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This week, I had one of THOSE teaching moments.
One of those epic “Dead Poets Society” moments which leave you breathless and teary, overwhelmed at your teacherly awesomeness…but with a few differences.
Firstly, you can never pick them. This one made me agonise and lose a few hours of quality sleep.
Secondly, you don’t feel awesome. I felt like I was navigating the deep, dark angsty world of teenagers with a forked stick as a compass, hoping desperately that I would hit somewhere between courage, firm justice, compassion…and a little bit of “how dare you!?” and “up yours!”, truth be told.
This Thursday gone by, I had a performance with my Year 11 Music class, who are also a small combo band in their own right, for the “R U OK?” day celebrations. I have taught this class for just over 2 terms and have grown to love them academically, musically, and for their own nerdy, wonderful, hilarious + quirky selves.
They are, on the teenage barometer, fantastic students + people.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have elements of cheekiness, cockiness, a little bit of conniving, slipperiness, and just plain old, undiluted stupidity. It’s all part of the charm. For all their intellectual and musical intelligence, they are, after all, teenagers.
And on this glorious Thursday afternoon, quadrangle filled with students, staff, and sunlight, they totally rocked. There was a gladness, a buzz, and a sense of uplifting appreciation for the very essence of the day and all that it stood for. Students grooved and chatted, and there was a joyful appreciation of shared music.
So buoyed up and thrilled by their efforts, I thought I might shout them all iced coffees, or bring in some blocks of chocolate to celebrate, maybe order pizza at the end of the term…until I found them in the downstairs band room, huddled conspiratorially around a mound of chips and lollies, having hand-picked their own little 45-minute break during Lesson 5.
“HEEEEEYYYYYY! KWOKKKIE! Would you like a chip?!”
I could not believe it.
“MS. KWOK.” I punctuated. “And NO, I do NOT want a chip.”
Lolling about like drunken lizards in the sun, my fabulous Year 11 class lying on the carpet, looking less than awesome, and making me more furious by the second.
“WHY are you all down here? Do your teachers know where you are? Do you know that it’s my duty of care to know that you’ve gone to Lesson 5? How stupid of me. I assumed you would all just do the right thing!”
“Awwwww, come ON, Ms Kwok! We haven’t had lunch! And we were told to clean the band room up.”
I looked around at the stray mallets, bits of paper, empty Gatorade bottle, and lolly wrappers on the floor. My ARSE you were cleaning up the band room. It’s possibly the messiest it’s been all week, you little turds.
“Get. Into. Class. NOW!”
And faces fell. Bodies moved. FAST. About $8.00 worth of chips (that’s astronomical in teenager-terms) went into the bin in their haste to get as far away from me as possible, as quickly as possible.
I could not believe it. My awesome Year 11 Music class, who had totally kicked-ass in a performance not even an hour earlier, were on the complete other extreme of my awesomeness scale. Who normally were on the good side of the “good”, were suddenly so very not. And that made it far worse than having a recalcitrant kid break the rules. I was FUMING at their extreme cockiness, at their breaking the rules to fit them, at the fact that they thought they could pick their time off…that…
We haven’t had lunch, Ms Kwok.
Oh you POOR SODS, I fumed. That’s what you signed up for when you became music students, kiddies. Suck it up, buttercups. Grow a backbone. Build a bridge. BUY A MUESLI BAR!
I was so mad. Why?
Because I was so fond of this class and they had never willingly and overtly chosen to be so cocky.
And I wasn’t sure how to play this.
Come down like a tonne of bricks, I thought. Give them all internal suspensions for a lesson to make up for the lesson they took. Could you imagine the devastation? It would show up on their records. Wonderful plan!
No, not wonderful.
They hadn’t eaten and had willingly given up their time…I could verify it to their Lesson 5 teachers and extend an olive branch. My stomach churned. No. No way. Not my moral compass. I would have found another way to acknowledge it, to celebrate the success of their performance, but I couldn’t retrospectively acknowledge time that they hadn’t asked me for.
Why was I so disappointed?
Because I wanted them to make good choices, not abuse my kindness and trust, and to understand that being a music student comes with privilege, sacrifice, and a whole lot of hungry moments.
This was the class I was working with to take through Year 12, who, if they kept growing and developing at their current pace, could just skyrocket next year as individual performers and as an ensemble. I wanted them to treat their talents and themselves with respect, and not take privileges or their talents as a given, but something to hold with care.
Calmer, I went to sleep, but didn’t sleep very well.
At 6:30am, still in my pjs, I wrote the following email:
Dear Year 11 Crew,
I’d like to please meet with you all briefly at the end of Lesson 2.
After some consideration, I’ve decided I’d like to email all your teachers of Lesson 5 yesterday to acknowledge where you were and to apologise for your absence.
Regardless of circumstances, they would have been expecting you in their lessons, and I hadn’t given them any warning that it would be any different. If it were my lesson, I would have expected you there, even if we had taken time out of it for lunch + pack-up.
Please meet me in the upstairs music room.
I wanted to explain to them that they were my duty of care. I was quite prepared for the playful banter, the hilarity, and joyfulness in our lessons to die off for the next few lessons. While I knew it was the correct thing to do, I was tired, antsy, and not feeling particularly awesome about how wonderfully correct the whole enterprise was.
When I arrived at school, to my great surprise I found four of my students on the doorstep of the Music Centre, waiting for me. I had never seen them looking so serious and stressed in my life.
“Morning guys. How are we all?”
I took a stab at normalcy and calmness. That seemed to stress them out even more.
“Um, Ms Kwok, can we please talk to you now?”
“Well, we’ve made a time to talk after Lesson 2, can you hang in there until then?”
“Uh…actually, we’d really prefer to talk to you right now.”
Being relatively new at my school, and having never done close-range combat with any of these normally fabulous students, I wasn’t too sure how this was going to go down. Would they do an over-the-top apology? Were they going to lecture me on workers’ rights, and that by law I was required to give them at least 20 minutes every 2 hours in which to nourish themselves?
Was I going down!?
I confess I was a little curious as to how this was going to all unfold.
“So, you all received my email this morning?”
“Well then, I hope you understand why I need to acknowledge and apologise to your respective teachers on your behalf. This is difficult for me in that I realise how hard you all work. I know you give over and above the average student, and you’re always on call for performances. But that doesn’t mean that you can pick your own rewards and privileges. And…”
“Ms Kwok…sorry to interrupt, but shouldn’t we be apologising and not you?”
I looked at the earnest and stressed-out Sir Year 11, who looked like he was about to throw up from worry.
“Well, that would be good.”
“We know we let you down…”
“The reason why I’m doing this is because I’m preparing you, and your teachers, for Year 12 Music next year. I have to take you out of class LOADS next year. The trust invested in you via me is enormous. You have to earn that. And at present, your teachers just trust me when I ask for any one of you. I cannot find you on the floor of the band room, which was atrocious by the way if you guys were making any sort of half-arsed effort to clean it, having a picnic when you’re supposed to be in lesson.”
“Are you still going to be our teacher next year?”
“What!?” I was momentarily blindsided. “What sort of question is that?”
Miss Year 11, the cockiest of them all yesterday, looked at me with seriousness etched all over her face. “Will you still teach us?”
“Oh my goodness, yes, of course I will. That was never in question.”
All four of them reacted, and Sir Year 11 got teary and managed to squeeze out, “Because-we-love-you-Ms-Kwok-and-we-want-you-to-teach-us-for-Year-12-otherwise-it-will-suck-and-we-love-being-in-your-class.”
And all of a sudden I was caught between a mixture of wanting to self-combust, cry, laugh, and fly. Somewhere in the back of my mind, my logical brain was going, “Well, Einstein, I AM the ONLY senior music teacher on staff, your chances of getting another music teacher are slim, buddy.”
And I looked at my stressed out, put-through-the-wringer Year 11 kiddies and realised that they had been agonising over me as much as I had been agonising over them. That somewhere over the course of the last 2 terms of teaching, my words, my values, and moral compass had been embedded, if not always followed.
And I found myself in the middle of one of THOSE teaching moments.
Trying not to completely lose the plot and burst into tears, which were just below the surface, I said, with some gentleness, “You all have until Lesson 4 to apply damage control before I write the email. You may have to do a lunchtime detention, as I’m not sure what the Senior School leadership team will say. But you still have me as a teacher for next year…you poor buggers.”
Four heads looked up. And one by one, there were little tentative grins of connection and relief.
They were very quiet in their music lesson later that day, and worked meticulously on their arrangements for the entirety of the lesson, only asking the most necessary questions of me, despite my prompting.
Inside, I was a mixture of exhausted, glowing, archly wary, but also totally joyful.
I had somehow managed to navigate the right path, one that hit the mark, for this particular set of students, for this particular situation.
I also knew they wouldn’t be getting any lunchtime detentions.
But I was enjoying the concentrated work and quiet too much to tell them.
I thought I’d let them marinate + wallow in their guilt and new-found humility for just a little longer…