Teaching Adolescents

Ask me what I do. Go ahead, ask.  I am a teacher.  I am a musician.  I’ve managed to inhabit a career that combines those 2 things in ever-changing ways.  It doesn’t sound very sexy to be a high school music teacher, but there you are.  Or rather, here I am.

Fun?  Yes.  Incredibly tiring?  Yes.  The turnover rate in my profession, especially in my community, is very high.  Which is somewhat puzzling when you realize that the pay, while not great, is certainly livable.  The facility is nice.  It’s a chance to ‘live the dream’ of working in music ALL DAY, which most of my students see as the ultimate happiness.

So what’s wrong with this bliss?  It’s incredibly whiney to say it’s too hard, isn’t it?

Everyone thinks they work harder than anyone else.  Everyone thinks their own particular piece of the work world is misunderstood and undervalued by others.  Part of the pleasure of our lives is the smugness of knowing that we work harder than everyone else.  We love to answer ‘oh, yes, good, just VERY BUSY’ in a very self-important way to anyone who asks how we’re doing, and we especially draw pleasure from the self-important small sigh and pause before replying ‘oh, I’m doing fine’ which clearly communicates our courage in soldiering on under incredible odds, odds that are unimaginable to someone in whatever line of work that is NOT ours.

I’ve worked in 2 offices, as a teacher, and as a church worker.  Most of my professional life has been in the service sector with only a small experience of corporate life.  Corporate life is rife with challenges.  Obviously I don’t lust for that or I’d have long-ago abandoned this ‘living the dream’ life for some quality cubicle time staring at my computer.

Church work is emotionally draining, no way around it.  However, in my small experience, it also was a very forgiving line of work in the sense that my time, other than certain locked-in occasions such as services and education time, had a free-flowing, flexible structure allowing me to throw everything up for a while and go for a walk, or to take my child to the orthodontist, meet someone for a coffee meeting, or spend a few quick minutes researching my next camping trip.

5 years ago I went back to teaching full-time, and moved to high school music.  I began at a very successful, award-winning suburban school, moved to an economically depressed rural school, and have now settled in a steadily growing, middle-class, suburban medium-sized school.  It has been an exhilarating ride of tremendous challenge, growth, success, and self-satisfaction.  It has also been a destructive time of anger, fear, guilt, sleeplessness, acid reflux, family tension, and utter fatigue.

I arrive at work from 6:45 to 7:40 am, depending on the day.  Some days I begin rehearsals at 7:00 am for jazz choir or All-State, or teach lessons during that time.  Most days I work with students after school, and on Wednesdays I work until 5 with All-State students.  Two to three nights a week I come back to rehearse our musical until about 9 pm, at which time I start to clean up and lock up and wait for late-arriving parents.  As soon as the musical is over, I will begin jazz choir rehearsals in the mornings, after school, on evenings, and go to the festivals on Saturdays.

The longest work day I’ve put in during the past 3 years has been a 20-hour day.  Twelve-to-fourteen hour days are commonplace.  I often work 2 weeks at a time without a day off.  I sometimes pack 2 meals when I leave in the morning, and eat a granola bar on the way for my breakfast.    My day may entail teaching lessons, planning for and conducting 2 rehearsals with 145 students, answering 30-70 emails, making 3-5 phone calls, writing an average of 3 requisitions a week for purchases, registrations, etc., scheduling buses, hiring/paying judges, clinicians, audition screeners, filing insurance claims for broken sound equipment, scheduling/conducting fundraisers, dealing with boosters, deciding the cast of the musical/jazz choirs/All-State quartets/soloists for concerts, purchasing and filing music, tuning pianos, creating calendars, communicating with every person at the school to be sure there’s heat/cooling/availability in whatever space we’re using, creating medical forms for trips, making hotel arrangements for All-State festival, All-State Jazz festival, convention trips, spring break trips, organizing rides for weekend clinics, scheduling National Anthem singers for every sporting event, and every other type of administrative task possible, which doesn’t even begin to touch actual education tasks (grading, curriculum, assessments, communicating with parents, creating units, previewing music, designing instruction, alternate plans for special needs students, etc.).

I love what I do.  I love the students.  I would like to succeed.  I am tired.  Is it possible to do this well and survive?  Am I a failure as a teacher every time I decline another opportunity for my students, another weekend clinic to organize? Am I cheating them when I’m unable to teach a lesson because I have to meet the technician in the auditorium to figure out which speakers don’t work?

And one last thing:  parents, I really care about your children.  Telling them the ‘bad news’ about the auditions is incredibly hard for me.  Posting results is emotionally devastating for this teacher.  Comforting the crying child who has been hurt by a decision I had to make is terrible.  Watching them being unable to look me straight in the eye, to see the anger and the resentment, is a terrible thing for someone who came into this because she loves music and children.  However, I know that your child will survive.  I’ve been through this many times before–as a child myself, as a parent, and as a teacher.  His or her growth through this is largely dependent upon how YOU handle it at home–do you see it as a ‘teachable moment’ and a ‘relationship builder’ or is it a GREAT moment to unleash your own resentment at the world by encouraging your child to make excuses, blame the teacher, blame the other students?  I repeat–your child will survive.  The real question here is, will the teacher?


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