Moving Forward — Saying Goodbye and Looking Ahead
I know that a lot of people use December 31st as a time to reflect and set goals for the new year. They think back on all the things that happened and reminisce for just a minute before leaping forward. Teachers are blessed with a second chance at this every year. When our school year comes to an end we can embrace the transition as a time for reflection.
Our extra blessing comes with the realization that we have completed yet another year and we have a few short weeks to look back, think through successes and missteps, celebrate the great things that happened, and make plans for the next year. I won’t lie, I love this time of year. It’s an opportunity to recharge. In these short weeks you get the chance to both look forward and back and you have a tiny little moment to make resolutions for the new year.
To aid my “think back, think ahead” process I always leave myself a little letter. This is a practice that my district encouraged me do my first year of teaching but something that I’ve done on my own every year since. I leave myself a note detailing the things that went well, some opportunities for growth, and words of encouragement for the future.
Yes, it’s a little odd to write to your future self but it’s also a great exercise to think through the past year and put it on paper. I leave the letter at school so that when I open up my desk at school every fall I find a note with a little extra encouragement. It helps me to rejoice in a school year well-done and gives me energy to make the next year even more amazing. I wrote a whole blog post about this. Find it here!
This year is special for me. Usually I write a letter to myself and leave it in my desk at school. Instead, this year my letter to the future was packed in a cardboard box along with all my puppets, books, instruments, lesson plans, and other teacher things. This summer I’ll be making a big change as I leave the school I’ve been at for the last four years, Frances Willard Elementary in Kansas City, Kansas, and make the long trip to Lansing, Michigan where I’ll be taking on a new challenge as the music teacher at the Lansing Charter Academy. I’m excited for the move and for all the challenges ahead. The new school has a strings and guitar program (that I get to oversee), a middle school component (which I’ve never tackled before), and new schedules and faces and weather and opportunities. I’m so excited about what lies ahead and I’m also sad to leave the kids and staff that I’ve lived with day-in and day-out for the last four years.
Taking Apart My Classroom – Before and After Pictures
As I was packing up my room at school and taking everything down from the wall I took a moment to think back through some of the successes and “learning moments” that I’ve had at Frances Willard. I’ve learned a lot! I was especially struck with memories as I took down the “Classroom Rules” from the wall. I really invested in those rules (I even wrote a blog post all about them, read about it here). As I pulled the large posters off the wall I took a minute to think back on the rules that governed my life at FWE. Here are some of the thoughts that went through my head last week.
Treat People Royally
I really try and follow this rule every day that I teach. To say that I care for my kids is an understatement. I really do love them and want them to learn and prosper and grow both as musicians and as people. I care about their development and their well-being. I try and treat them as royalty because that’s who they really are in my eyes. I have been teaching in the urban core and will teach at another urban school in the fall. I have some teacher friends who don’t understand and ask me things like “Well, isn’t it difficult?” or “Do you feel safe there?” or just say really ignorant things based on the assumptions of who they think my kids are. I’ve had good friends say to my face that they thought I taught “in the ghetto.” I just do my best to shake that off. I know they just don’t understand.
I’ll admit, there were times in the last four years where I also questioned why I taught where I do. A year or two ago I asked a third grade teacher, a good friend in my building, “Why do you still teach here? You are an amazing teacher. You could teach anywhere.” And she looked at me and asked without hesitation, “But then who would teach these kids? They need great teachers too.” She was right. These kids, no matter their home life or background, deserve the best teachers and best education. They deserve to be treated royally just as much as any other kids.
When I teach this rule at the beginning of every year I talk to the kids about how they need to do MORE than just the golden rule. Treating someone royally is about more than treating them how YOU want to be treated. It means treating others in the best way that you possibly can. And I always make a point to say to my students, “You know, in my eyes, each one of you really is as important as a king or a queen. You mean that much to me. I want to treat each one of you as if you are one of the most important people in the whole land. I’m going to treat you like royalty! If you treat one another as nicely as you would treat royalty, think of all the amazing fun that we would have.”
Keep Moving Forward
I had a lot of “firsts” at Frances Willard that I’m sure will continue to inform what I do for years to come. I remember a time in my first year of teaching when I was having a formal observation (where my principal was watching and evaluating me). I said something along the lines of “We’re going to try something new and exciting today” and a 5th grader shot right back with “Mr. Row, you’ve said that a lot this year…” My principal laughed. I think that I laughed too… but I definitely learned. It’s okay to be “in progress.” Nobody is perfect. Nobody has it all together. We’re all doing what we can and working to the best of our ability.
The next year I was working through the logistics of a recorder unit and was having major troubles. For example: What do you do with the rest of the class when some kids are testing? Does the rest of the class work “independently” while you listen to 3 or 4 testing at your desk? …because guess what, that didn’t work for my third graders. They needed a task. They needed to be engaged somehow and have something to do. You can’t just say, “practice quietly” and let them go.
In another moment of vulnerability I sat down with my principal at a goal-setting conference and we talked about the problem and some possible solutions. We talked about how to keep the other students engaged while still meeting my ultimate goal of testing every student in a short amount of time. I ended up walking away from that conference with the framework of what would become a set of recorder centers. The kids would rotate through centers and work on a musical task (improvisation/reading/arranging) and one of the centers would be a “testing” center. It didn’t work right away, I had a lot of little snags to figure out, but it eventually became one of the things I was most proud of.
I also remember in that goal-setting conference with my principal, she asked, “So when should I come and do a formal evaluation for you on this?” And I replied, “Well, give me a week and a half and come for class at 11 on Tuesday. You’ll see me implementing it and you’ll see if we sink or swim.” My principal always goes back to that moment as a time where she saw me open up myself to the possibility of failure and the even bigger possibility of growth.
As I was pulling posters down off the wall I came to this poster set of rubrics in the shape of hamburgers (you can get them for FREE here). I remember developing these and first explaining them to my students. A “1” is just a bun with nothing on it, a “2” a bun and burger patty, a “3” is a normal burger fully formed, and a “4” is a deluxe/supersize burger.
I love when we learn a new song or start a new game and I ask my students what burger they think I want them to be at right then. They smile when I say that they should only be at a 1 or a 2 “We’ve only just begun! At the end of the quarter/at the concert you should try and be at a 3 or a 4 but right now you shouldn’t be there yet. You’re still learning! I don’t expect you to have a complete hamburger yet! You don’t know it well enough yet. We’ll keep moving forward next time and by the time we get to the end of the quarter we’ll all make it to a 3 or maybe even a 4 together.”
Nobody is perfect. Nobody has it all together. It’s okay to be “in progress.” Moving forward is a good thing, but it can also be hard. It’s not easy to try new things or to do things in a different way. Just set goals, stay true to what you know, and keep moving forward.
Make Moments Matter
I tell my students: “Don’t waste an opportunity. Sometimes you only get one chance to do something. When you get your chance, don’t be scared. Don’t be overwhelmed. Don’t run off crying before you try. You can do it! Take a chance and do your best. AND ALSO, don’t waste your chance. If you get an opportunity to play the xylophone, don’t sit there goofing off or talking to your neighbor. Really work hard to make each experience your best. You only get music for an hour a week. Only an hour! If you spend even a few minutes goofing off you’ve missed so many important moments that you won’t get back! When it’s your chance you’ve got to take it. Don’t let anything else stop you from doing your absolute best. Make each moment matter like you won’t get any other chance!”
I thought about this a lot these last few weeks. I am proud of all the good work that I’ve done at Frances Willard and all the great accomplishments that my students and I have shared. I really hope that I have made each moment matter with my students. I hope that they know their stuff for the next teacher and that they truly are proficient in music making.
I hope that they remember me as the teacher who showed them new and exciting things, who pushed them to do their best, who taught them songs and instruments and dances and games. I hope that they remember the fun they had and all the ways I showed them that they could do it, or sing it, or play it. I hope they love music and always feel empowered to join in the music making.
I hope they remember me as the person who always waved goodbye to the busses as they rumbled away from school, the teacher who smiled and said hello in the hallway, and the teacher who pushed them to achieve and cheered them on through the process. I hope they remember me fondly and I hope that my love for them shines through. Most of all, I hope that they love music. I hope that something, anything I’ve done has helped foster their love for music. I hope that I have made every moment matter at Frances Willard, I’ve certainly tried. I hope that those moments make a difference in the lives of my beautiful students and I hope that each musical moment stands out in their memory as a time that they felt safe, and felt like part of the community, and felt loved.
I showed this map to my kids on the last week of school and explained that if I tried to commute it just wouldn’t work. I told them that it was a 10 hour drive from Lansing, MI to Kansas City and then (with the older kids) we worked out the math of a 10 hr drive to school plus 8 hours at school plus a 10 hr drive home… it just wouldn’t work no matter how much I wish it would.
So, my letter to myself is packed away in a box in my basement until late July when it will find itself in a U-Haul truck and on it’s way to the middle of Michigan. I’m moving forward. I’m so excited for the opportunities and unknowns in Lansing and all the new students that I will get to love and learn with. I’m also excited about the new friends and colleagues that I will make, I’ve already found some truly great people (Hey there Mid-Michigan Orff Schulwerk Association! See you in the fall!) I can’t wait to have 700 more little faces to treat royally. I’m excited about all the laughs, missteps, successes, and learning that’s ahead. And in all those new things, I can’t wait to make each and every moment matter.