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This made my heart glow and sink simultaneously…if it’s true, then why the bloody hell have I been working on these amazing lesson plans brimming with examples of scaffolding, differentiation of the curriculum in as many different ways as flavours of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, and student-directed learning up the wazoo, plus a couple of bells and whistles thrown in as well?
But then I realised this intellectual learning ran in parallel to the emotional connection with my students…my wanting to strive for excellence through modeling passion and pure love of my subject area worked in tandem with how I made my students feel in my class.
And was this true for my own learning experiences? Was how I felt more important than what I achieved?
I remember my most influential teachers…some were extraordinary teachers in every sense, and my knowledge base and passion for their area of expertise blossomed under their care. Some were not the best facilitators of learning, yet I loved their lessons, I loved their energy, I loved how I felt in their classrooms. Alive, seen, and valued. Some teachers were such rigidly disciplined “founts of knowledge” that I felt like I was going into The Black Hole of Joyless Learning every time I entered their classrooms…and this was, instinctively, definitely and absolutely, NOT the sort of teacher I wanted to be.
I thought about the three teachers who affected me the most during my school and university years…Miss Lori, my first piano teacher, Clemens Leske Senior, my high school piano teacher, and Rosemary Nairn, my mentor and artistic director while working for the Public Primary Schools Festival of Music. All of them so extraordinarily different. All of them so deeply embedded in my heart, in my words, in my actions, and in my very being as a teacher. Were they all extraordinary teachers? At various stages of learning, yes. Were they as fiercely committed to excellence as some of my top-notch teachers? No. I cannot thank Miss Lori or Clemens Leske Senior for my fabulous piano technique and ability to focus with Zen-like precision on my piano etudes…I had other teachers I have to thank for those skills. And therein lies the very wording and truth…that I “have” to thank, not “want” to thank…because I did not feel safe and secure, seen and valued all the time in their lessons.
These three teachers gave me the capacity to draw the best from the teachers I did not always feel safe with. And it’s important to say here that neither of these three wonderful people ever accepted anything less than the best that I could give at that exact moment in time, or that I always felt delightful in their lessons…I didn’t. I knew when I wasn’t making the cut, and I knew how it felt to disappoint them, and myself…but never at the expense of my self-worth. My actions, my learning, my music making and my performances were an innate part of me, but didn’t define me.
The wonderful, effervescent and kind Miss Lori…you walked into the room and every 5-year old under your care felt loved, even though there were fifteen of us in each Yamaha class. You saw us all, loved our quirks, asked us about the stickers on our school uniform, or the Band-Aids on our knees, you got ridiculously excited with us when we discovered our first F sharps and B flats. You gave me 15 minutes of private piano tuition after group lessons, knowing my parents couldn’t afford to pay you, for free, for a whole year. When my parents could afford to pay you back, you told them to put the money toward a proper piano for me rather than a keyboard. You made us all shine in our grubby and beautiful 5-year-old selves. I could have hugged you forever on my final lesson at Yamaha. Your generosity then makes me generous now.
The calm and loving Clemens Leske Senior…just as your name speaks of mercy and love, so are you in person. At my most angular, inconsistent and fiery, you saw me completely…for the raw and incomplete talent, for the deeply sensitive heart, for the technical difficulties I had to overcome, for the teenager I was, and person I was becoming. The gap in years could not have been wider, yet with one word you could direct my phrasing, expand my understanding of texture + colour, or explain the weight in the sound of a chord. Every lesson was magical…a crystalline world of sounds, colours and lines, and an unraveling of the heart and all defenses. Because you taught with care and love, I learnt the emotive power of my playing…and my piano playing became my own voice, not one that reflected you. Not once did you ever make me feel inadequate…or feel that it was your duty to “break me in”…you just let me grow in whatever way you could. I cried when I couldn’t have you as a teacher when I entered university.
And the playful, quick-witted and joyful Rosemary Nairn…I met you when you were 60 and I was 19…you used to joke that we were at opposite ends of the concession continuum for tickets, bus fares, and discounts meals. You would step on stage at the Festival Theatre and have 342 students sharing in your playful musical games, in your clever words…and somehow you made the most mundane bits of rehearsal hilarious, completely energised, a joyful sharing, or a witty little musical game. When I grew up into a real teacher, I told myself, I wanted to create the same joyful energy and momentum you created every day. You didn’t go overseas and to study a conducting degree. You didn’t do an honours recital in piano. Yet every skill you had in composition, arranging, piano playing, teaching, and choral conducting, you maximised…you were always learning, always curious, and always totally engrossed in the moment. Every kid completely believed you when you said that no question was too silly…and would have the courage to ask you. You never made anyone feel small…in fact, you made everyone feel special. You worked hard + expected excellence. But not at the cost of a person’s well-being.
I look at these three extraordinary teachers in my life and realise that Maya Angelo must be right. I will always strive for excellence…I will always want to see the potential realised in my students, my choirs, my ensembles…and myself. I will always want to hone and refine until I figure out where the perfect balance of joy and excellence lies.
Yet I realise my teaching mirrors the teaching of these three special people the most.
I want to make my students feel how they made me feel.
You were right, Maya.