three strikes part 2 (and 3, and 4, and…)

R – “The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something” – Randy Pausch. Last week I did my best to articulate what I feel are the three strikes many music educators confront as they begin a new gig. In three strikes part 1 I outlined specific hurdles and challenges that seem to be common threads. But how do you confidently step up to the plate knowing ahead of time that the count is oh and three? This morning I’d like to take a shot at articulating some ideas around how to overcome them. See what you think:

* Have conviction. No great leader went into battle thinking, “I don’t know how this is going to turn out… I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” Ben Zander has a great quote in a presentation he did for a TED lecture: “It is one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize what he’s dreaming.” Have a conviction of purpose. Have a conviction of philosophy (if you were smart, you got that message across in your interview so the school already knows what that philosophy is). Have a conviction of compassion for the kids who you will be serving, regardless of what they think of you. Have a conviction that what you bring is that important. And finally, do all this with a firm conviction that you too will learn much about yourself along the way. Missing one or more of these convictions? Man alive, you are gonna have problems.

Anticipate the problems. What is the history of the program? What are people’s perceptions of it – students, staff, administration, community? What are people expecting? Why are they expecting it? What have past expectations been? What have past expectations NOT been? I didn’t heed this advice when I began at Winnacunnet High School in 1996 and I paid dearly for it. I did heed the advice when I went to York and it saved me. I knew the Hallelujah Chorus tradition at York, I knew the pop music tradition at Bellows Falls. I had battles galore when I got to both places, but they were over making changes that I knew were going to be difficult changes for others to accept. There’s a difference.

* Do your homework first. I would argue that the single most significant variable leading to success or lack thereof in a new job is directly correlated to the prep work done in the weeks and months prior to your very first day in school with kids. And I’m not talking about writing curriculum here. If you have done an adequate job at the previous point I just made, what are you going to do about it? Yes, getting logistically organized – REALLY organized – before the students show up is a good thing. But is there also a letter that needs to be written and sent to them (and their parents) articulating what you will doing and why? In York, I sent a letter to the kids telling their families that the Hallelujah Chorus would be done away with, and I did so prior to school beginning. That didn’t endear me to anyone, but it did successfully accomplish the goal. Are there meetings with administrators – including athletic directors and guidance counselors – that you’ve scheduled so everyone knows where you’re coming from? Summer vacation is only vacation if you allow it to be so. How much time off do you really need, and isn’t the time better spent doing sick amounts of prep work that will pay dividends over and over again as the school year unfolds?

* Be proactive; don’t avoid, confront. Along those lines, if you know someone or some body of people who are going to have a cow over a change you plan on making, anticipate that and bring it to the forefront. But do so with compassion for where others are coming from! I think the error of many teachers ways is to either avoid the conflicts, which merely postpones the inevitable and making things worse in the interim, or going the opposite extreme of confronting others with a chip on their shoulder – which is absolutely as bad. “I don’t like confrontation though.” Neither do I, but if you’re not willing to bring it, you’re in the wrong profession. Listen: loose the chip, get off the rampage, do your homework and approach the situation with a clear head and an engaging demeanor. Center the dialogue around, “this is what will be happening and why”, as opposed to “you need to see things my way.” The town of York has bought in to what Dan Sovetsky’s and my beliefs are around music education, but it didn’t happen by lashing out. It also didn’t happen by not pushing forward and anticipating the pitfalls along the way. There were plenty, but in many cases they were diffused before they could gain traction.

* Be competent in your execution. It really is folly to walk in and tell everyone, “Hey, I know what I’m doing”, and then not. Know what you don’t know and fix it so you do. Know what your weaknesses are and turn them into strengths. My students have affectionately referred to my piano playing as “the claw” over the years, and for good reason. But I couldn’t play when I began my teaching career, and spent hours after school, during the weekends and even on my snow days sitting at the piano in the chorus room learning to play and sight read chord symbols so I could become functional. This is only one small piece of being an adequate rehearsal technician, but it was my biggest weakness and so it received the greatest attention. Within a few years I was playing the entire score for the musicals we did at Bellows Falls. I wasn’t great and I was reading chord symbols, but I became an acceptable accompanist. If you know there’s an achilles heel or two in your execution of your plan, shore them up. Immediately. I was able to withstand a lot from my opening days in my new jobs, primarily because at no point was anyone able to accuse me of being incompetent. They got on me for everything else under the sun, but not for lack of competence. I can live with that.

* Lean on your colleagues. What fun it has been to be there for colleagues across northern New England, and how grateful am I for all the times I’ve been able to lean on others along the way. It makes no sense whatsoever to be going at it alone. Find a colleague or two who can be real mentors and sounding boards and engage them in your work, often! You can either be prideful or effective. Your call.

* Run the marathon, not the sprint. My job at York High School is a teacher’s dream come true in so many ways, musical and otherwise. I could do a lecture on why York High School “gets it”; I could never have dreamed up a job as wonderful as the one I currently have. But after my first semester there in the Fall of 2000, I vividly remember sitting in my mom’s living room at Christmas, telling my brother Glen that moving to York High School was the biggest mistake of my career. There’s no way – no way – I saw coming what has transpired at York in the last 14 years. And I guess that’s my point. If you judge your success or failure on a small sample size, you’ll get a flawed answer. You really have to take a mindset that says the journey is twice the fun. It’s also the point. And if the journey is carried out capably, honoring your goals and philosophies about what needs to be done and why, the destination will always take care of itself. I have a firm conviction about that.

* Stay the course.  I hesitate to put this point in here because it just sounds so trite. But it’s an essential piece. I mentioned last week the letter that I received from my chorus a few weeks into my very first job, threatening to drop the class if I didn’t change the music in their folders (it was too religious). I responded by not backing down. The next class I went through song by song with them why I educationally selected each title. Then I DID apologize for the for the amount of sacred music in their folders: it was 50% sacred and I told them that since 70% of all choral music was sacred, I was selling them short – but to please bear with me, and I’d see if I could add a little bit more as the semester went on. OOooohhh, they were mad! End result? Two kids dropped the class, and three others joined when they heard there was a choral director who was willing to stand up to them. Removing the Hallelujah Chorus from York? I removed it, began presenting annual masterworks with the Chamber Singers, eliminated the pop music culture, and within 3 years our audiences quadrupled. Stay the course, you won’t regret it.

* Celebrate the victories. Little by little, there will be victories. Share and celebrate them. The kids just sight read for the first time? Show them how excited you are. The concert went well, gush over it. You successfully implemented a policy that supports the direction you’re bring the program? Call your mentor colleague(s) and share it. Trust me on this, the peak experiences can be few when starting a new gig somewhere, and taking in the scenery from even a few hilltops from time to time can be enough fuel to get you through a lot more.

* Look beyond what you see. How’s that for a metaphysical point?!? All I mean by this is that you have a perception of how things are going and what people are thinking. More often that not, you’re completely wrong. A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from a first year teacher I had been mentoring the first Friday night of June, and she was crying. Obviously concerned, I waited for her to calm down and tell me what happened. Well, wouldn’t you know that all those Seniors (and their parents) she thought hated her were gushing over her at their final Senior event and telling her what a positive difference she made in all their lives. Pouring out of her came ten months of pent up frustration and worry and belief that she had been failing all this time! One thing holds true: people will tend to be vocal in their criticisms, but will hold their compliments close to the vest until the right time comes along… I’m not suggesting that’s a good thing, just making note of how it is. If you’re looking for affirmation in the process of establishing your program, don’t waste your time. That doesn’t mean however that it isn’t being affirmed. Drop the apple seeds and just trust that some of them are starting to take. If you don’t see a tree springing up immediately or even over a period of time, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken root.

* Keep moving, don’t loose your focus. Using a baseball analogy, Johnny Bench is a Hall of Fame catcher from the 1970’s, one of the greatest ever. But in the 1972 World Series, with three balls and two strikes on him and first base open, Manager Dick Williams went to the mound to tell his pitcher to intentionally walk him. The catcher stood up, held the glove well outside and the pitcher pitched: a strike over the corner of the plate for strike three. Bench had been fooled into thinking he was going to be given a free pass and he fell for it. Moral of the story, if you think you’ve slayed your dragons and it’s clear sailing ahead, let your guard down at your own peril. It will also be easy to loose sight of your fundamental principles that you were building everything on to begin with. Don’t. Keep reminding yourself of your philosophical pinnings, and keep all your actions and decisions flowing from those.

* Love. Your. Kids. If you stop doing this, you’ve lost the battle. I already articulated that caring for them regardless of how they treat you is a must. Don’t forget at any point that THEY are the reason you are there, and every one of them deserve your faith and love and support. My first year at Winnacunnet, I had a Senior in chorus by the name of Nick, who was a football player (his 6 other football player friends dropped after 1 week with me – I’m not kidding) and set out to destroy any attempt on my part to run a functional rehearsal. It would have been so easy to begin wishing this kid would just go away. But there’s a key that unlocks every student… and if you care about them, you’ll be looking for it. With Nick, it became so commonplace for me to tell him to “be quiet” or stop fooling around, that one day I just made a big sign that said, “NICK, EYES ON ME/PLEASE BE QUIET” in an attempt to use humor. I taped it to the front of the rehearsal piano. That next rehearsal, every 5 minutes I stopped what I was doing to address Nick’s behavior, as always. But now, each time I did so, I smiled a big goofy grin and simply pointed to the sign. The kids LOVED it, and it even made Nick laugh. It wasn’t long after that when Nick started to work as hard as the others. He realized that no matter what, I enjoyed having him in class and I took the time to value him. The others saw that too. That Spring, he was one of the 16 seniors who skipped a portion of their own senior skip day to attend our chorus rehearsal in preparation for the upcoming concert. He also reamed out the one senior who didn’t show up when he saw her the next day. Anybody can love the “good” kids… but are you willing to love all of them? If you are, you’ll discover that they are ALL “good” – and you’ll gradually unlock in them what you went to that school to do in the first place.

To conclude, here’s the deal: the sailboat traveling from New York to England does not do so in a straight line. Wind direction, ocean currents and weather considerations play a role in the exact course. But at no point does the person at the helm say, “Gee, this trip isn’t going so well, I think I’ll just head for Argentina.” For anyone starting a new job, remember this analogy. You’ve gone in there with a plan, stay with it. There will be twists and turns along the way, that’s to be expected. To extend the analogy however, tacking is not the same thing as changing direction. To the outsider looking in, they may appear to be the same thing, but they are not. One will lead you to where you want to go, the other won’t. Don’t forget that. And once you’ve done so over time? The Randy Pausch quote that started this blog post continues with the line, “Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.” Over the course of time, each one of us will discover if we “want it badly enough” at our current teaching jobs. To reference Stephen Sondhem, there is an art to making art, and it is our job to engage ourselves fully in that art – physically, emotionally, cognitively. The price of doing so is high but offers its own extraordinary rewards. If we reach a point after having authentically done so where we decide it is not worth the fight anymore, that is a very legitimate choice to make. But lets not start off by believing that beginning with three strikes means impending doom. Go after it with your eyes wide open, stay true to at least some of these fundamental suggestions, and love the process of being a teacher in this amazing profession.

“My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results… but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.” – George R.R. Martin


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1 Response to three strikes part 2 (and 3, and 4, and…)

  1. Pingback: three strikes part 1 | Goober Music Teachers

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