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Whenever I’m emailing another staff member about a student fro whom I can’t spell their name, I always pull up their email address up on the “CC space and then delete it after I’ve gotten the spelling down.
(Yes, I realise this is stupidity at its finest…!)
This backfired spectacularly today when I was emailing on behalf of a New-As-Of-Term-3-Sir-Year-10, and pressed enter on a message raving about his attitude to learning, aural skills, and determination to succeed to another staff member.
This student cannot read printed music. Yet he can play by ear like a boss. He’s intelligent, imaginative, streetwise, and centred. He cracks me up with his sassy humour. I cannot wait to see who he’ll grow into for the remainder of Year 10, let alone Year 12!
But it was a rough start to the term coming into a class of ridiculously talented Year 10 Music kiddies. You know how you get waves of talent? We’re riding the crest this year with this amazing vintage.
He hit reply on my accidental “CC” and wrote:
Dear Ms Kwok,
I have to admit that I was pretty freaked out starting this term at Pulteney, and finding myself in a class of freakishly talented people. It was overwhelming. But in 3 weeks, you have made me feel connected and included through your teaching and finding ways to acknowledge my skills within the class. Case in point? This email, which I suspect you didn’t mean for me to see. But I’m glad I did. It’s all these little things that you + the class are trying to do for me without me knowing which make me feel valued and good about being here.
Thanks for finding a spot for me, while trying not to make it obvious. That somehow makes it even better, and I appreciate it even more.
Cheers and see you next lesson!
Sir Year 10.
I was thinking about all the moments that were ever worthwhile between myself and my beautiful Year 12 Tutor Group this year. They are an amazing crew, so many different personalities, talents, characters, and insights. So many different backgrounds and understandings.
The thing about the Year 12s, the most senior of our students, is that they are the easiest and hardest to support and really know. I naively thought this year would be easy; to have the rapport built over the last two years to draw from. And yes, in many ways it is, as I’ve built a strong connection + have a history and storyline with my students.
But in so many ways, it’s harder. They are focused, stressed, and consumed by their thoughts, their lives, and their studies. They have goals and aspirations, and sometimes no time for simple, playful conversation. They are pulling away into the beautiful young adults they are becoming; strong, courageous, young, scrappy, imperfect, and breathtakingly authentic.
And it turns out that I have a fear-factor in me as well. I selfishly need to see some return on my endeavours to support, connect, and open a conversation. Oh, these are good students, they are polite and open in conversation. They will always talk to and laugh with me, accept my help and guidance, and respond to what I ask for.
But that’s not connection. That’s not really knowing them.
So I have been daring my arse off. Every time there has been a “sliding door” moment; a chance to do something a little more silly and playful, creative, imaginative, or to open ups a conversation that might be a little too tender or joyful, I say yes. I do it. I make sure I cheer at every achievement. I celebrate every birthday. I grieve with them. I bring in lollies, brownies, and tissues and spoil them a little bit. I show my stress, my love for them, my gratitude, my frustration, my sense of fun. I unfurl myself and engage, so that they might as well.
And it’s in saying yes to every silly, playful, scary moment and inviting that awkward few seconds of “What if?”, that I have found the most authentic connection between me and my beautiful class of Year 12s, young adults on the brink of taking flight.
You have no idea how your words will hit, and the momentum they hold.
Dare to plant that seed, however challenging the initial connection. Trust that the words will be heard, even if in delayed reaction.
I gave out my “Good Luck To My Year 12 Kiddies” survival packs to each of the Year 12s either in my Tutor Group, Year 12 Music class, or in a lead role for this year’s production of “Wicked” this year.
Each was labelled with a green Post-It note with their name + a simple individualised “Good Luck” message; nothing fancy because I’ve been so sick, and certainly not fancy enough to warrant keeping. I expected those Post-Its to be read, enjoyed, and tossed out, and the goodies in the survival pack to be enjoyed well into production week.
Imagine my surprise when I watched an unexpected Sir Year 12 over the course of this week transfer that dog-eared, scrappy, falling-apart Post-It from the back of his laptop, to his diary, to his Music folder, stuck on by a piece of tape that was losing its stickiness + collecting fluff from over-use.
You just never know who are going to be the sentimental ones, and what they are going to get sentimental about. 😊
I didn’t say anything, but it really made me smile. 🥰
All teachers will know this to be true:
There’s a “head-down-eyes-down-make-a-beeline-for-nearest-exit” walk-run that ALL teachers do at the end of Student Parent Teacher interviews.
Leave the laptop behind, we ain’t doing any work tonight. Don’t worry about the lunchbox, there’s heaps of spare Tupperware at home.
Sometimes you wonder if you’re hitting the mark with the students who give nothing away. But you just keep flying the freak flag, doing the crazy spontaneous things, giving the love and support wholeheartedly, laying down the boundaries over and over, and saying the words that you hope will hit the mark, even if they are met with blank faces and all-out resistance.
But time and time again, I get the unexpected reminders that teenagers, particularly Year 12 teenagers, do have highly evolved crap-detectors on their heads and NOTICE.
From one of my Year 12 Tutor Group Sirs, who gives NOTHING away, and suffers my conversations with mono-syllabic responses, via another staff member:
“Yeah, Kwokkie, she’s a total embarrassment, but she’s cool. You know she cares + she works hard for us. I rate her.”
That’s THREE SENTENCES and massive ones, straight to the heart.
Today was one of those days which never got off the ground. From the moment I walked into Concert Choir at 7:15am, I proceeded to stagger my way through double-bookings, clashes, missing pages of accompaniment, flat batteries, sick choral kiddies, dropping a jar of ashes (yes, it was Ash Wednesday, just to add to the fun), and other assorted mild to epic fails.
While sitting in the corner of the classroom, throwing down my lunch in record time in stony-faced silence + generally hating all forms of life, my Year 12 Prefects appeared with a cup of tea + a Freddo.
“Okay, Ms Kwok. We need to talk.”
Instantly, the alarm bells went off and the braincells went into overdrive, “What NOW?! Have I forgotten something? Have I let these guys down?!”
Miss Year 12 Head Prefect put her arm comfortingly around me and said, calmly and soothingly, “Look, Ms Kwok, you have to LET IT GO. You can’t do it all. You can’t nail every moment of every day. It can’t all be AMAZING.”
Sir Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “We made a cup of tea + stole a Freddo for you. Chill out. Stop saving the world for the next 20 minutes.”
Miss Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “Plus we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to quote you back to you.”
Damn it, you three. I just got schooled, and in the most caring way possible. 😭
I have recently come back from directing the Young Composer School at Gondwana Voices National Choral School, a role that I have relished as it combined the paradox of creativity with the responsibility of quality choral education.
Creatives who are choral composers are always asked to straddle the line between imaginative possibility and what choirs are able to do for them. Write a work that is too specialised, and only the very best choirs with well-developed technical ability can perform them. Write a work that is too juvenile and simple, and choirs will find it unsatisfying on both counts. Even more than for instrumental writing, choral composition requires the composer to write as both a creative and an educator.
Write a piece that resonates with choristers of a certain age-bracket and ability, enhances their vocal development, and expands their performance confidence + sound, and you will have a sustainable and well-loved piece of repertoire which has the power to affect choristers long after the final performance of the piece.
And this is where I find complete joy; trying to find that sweet spot. I write like an educator, always looking for words that will stick, and what feels good on the voice, and how to create a choral framework whereby a developing choir will feel and sound good performing my pieces. I also seek to extend and develop quality vocal technique but in the “Mary-Poppins-spoon-full-of-sugar” kind of way, through embedding choral technique in a way that it is unnoticed until you have reaped the rewards of it through rehearsing and performing an engaging piece of music.
And this is what I have spent that last week mentoring and teaching to the young composers at Gondwana NCS.
I had an incredibly nostalgic realisation during the choral school; that when I was 25 years old, someone took a chance on me as a young composer. That someone was the artistic director of Sydney Children’s Choir, Lyn Williams, who saw something worth developing in my writing and in my love of choral education. Now, at age 37, I realise that my time for looking for mentors is being overlapped by actually doing the mentoring myself. Rather than cold-calling for mentorship, I am now cold-calling to mentor. When I see that spark of determination, uniqueness of voice, a love of the voice, dedication to developing as a composer, resiliency, and a talent that resonates with my own creative values, it is my job and privilege to offer to nurture that talent.
And so I did this. There were two stand-out composers in my small group of 7, and I wrote emails acknowledging the manner with which they embraced the composing school, their quality of work, and their ability to collaborate in a healthy and productive way whilst still maintaining their creative voice.
It’s now my responsibility to look for places where I can shine the torch on the brilliant and innovative young talent coming through. And what an honour to look at things so differently, whilst still having the chance to work as a creative myself.
It feels enlightening to be holding the torch and illuminating the journey from the other side!
This morning, I finished re-reading the extraordinary book, The Courage to Be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi + Fumitake Koga. It shakes me to the core every time with its conversation and ideas, asking me to consider so much. You need a lifetime of thinking to process some of the concepts, and with each re-read (I have re-read it 3 times now), you pick up something different, and the understanding changes to fit where you are in life, and what issues and points of development have your attention.
For me, it got me thinking about self-love; how I care for myself, how I love myself, and how I hold myself in loving tenderness.
It was extraordinary to me how many times I have let myself slip in self-love, and how many times I failed to be tender to myself. No-one else would see it, but I am considering them now.
More than ordinary: Why do we all want to be extraordinary and different for the sake of being those things? We equate living a “good” life with living a “dull + ordinary” life. And “dull + ordinary” very dangerously become synonymous with “worthless”. It isn’t our job to strive to stand out from the crowd as our first priority; it’s our job to just live a good life. When we do this, a certain momentum and energy comes off us, and we become extraordinary and different, because we are animated, fully-engaged, and alive from doing our life’s work. Striving for acclaim and ultimately love and acceptance as our first course of action is a deeply unloving way to ask yourself to work, and to live life.
Just be: When we go into work, we are often measured by what we can give or do. We are only as valuable as our skills, success-rate, and productivity. Sadly, when we engage with family members, friends, and colleagues, in the same way we sometimes measure them through what they can give us. Is it that they make us feel good about themselves? They have a skill we want? They have scintillating and witty conversation? They are socially acceptable to be around? They have money and accolades? The do not ask questions which offend us? While all of these aspects are important and we should choose to be with people who are positive influences in our lives, shouldn’t the very first requirement be that they are just themselves? When we think of others as comrades and equals, rather than useful commodities – and it is a very subtle change of mindset – everything changes. Something shifts, and people are more willing to engage with you and willingly offer of themselves and their talents.
Therefore, it stands to reason that we each of us need to just be, safe in our worthiness.
Momentum, direction, and agency: When you are working from a base value of strong self-worth, then what you create, do, produce, say, achieve, is a bonus. It gives your life purpose and meaning. The fact that I teach, compose, and conduct choirs is a value added on top of my value as a person. Yet, too often, I have brandished those defining factors in front of new acquaintances as a definition of who I am, of all that I am. And I have looked for those defining factors in others as a reason to either keep or discard a connection. This also applies to students I teach as well; does the student who is on track and produces high quality work automatically get more value than a student who is a little turd? Theoretically, no. In practice, we all try not to. But how often have we said, even internally, “Oh, that student? They give me absolutely nothing. They’re a waste of space.” Shouldn’t the absolute bottom requirement be that they are there? Am I not the teacher and adult in the room?
When I scroll + scroll + scroll: You all know those days. It’s been a shitfest since 7:15am in the morning, and every lesson has progressively sucked from the word go. Get home, and you don’t want to engage. I numb by mindlessly scrolling through Facebook + Youtube. And when I cannot break that cycle and I tell myself that I deserve the chance to mentally check-out because I’ve had a shit day, I am not loving myself. When I stay in a holding pattern rather than taking those first, challenging steps toward moving through what I need to, reaching out and telling my story, nourishing my body through good food or exercise, or nourishing my brain through words, music, or journalling, I am feeding myself emotional junk-food and not doing myself any good. And the effects are just as shallow and ineffective. Start the work, care for myself.
I will see what I want to see in the world: People are imperfect, and they will let you down and hurt you. That’s a fact. However, if I set out to see how many times someone has let me down, I will always find evidence of this. If I look for evidence on how challenging a student is being, or how hopeless their situation, I will always succeed in finding it. I will always be able to verify whatever I want to see. So, it is my challenge to change the course of my thinking; how can I change my immediate response? How do I see something different, and look for clues otherwise in a situation, even if the hard work and course of action ahead is exactly the same?
I will see what I want to see in myself: Oh yes, there are several ways I can beat myself up. I don’t buy in for the “mindlessly Pollyanna” way of thinking either, because that’s just lip-service. But I will also see in myself what I look for. If I am looking for evidence of times I have let myself down, or failed, or how much I sucked at something, or how thoughtless, or when I have made a fool of myself, I will no doubt find it. And I can think of so many days when I have come home from school fixated on one interaction which has overtaken any of the other positives in my day, and how hard I have to try to change that course of thinking. Let me train myself to see things differently. Let me celebrate all that I have done well, first and foremost.
When I avoid: When I am avoiding something, I am telling myself I do not matter. Why? We avoid things when we are afraid. We are instinctively saying, “I don’t think I have what it takes to step into that arena, and say my piece, without being torn apart. I don’t think I have what it takes to own my truth. I don’t think I have what it takes to get up from the rubble if I get shot down.” So we avoid. Let me love myself a little more insistently, that the trust in my great strength is there. And yes, it will hurt. But I will be authentic and loving to myself, and not avoid any of truths about me.
The hard questions: As a follow-on from above, I have sometimes tied myself up in knots about a family gathering or a friendly catch-up because I know I will get the questions I dread; Why am I not married, raising a family, or have children? I have used every freakin’ verbal karate move under the sun to navigate these conversations. I have avoided, come out fighting, used humour, used the Zen-like approach, responded, not responded, avoided the most hurtful and nosey people, come at them like a bat out of hell and annihilated them for even daring to ask such a stupid question. What I have to realise is this; for most people asking, they are asking on such a different wavelength to me; they are simply asking a question, and I am looking at an emotional crater of sadness and grief, which I stand on the edge of daily. Humour cheapens it, fighting doesn’t acknowledge it properly. For other people asking, they are asking out of love. So avoiding hard questions is not the answer; it’s practising and preparing my answers. It’s knowing where I stand on these things, and knowing how much they mean to me, that I know exactly what I need to say to get my story across. Take the time to tell my truth and educate others. THAT is TRULY LOVING myself. My darling girl, I will never let you down again in not owning all that you are, I promise. Love all that you are, even the uncomfortable truths. That is your whole self.
Change: Sometimes, I resist change because I don’t think the people and world around me would cope if I changed something. What a ridiculous thing to think! Am I so adaptable that I will just go on being the person other people want me to be? If I need to grow and change, it is only for myself. Again, help educate others I love and care for about the change, speak with them without apology and let them know why I am considering a different direction, or a new way of approaching things. I owe no-one any explantations, by the way! Embrace all that I am, sink into it, deeply and wholly. I am a truly beautiful woman of grace, colour, vibrancy and fire. Let’s rock it.
Owning it: And finally, every time that I step into a room and do not take the floor when given the opportunity. I am not talking about being an attention-seeker. I am once again talking about those times where I have been a happy little fringe-dweller and played small, dimming my light so that other’s around me don’t feel uncomfortable. Step up, girl. Own it. Use your words. Shine your light. Share you extraordinary ideas + opinions. Change the momentum of the air around you.
You deserve all the love.