself - to re-charge and prepare for new growth.
Jenny L. Neff, Ed.D., teaches instrumental music at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in the Lower Merion School District. She serves as the Eastern Division Representative for NAfME’s Council for Band.