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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.
One of the greatest moments of humility and grace is realising when you are not the perfect fit for a student.
As I continue grow into myself and my teaching, I see more examples of this within the classes I teach. The students that are angular and pokey around me, that value and respect my teaching, and me as a person, but I will never be their best champion, or their perfect mentor.
The younger version of me would have worked with pig-headed determination to flex and contort myself into the perfect fit. What did I need to be? Harder, warmer, softer? More dictatorial? Colder? I tried to bend in ways that I never should have. And in doing so, was being dishonest to myself and doing my students a disservice.
Now, in simple grace and confidence, I can identify students for whom I’m not a perfect fit, and I can joyfully and wholeheartedly direct them to other staff members and mentors who might inspire them more fully than I am able. I encourage them to listen and look closely around them for kindred spirits, people who are older and wiser than them who have the unique combination of experiences and talents which resonate with them.
I ask them to be open and engaged with me, and that I will always love and teach them with my greatest self, and to the best of my ability. But in my heart of hearts, I say silently to them:
I am not so vain as to think I can be everything to everyone. I am not the perfect fit for you. I will teach you, care for you, encourage you, guide you, and support you, but you need to find that adult or mentor who IS someone you completely aspire to be like, even in part, and connect with them. You need to have a champion, and a North Star, and it’s not me.
So, look hard, and look well. Find someone who resonates with you, who makes your spirit catch alight, and learn.
This is such a gift of courage, humility, grace, and love.
To know that I have the courage and grace to set certain students free, so that I can love them more.
When subtlety fails:
Sir Year 9: “Thanks so much for playing for me this assembly, Ms Kwok!”
Me: “No problems. I like dark chocolate, by the way.”
Sir Year 9: “Me too! I’ve got a couple of Lindt flavours that…”
Me: “No, let’s try that again. I’m telling you, I-LIKE-DARK-CHOCOLATE-AND-I’M-LEARNING-NEW-MUSIC-VERY-FAST-IN-MY-SPARE-TIME-AND-PLAYING-FOR-YOU-IN-MY-FREES-ON-FRIDAY.”
Sir Year 9: “What, I don’t get…OH.”
Me: “Indeed. Dark chocolate Lindt will be great.”
Sir Year 9: “I’ll stop by Woollies on the way home.”
Good man. That’s what I want to hear. 🙌
When I was 21, I thought I could make anyone smile. Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or get a smile from them. I thought it was my business to talk to anyone.
How UTTERLY AUDACIOUS and SIMPLISTIC of me.
And yet, I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and longing for that simplistic, authentic audacity.
Because I realised that I have become safe.
Imperceptibly, and ever-so-surreptitiously, I have become more reasonable, more mature, bounded by rules and frameworks, cautious, and, let’s face it, less happy to give up my energy and time for a possible metaphorical slap in the face if an interaction goes badly. While outwardly I am energised and positive, I have very gradually become safe. I’m on the conveyor belt, and I didn’t even realise it.
Why am I thinking about this?
It’s been an exhausting and challenging few weeks at school, where students are starting to get tired and edgy. Behaviour problems are starting to fully show themselves, assessments are due, encouragement and full support are required where my reservoirs are running low, and I am trying to fit more and more in. And while I get everything competently done, I thought about what total a whack-job I was in my early 20s as a teacher, where a behaviour management or teaching issues were just situations requiring a creative solution. I all but rubbed my hands in glee, ready to embark on a round of solution-mongering.
I was so damn creative, audacious, and fearless.
Why? Because I had no track record. I had absolutely nothing to lose, no history of success or failure, no existing street-cred, and I had classes to teach. And my God, I found ways to connect with those students + staff out of sheer desperation + innovation, keeping up by the day, and sometimes by the minute. And because I had zero behaviour management skills, I behaviour managed like Martina Hingis played tennis: SMART.
I am a featherweight, literally. I am just under 5-foot and about 45-50 kgs, depending upon how may Tim Tams I eat. My voice back then did not carry a metre, let alone a rehearsal room with 70 over-excited students. In my formative teaching days, I had no “older-male-student” presence whatsoever when I behaviour managed; some of those 6-foot-plus boys could have sneezed and I would’ve been annihilated. I had zero ability + knowledge in navigating bitchiness, drugs, alcohol, underhand remarks, social media bullying, in short, no street-cred whatsoever.
And I had classes to teach, and curriculum to get through, and boundaries to set.
So I built connection. I had the audacity to think that if I could make every interaction with each student + staff member as real, authentic, joyful, and positive as possible, I would at least have money in the bank.
It became a game to me; I wonder how I can make that staff member smile? How could I POSSIBLY start a conversation with a kid who has zero interests which overlap with mine? How can I deliver soul-sucking information to students about their grades, their actions, or their poor behaviour in a way that values them?
I spent hours driving home thinking through words and conversations, learning the power of changing one word, or how I chose to deliver something, what order I would say things, where I would say a kid’s name to show value + care, and how I chose to build hope and worthiness where there was such decimation in their self-esteems without taking away from poor work + behaviour.
That was then, when I was “young and scrappy”, and full of energy and front.
Now, I have things in place. I am mid-career, and I have frameworks down, confidence in my abilities, and structures and staff who will support me.
And I realised this week, whilst trudging through a challenging, emotionally draining week, that I have recently forgotten to be audacious. I have been taking the slightly safer option, the path of least resistance. I haven’t started the random conversations, I haven’t given the extra compliment to the kid who is trouble, I have allowed systems to work their systematic magic, and in truth, I have been sapped of energy. I haven’t got what it takes to be full of audacity, engaging with conversations that half the time might elicit a weird or slightly off-centre reaction. I have no time for the quirky, no energy for the playful just to be playful.
And that what I LIVED for in my beginning years.
But, my God, I should. I should, because that is the connection that is missing.
Because some of that unreasonable audacity is what will shake me out of my routine, and back into the fresh and unpredictable present that is teaching, and life.
What if I said hello the the person who perpetually was withdrawn in the morning and made it a challenge to see if I could learn something new about them? Do I need to be mesmerised + completely interested? Well, highly likely I won’t be to that extent. But I can still make a connection. I am not learning anything or connecting with anyone if I have walked past this person for half a year and know nothing about them and continue talking to the same people. How both big-headed and fearful am I that I think someone else is not worth my time, or that my time is THAT limited. There are people in much more demanding jobs and lives who find time. So can I.
What if I did those things for my students + classes which elicit the raised eyebrows, embarrassed yet half-game laughs, and shook them up a little? I’ve been comfortable, with my ensembles, with my thinking, with my support, with my teaching. I wonder what it would be like to do something which is just slightly outside of my current comfort zone, knowing that it will cost me a more courage, time, and energy?
What if I sat still enough that I could find the words to speak to the kid who is being a little shit, and continues to be a little shit in my classes because they are so broken by life? Rather than just letting the behaviour system do its thing, how could I change the script so that the consequences happen, but my WORD resonate with value and worthiness? My instinct right now? I want to kick a few of the kids I teach. That’s how much they are pissing me off. But I wonder, audaciously, how willing I am to think about this creatively. I’m not pinning myself as the next teaching Messiah, God no. I will still want to slap several kids for being completely remorseless, unaffected, Teflon-coated turds, even if my conversations and words are well-received. But let’s play this creativity game a little.
How can I do things differently when I am uncomfortable?
How can I connect with kids who don’t want to be connected with, who refuse everything, and who are going through the motions of a behaviour management plan already? What can I say or do that will actually carry momentum and resonate?
Why the hell would I want to do this?
Because my greatest joys in life have come from the accidental, audacious interactions. When I was 21, I thought I could talk to anyone and affect change. I thought that all my words carried some life and momentum, and I naively and audaciously believed that my setting out to make peoples days a little brighter served a higher purpose.
And the reflection back was threefold; when a risk paid off, I was catapulted out of my comfort zone into new connections, understandings, unexpected moments of joy, learning, and hope. I learned so much from being so naively confident and interested. I was absolutely engrossed in life.
And I would hate to look back and realise that I had become reasonable and normal, colouring within the lines like a good little girl, when I had the imagination, capacity, and ability to be creative, human, and audaciously unreasonable.
It happened before I even knew it. I was in the middle of it all before I realised I had slipped into the cocoon of “safe and ordinary”. There’s nothing wrong with taking time out, or being in second-gear for a little while. But when I held up the way I was interacting with my beautiful students this week, the way I let small things get under my skin, and the way I was taking my choral rehearsals against my 25-year-old self, I realised I had allowed myself to cross the boundary of “commanding and mature” to “safe and ordinary”.
Call it what you will, I was not pushing boundaries because inch by inch, I had gone into energy conservation mode. This has worked for a while, so let’s keep doing it. The kids won’t respond to that. There will be discomfort, noise, and chaos, so let’s stick with the familiar. And worse still, That formula works, they can’t possibly do more than that right now.
I used to be unashamed in my haphazard ways of pushing up against boundaries. I did it just by existing. When I was making my way as a new teacher and choral director, I would throw ideas around like beads, with the wayward and infinitely optimistic view that some of them would land on the bullseye. It wasn’t that I was fearless, it was that I was so utterly unaware of what conventions were that I had to build them every day. There was no “way that it was done”. There was only “here and now, let’s find a solution!”
And yes, it cost me energy, pride, ego, time, and caused regular discomfort to my choirs, my classes, my colleagues and my students. But I just took it as the norm. I didn’t set out to be a hell-raiser, I was just in a glorious journey of joyful, addictive discovery and creativity.
And I look back and marvel at how brave I was.
Let me look back and take a moment to imbue my current, confident, joyful self with some of that haphazard fearlessness. Rock the boat. Walk the unseen path. Let’s get curious and daringly uncomfortable because there is so much to discover. Don’t choose “safe” just because it’s easy; choose with clarity and consciousness as to what the situation needs.
I love what I do, and annoyingly so. And while full-time high school classroom music teaching is bad-assery at its finest, it is also all-consuming. Too easily, music teachers can get onto the endless treadmill of ideas, classroom preparation, paperwork, or even the very positive aspects such as dreaming up large-scale, creative, artistic ventures which completely swallow them up, mind, body, and soul.
Of all the breeds of teachers, performing arts teachers unequivocally SUCK THE MOST at having any sort of balance in their lives. A performing arts teacher who has a healthy work-life balance absolutely all the time is not a true-blooded performing arts teacher, or is delusional.
So now, in this pocket of calm and rest while I have the attention span and energy, I am taking a closer look at the undercurrents of new ideas and change bubbling away below the surface. I know that right now, I am totally in the right place of life and work, happy to invest of my ideas and skills, building a foundation of music education in my school.
But I don’t want to wake up at 50 having merrily gone along with this life without consciously choosing it for myself. I’d like to know that if I hit 50 and I’m still in full-time teaching, it’s because I chose it for myself in a wholehearted and considered manner. The unusual caveat for me is that I genuinely love what I am doing. It is gruelling, soul-immersing, all-consuming, unforgiving work, where you experience such extraordinary positives, but also feel like you’ve sold your spleen in a jar. But I don’t want to blithely arrive at 50, 60, or retirement age by accident, even if I am happy as Larry.
So, thinking ahead…
Love what I do, but look up. It’s okay that I’m completely, sickeningly in love with music teaching right now, but it’s not okay that I allow it to consume me. When I prioritise one extra lesson plan or choral commission over my friends or family, even if the latter can be considerably more work (yes, I said it!), I am being swallowed up. I need to remember I am so many different facets and attributes as a person, and it would be heartbreaking to arrive at the end of my life and all that people could say was that I was good teacher, even if I was. I want to be so much more than that. Even if it frustrates the crap out of my sometimes, and I can’t Sibelius-it down, or put it in tidy little learning plan or Excel spreadsheet. I need a whole other life outside of my work. Refreshingly, life seems to assert itself and remind me of this in no uncertain terms.
Let the edges blur. Over the last year, I have been making a conscious effort to consider things which I think are on the edge of my expertise. These can be leading workshops which are outside of my main areas of choral + composition, going on excursions which having nothing to do with performing arts, saying yes to my god-girlies when they ask me to do something which isn’t my usual “thing”, and saying yes to interesting + engaging events, social opportunities, family gatherings, outings, and adventures. In getting out of my comfort zone and allowing the edges to blur on what I think is an appropriate way for me to use my time, especially when there is very little of it during a school term, I am testing out new personas and ideals which might lead me to new understandings and experiences. In allowing the edges to blur, I am exercising the ability to engage with something which I’m not fully confident in, learn to adapt, and tap into my curiosity in a safe and playful way. Most importantly, I am taking down the walls of my little pigeonhole where I have comfortably placed myself, and where it is so easy to live from on a day-to-day basis. It takes so much more energy to engage with new things, but I owe it to myself not to cover myself with defining labels. I get so indignant when others pigeonhole me…and yet, what am I doing on a daily basis to stretch their understanding of who I am, personally and professionally? It’s my responsibility too.
Wonder and question. There is such an immediacy and excitement to asking questions in a field where you know very little. Whether it’s cooking or car-maintenance, large-scale or seemingly trivial, engaging with others and their passions and strengths is an untold joy, rich with personal learning. The thing is, sometimes I am so consumed by my own deadlines and activities that I forget to engage. I’d like to remind myself that no-one, not even the most self-sufficient person, can fully engage and inspire themselves. As a human, our minds and hearts are made for connection, laughter, curiosity, learning, and love. So let me take the extra few minutes to engage with something or someone that I know very little about, and might spark a new course of thinking.
Stomach-flips and uncertainty. Yes, my teaching life is comfortable. Exhausting, interesting, but totally comfortable. Yet I look back to all the times I have grown significantly in confidence, leadership, or grit, or produced a work of significant creative light or merit, and it has ALWAYS been through adversity and struggle. It’s because when we’re comfortable, we do the same thing, because it works. When we are in struggle and facing uncertainty, we know that we need to adapt and grow to fit the changing requirements. Does it feel good? Hell no! It sucks. NOBODY ever looked at a period of personal, financial, creative, or professional struggle and said at the time, “Oh, GOODY! A struggle! AWESOME!” But whenever I look at the significant growth milestones, they are always centred around those times where I have been forced to create new understandings. So why on earth would I wait for adversity to learn something so vital? Why not look for opportunities to take those stomach-flipping leaps of faith while I am healthy and settled?
Catch the keystones. In being happily ensconced in my work, I have very little motivation to question the path I’m on. But I’d like to ask myself to notice the moments when I am doing something new and I find myself totally in the zone, totally “in flow”, the doing something which is the perfect balance of challenging, interesting, engaging, and allowing me to create gritty forward momentum. And then catch that keystone and don’t let go. Make the unexpected connections, say yes to the slightly left-of-the-middle ideas, consider things I wouldn’t normally consider, engage in the interesting conversations, and keep asking myself questions. What else could I possibly imagine myself doing, or want the responsibility of doing, and when? Once I catch these ideas, then it’s much easier to create a timeline to build up momentum for when I would like to make a change.
Side hustle. Mine is so accidental, it’s laughable, but my side hustle has always been writing and composing. I am the definition of a reluctant composer. I write because I love writing, and people like what I write so they keep asking me for more. Have I EVER put the right amount of weight, attention and time on this side-gig? My God, no. Embarrassingly so. And yet, choral directors and choirs from all around the world hunt me down and ask me for my music. For this, I have to do a shout-out to all the incredible people I have worked with in Sydney Children’s Choir, Gondwana Voices, Birralee Voices, and Young Adelaide Voices for fuelling the fire and sharing my music, and my work, so warmly and openly. To each of these extraordinary people, I am indebted. But I take care of my composing as well as I take care of a cactus. And I’ve killed a cactus before…! So let me take this honour of being able to compose and write, and my absolute love of choral composition for children’s and youth choirs, and hold it with greater love and responsibility. Look into taking care of it as I would an extra part of myself, a thread and possible next pathway in my life, rather than just a hobby. While I love the freedom of writing and composing purely as a creative outlet, it’s a conversation with myself I’d like to engage in more, and in a more supported and responsible way. Choral directors + choristers have entrusted me with their ideals, let me practise my voice in composing more regularly.
So there it is. Tiny signposts, significant value. Let me begin imagining a future with purpose and consideration, whilst fully engaging with all that I have right now.
When I think about the teacher I am, where I’ve come from, and who I will continue to become, I cannot help but marvel at how different I am. I am not the same person or teacher that I was even a year ago; I am more. There is greater depth and understanding, gradients of colour, shades of understanding, more weight, more presence, more joy, more freedom.
Yet how often do I look at my own mentors and teachers and think of them as being exactly the same, somehow frozen in time in their ideas and thoughts? Ridiculously shocked that they look older, and are less energetic than they used to be?
Let us be gentle and joyful with each other, and allow ourselves the grace to change. Let us put into words the gentle shift of time, so that those around us can see that we are becoming, constantly.
I love who I am, and who I am becoming. I am grateful I get a new class of students each year to share this with, and wonder with slight disconcertment at my first set of students 16 years ago, and how I would have taught them now.
Let us realise how incredibly beautiful and powerful we are as agents of change, as we are moving and changing entities ourselves. Isn’t it extraordinary that every year, I will teach with a slightly different viewpoint, depth of passion, and colour?
And let me have the grace to allow myself to change, that I do not have to replicate the expectation over and over. That all I need to do is be. Essentially and authentically.
Exhausted + buoyant all at once. Thank you so much to the exceptionally excellent Pulteney staff I work with, whose words + laughter lifted me up and filled me to the brim today. I am so inspired by the joy, compassion + love you share with each other and myself. I am 4 (or more accurately, 3.88-ish! 😂) years old at Pulteney, and I love the feeling of realising I have become a little over-loved, dog-eared, and worn-in, in the best way possible.
Thank you. 😊
Flying joyfully free into holidays + feeling light, but anchored. 🌟