Piano, Anyone?

I substitute taught for one school year two years ago– an invaluable experience. However, the next year, I opted for “one on one” teaching and started giving private music lessons in my home instead. Piano lessons to be exact.

That first year of private lessons was as hard as substitute teaching in the public schools. I had an average of 28 students, most of them beginning. There were attention issues and practicing issues and minding issues. Some students didn’t want to play the piano at all and could see no value in learning any kind of music.

This year is a different story all together. Almost all of my problem students quit — the others got older and started to understand music better. My 14 or so new students are mostly teenagers who love playing the piano.

But more significantly, I somehow along the way — through trial and lots of errors — developed into a better teacher. I started to see my students as people with problems outside of learning music. And I wondered about them and worried about them and searched for ways I could be a positive influence in their lives. Even beyond music. And voila! Some of those little terrors have become friends. One hugs me at church every time she sees me. Another brings his dog over for play-time.

She hugs me at church every time she sees me.

She hugs me at church every time she sees me.


Adam brings his dog, Jack, over for play dates with my dogs.

Adam brings his dog, Jack, over for play dates with my dogs.



Don’t get me wrong. I am often impatient and sometimes downright cranky. I still want to give an overwhelming amount of information in each lesson. But I’m starting to feel the importance of being a good teacher. And see the role I play in my students’ lives. I do try to make it fun for all of us. But the only true musical fun seems to be in learning the basics well enough to love playing the piano.


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Final February Friday, 2012

I crossed the valley on the final Friday in February to substitute in a 6th Grade classroom.  The teacher left a good lesson plan with all the papers, books, and materials necessary to implement it.  The students took a vocabulary quiz followed by a two page math test.  During the morning meeting they recited a metric rap which I wish I had copied to use and share in other classrooms.

A policeman came in for an hour to talk to the students, his fifth session out of six.  Next week they’ll graduate from what they call the NOVA program.  The current topic of discussion was survival.  He divided the classroom into three groups with a captain for each group.  Then told them, “You and your teammates have survived a plane crash in the mountains.  No one will be looking for you for two weeks.  In order to survive, you must walk to the closest town, 200 miles away.  There is plenty of food around you  in the mountains, but the temperature drops to below freezing during the night.  What three items will you carry with you to help you survive?  You have three minutes to decide as a team what those three items will be.”

All three teams chose steel wool to take with them.  None of them chose batteries.  He explained that to start a fire with steel wool you must have batteries or the steel wool is worthless.  Two groups chose water purification tablets.  But, as he explained, mountain water is some of the cleanest water available anywhere.  Other items would be more valuable to them on their survival trek.  One group wanted a wool blanket. It obviously wouldn’t spread far enough if it had to be shared with ten people.  Two groups chose a knife so they could kill wild animals for food and to make sparks by rubbing it against flint.  The problem with this is that probably no one would be able to distinguish flint among the mountain rocks and pebbles nor did they have enough experience to kill animals with a knife.

So what did he recommend they take?  Steel wool and batteries along with a hatchet, a much more versatile tool — and easier to use — than a knife.

I mention this experience as an example of one of the valuable gems I’ve collected while substitute teaching.  These gems are useful snippets of knowledge which have enriched my life.  Another one presented itself just a few minutes later when our class went to the library.  The students gathered in the kiva to hear a story read by the librarian.  She chose Wonder Horse by Emily Arnold McCully.  It’s a true story of a man who taught his horse how to read, count, and differentiate colors.  They listened more quietly than I had heard them all day.  They were completely taken in by this story, as was I.  I can’t wait to share it with my grandkids.

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1st Grade, Regular Class

Yesterday I worked with a 1st Grade, special needs class. Today I substituted in a regular 1st Grade class, different school, different school district.  I’d like to compare and contrast the two experiences (one of the exercises we completed during reading today).

Class Size

Yesterday’s class had 14 students, 1 substitute teacher, and 2 aides.  Today there were 29 students and one substitute teacher.

Room and Equipment

The special needs classroom had a huge skylight in the middle of the ceiling but no windows in the room.  It also had 16 Mac computers, one on each of the 16 desks.  The desks were arranged in two sets of eight, four long and two deep facing each other.  The center of the room was left free.  It was there that the students pulled their chairs from the desks and set them on their name tags so they could participate in the morning meeting.  There was a huge bathroom built to accommodate wheelchairs.  A microwave and refrigerator accessorized the room’s own kitchen nook.  All of the work was done on a Prometheus (I think that’s what they’re called) white board.  The lessons were stored on the computer, all animated, with sound, and were made to tap and move the elements around on the board.  The music was pulled from iTunes and the videos from YouTube.  Because it was a holiday, the students were allowed to watch a movie which came from Netflix.

The regular classroom had no windows — that I noticed — and no skylight.   Actually, I’ve never been in a classroom where the blinds were not closed, blocking the students from looking out or outsiders from looking in.   No windows equals no big deal.  There were 36 desks in 3 long rows, divided in the middle.  All the desks faced the same way.  There was a Mac laptop on the teacher’s desk but no other computers in the classroom.  I used a regular white board during the “teaching moments” and the students used traditional paper and pencils.  The back of the room was left open for reading.  No bathroom.  No kitchenette.  No Prometheus board.  This classroom had shelves and shelves of books, DVDs, and an old tape/CD player.  There were tubs of games, flashcards, and other hands-on learning aids.  It felt just like the schools I attended –and loved– as a child.


All of the students in the special needs class did their work either on the Prometheus Board, orally, or wrote with their finger in the air.  I didn’t see a pencil or a piece of paper in the room.  The morning meeting was all the work they actually did.  The rest of the time was spent playing with toys, on the computers, or watching the movie from Netflix.  In the afternoon, the class enjoyed a Valentine’s party.

The regular 1st Grade class wrote in their journals, practiced their handwriting, read both  in groups and individually, went to an assembly and heard the Junior High School band, and went to an art class where they learned about Andy Warhol.  Then they drew a portrait of either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  Next week they’ll Warholize it.

In Conclusion

My conclusions?  I’m not sure I’ve made any yet.  But I feel like I’m one of the blind men who felt only one part of an elephant.  I may know how my part feels, but being blind, I can’t see the whole picture.  Actually that’s a pretty good metaphor for the way I usually feel as a substitute teacher.

But that said,  it doesn’t matter what a classroom looks like or what equipment is installed therein.  Everything is there to support  the teacher, the catalyst for the learning process to exist.  The teacher only needs the equipment he/she prefers for his/her style of teaching.  It’s the teacher who can channel energy, awaken desire, create a love for learning.  And it’s the teacher who must adapt personal knowledge and experience to the needs of the classroom as a whole as well as the individual needs of each student.  A daunting task — as every teacher already knows.

Looking toward the future, I’ve decided to enroll in a certification program through my state board of education.  I don’t know if I’ll ever have my own class, but I do know that there is a world of learning for me to embrace before I can become a truly valuable substitute teacher.

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Valentine’s Day, special needs . . .

I drove 40 minutes around the north shore of Utah Lake to work a half day in a special education classroom of 14 students, 1st Grade.  There were two bolters (they tried to leave the room every chance they got), one student with Down Syndrome, a few autistic ones, and Kevin who had been a preemie baby.  The rest of the children were just somewhat behind in their learning.

Though I was hired to be the teacher for the day, one of the regular aides ran the classroom and I took her place as an aide.  This left me in the unique position to actually “aid” the students in the morning’s education process.

Kevin really caught my fancy.   He had blonde hair gelled into a Mohawk and sat in a wheel chair because of limited use of his legs.  Before school started, he asked me to play puzzles with him, which I did.  He couldn’t quite place those pieces so he yelled, “I need help.  Please help me.”  I helped him turn the pieces to make them fit.  Every time one did, he’d clap and yell, “I did it!  I did it!”  He also kissed my hand, told me he loved me, and asked if I would sit with him in their morning meeting.

He had a hard time concentrating and would slip off into unknown (to me) streams of oblivion.  But if I kept my mouth close to his ear and repeated what the teacher was teaching, he could make the appropriate responses.  Every time he did, he continued to clap and yell, “I did it!” Once he almost fell asleep sitting straight up in his chair.  Other times he rocked gently back and forth in his seat.

Just a few comments and observations:

I actually love being an aide.  I’m not responsible for the class routine or the overall teaching.  I’m just there to assist the teacher — and the students.  I can draw from my own experience to find ways to reach an individual child.  For example, Kevin reminded me of my granddaughter, Alex, who was a preemie baby herself.  She sits in a wheel chair because her legs don’t work.  She often kisses my hands and tells me she loves me.  She rocks back and forth and asks for help.  Because I love Alex with every bit of my heart, I could easily love Kevin.  And aid him.

I smiled a lot at Jada, who did no talking while I was there.  But when I got up to leave she crossed her wrists in front of her chest, her sign that she was hugging me goodbye.

When I sat by the little Down Syndrome boy, he took my hand and played with it with his chubby fingers.  He’d grin and play and play and grin.

They showed unconditional love to me.  They trusted me.  They reminded me of the great responsibility it is to be a teacher and the powerful influence for good a teacher can be in the life of a child. 

I hope I can follow their example and show the kind of love and trust they showed to me. 


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Since last time . . .

Substitute Teacher Artist

Substitute Teacher Artist (Photo credit: Todd Berman)

I’m in a new life — since the last time I wrote.  Not actually, of course.  But metaphorically, yes.  I decided to become a substitute teacher. Again.  So, I went to the orientation in 3 school districts, passed the background test, and had my fingers printed. Since the middle of September, 2011, I’ve been a substitutue teacher in the Alpine, Provo, and Canyons School Districts.  I’ve taught every grade in the elementary schools including pre-kindergarten and a few classes in the middle and high schools.   I’ve even taught in some charter schools.  I’m in one today.  🙂

Do I enjoy this new-old profession of mine?  Yes and no.

Yes:  it’s a new experience every day with completely new opportunities and challenges;  any problem — no matter how difficult or taxing — can be endured for a day; I’m seeing vast and varied examples of classroom organization and can contrast and compare methods every day (exciting); and, I’m getting a more accurate picture of  this world of education.

No:  Every classroom is different with different standards and  routines which must be assimilated within about the first 15 minutes of the day; students rarely behave as well for a substitute teacher as they do for their everyday one; and, sometimes there is no lesson plan or a poorly conceived one which unfairly hinders  the performance of the students, not to mention my own performance.

So.  Why am I writing this today?  During school?

No lesson plan.  The students do all their work on their computers.  🙂

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It isn’t my fault . . .

So. We’re in the middle of Davis Guggenheim‘s brouhaha, the backlash from “Waiting for Superman.” And the nation is talking. In fact, we’re talking a lot, mostly about — you guessed it — Davis Guggenheim. And the ruckus is growing! There’s even infighting — right here in River City (if you’ll forgive a casual nod to Music Man). Those in public education are denouncing Charter Schools. Teacher’s Unions are fighting elected officials. Teacher themselves have become martyrs on the fires of this raging debate. And children are still being left behind right and left.

And while we are covering our own backs and defending our pet positions, Michelle Rhee — the newly resigned Chancellor of Education in the District of Columbia Public School System — actually did something more than just talk about reform! She fired teachers, closed schools and bucked the unions. According to Wikipedia, by 2010 (3 years after Rhee’s appointment as Chancellor), the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System reading pass rates had increased by 14 percentage points, and math pass rates had increased by 17 percentage points. Her measures, both loved and hated depending on who is the judge, made a significant difference for the good in her district. D.C.’s children are getting a better education. So why exactly did she resign? Her boss and the man who appointed her, Adrian Fenty, lost the last election. With him gone, Rhee lost her support. And the D.C. public schools lost Rhee.

If education in the United States has been declining since 1970, when it was the best in the world, then something has gone dreadfully awry in our public school system. Most of us do agree on that point. But if our primary goal is to pass the blame onto any other sector but our own, then we will never discover what is wrong, let alone fix it. We can either all stand together working to improve education for our children or we can continue casting blame at each other. Even the witch in “Into the Woods” knew that the stance “It isn’t my fault . . .” was a non-starter. But one way or the other we will realize the inevitable, “united we stand, divided we fall.”

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To Wait or Not to Wait . . .

Okay, now that I’ve wet my feet a little in this topic of education, I realize I’m a little late to the party! Issues about education in America have been debated heatedly for the last half century — and where was I? Ironically, getting an education! And by today’s standards, an outdated one, I’m afraid. The fault is mine, not any of the institutions which I attended. You see, sometime after I married, had children, and graduated from college (yes, in that order) I got so involved with the issues of being a mother and wife while trying to feel some sort of accomplishment in the “I-am-a-woman-honor-me” world we live in, I forgot all about “life-long learning.” So now at 61 years of age, I know something about writing, shooting candids at weddings, and enjoying my grandchildren — but precious little else. That means I would not be a valuable asset on any school board. Nor do I qualify even to substitute teach the kindergarten class at my local elementary school.

Notwithstanding the above, I am late, but I am here now. And what was the first thing I ran smack-dab into? The debate over Davis Guggenheim‘s “Waiting for Superman.” A regular brouhaha, this debate. If you don’t know anything about the 2010 film, it was recently released on DVD. Maybe blue-ray. I can’t keep up with the technology. Remember, I’m a Grandma and old, with an outdated education. Anyway. You can visit any Redbox and rent it. In the meantime, watch this trailer.

To sum, the premise of the film is two-fold: that all kids deserve a great education, and our American system of education is broken — and has been for a long time. To illustrate just how broken the system is, Guggenheim tracks the efforts of a half dozen children and their parents’ attempt to gain admittance into different charter schools across the country, subsequently bypassing their failing public schools. Some of the highlighted issues are:

  1. Poor student performance
  2. Ineffective teachers
  3. Unions which work for adults but not for children
  4. Antiquated bureaucracy

I also watched several interviews on Youtube featuring Davis Guggenheim as he discussed his reasons for creating “Waiting for Superman” and his hope for education reform in the future. Guggenheim said that he primarily wanted to bring people to the table and get the discussion going.

Well, the discussion is going — and the more I read and listen, the more I see how complicated the issues are. In fact, it’s a bit overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion, most of them conflicting. To find out if I were the only one in the nation who had not previously heard of our broken system, I posted the above trailer on Facebook with this comment:

“Waiting for Superman” has been causing a ruckus in the education world. Please watch it and tell me what you think.

Some of the comments I received follow.

From Germany, Rob Inderrieden wrote:

I don’t think you can lay the blame squarely on any one sector, but I personally feel that the teachers’ unions have to accept a large portion of the responsibility [for our broken education system]. In them, we have created an organization that cares more about the adults in its ranks than it does for the students they are supposed to be teaching! I absolutely feel that the unions are necessary — but there has to be some significant reform, which gives power back to the individual teachers.

Writing from Portland Oregon, Rebecca Langford says:

I do not work in our school system but know some teachers who say that the union does not protect them on a personal or local level, and the federal government imposes ridiculous amounts of paperwork on them that does nothing to help the students gain a better education — just the opposite. It hinders their time to teach students what they know is needed on an individual basis.

Roseanne Yoakum from Tulsa, Oklahoma, comments:

The unions, especially NEA, are killing the schools. Most teachers have no incentive or creativity or care to give any child [the] extra individual attention they need. That said, the breakdown of the family unit has caused all kinds of problems, including making schools irrelevant as part of a true community. Parents [in the past] were much more involved. They also played an integral part in teaching their kids at home. Now parents don’t have time and leave that up to the schools. Teachers (and children) no longer have the help they need that parents [once] provided.

From Branson, Missouri, Angela Johnson Langford states:

As a former school board member, whose job it was to advocate for the children, I hated teachers’ unions. We were in a position to fire 15+ teachers or freeze salaries for a year, after giving them a huge raise the year before, and the union wanted to fire the teachers. These were their peers, who would be jobless, to get what, less than a $1,000 per year pay increase? Don’t even get me started, I have never seen such selfishness as I did with the people who are extremely involved in these unions. How would losing 15 teachers affect the children’s education? They honestly didn’t care.

And lastly, from Oahu, Hawaii, Tailee Dean writes:

Teachers by nature want to please everyone — the parents, students, administration, fellow teachers, PTA boards, and the list goes on. Teachers are easily abused and need protection. . . . Recently, there has been discussion about using student test scores to determine a teacher’s pay and jobs. The problem with that is even amazing teachers cannot force a child to learn. Students have to be willing and attentive. A teacher cannot control whether [or not] a student chooses to do his homework or if parents support them. [The issues in] education are so difficult because there are so many variables that affect it. Parents, teachers, administrators, and the surrounding community need to work together, so you cannot blame just one [faction] for everything.

Almost everyone agrees that the education system in the United States is broken. The big question Davis Guggenheim asks is who are the “Supermen” who will step in and fix the system, and I ask how — pray tell — will they ever be able to do it?

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Education Explored

Education”  is the accumulation of what one learns, remembers, and applies.  Three steps.  It’s not good enough just to know something — although one could arguably win Jeopardy with just an accumulation of remembered facts.  But it’s knowing what to do with those facts and applying that knowledge to make things better that is the mark of a well educated man — or woman.  It’s like planting a seed (learning something), nourishing that seed  (trying it out in real life), and harvesting the fruit (the resulting pleasure or pain). Those three steps combined is the essence of education.

Wait a minute, you shout at me.  Did I read pain in the paragraph above?

Yes you did.  Why do you ask?

Because I don’t like pain.  You see, it’s . . . well, . . . painful.

Ah!  You want to avoid the pain.  Hmmm.  I’m not sure that is possible.  But if you insist on trying, then you’ll have to think about what you’ve done.  You’ll have to discover if you brought the pain upon yourself or if it was unavoidable, no matter what you thought or how you behaved.  So think about it.  Examine it.

For  example, I just returned from choir practice.  I am the accompanist,  not an exceptional one.  I didn’t practice the music since the last rehearsal  because, first, I couldn’t remember which songs we were learning and, second and more importantly, I didn’t actually think about choir from the time I walked out the door the last time until I sat down at the piano before the rehearsal began this morning.

So.  I could play most of the music reasonably well,  but every time the choir came to one particular measure, I massacred it.  It was scratches on the chalkboard painful.  After I suffered the pain 4 times, (I can be a slow learner) I actually looked at the notes one by one.  That’s when I discovered an #A accidental in the first of the measure which I missed the second time it appeared.  Every time I missed it.  Painful mistake after mistake.

For you non-music people, an accidental is only marked the first time the need appears in a measure.  Every other incident of that note in the remainder of the measure is unmarked.  It must be observed without a reminder.   An easy solution would have been for me to write in that second #A.  But I had no pencil.  Though I made a mental note to bring a pencil with me next time, it didn’t help me play better immediately.  If I don’t want to repeat the mistake  next week during the performance, I’ll have to change.  Learn the music.  If I don’t, the pain is already there waiting for me with his cousin, embarrassment.

Now expand the above example to include all of  life experience.   If you don’t like where you are at the moment, if — let’s say — you’re in too much pain, then it’s time to examine your pain and see from whence it came,  learn from it, and change what you have the power to change.  I have some vague memory about something to do with an unexamined life.   I think John Milton said something about it.  No!  Milton talked about virtue and innocence.   It was  . . . think  . . . think . . . think . . . Socrates.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

That’s what we’ve been discussing.  Right?  Well then, if “examine”  means to probe, appraise, analyze, review, or study — just to mention a few– then Socrates is saying that even apart from practicing the piano, the experiences of life must be examined — or why have them?  It’s in the examination that the real learning begins.  In that light, examination is the home of education.

So we’ve discovered one purpose of education!  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it nicely, “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.  The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

Good.  Think critically.  But is that enough? Actually, if you think about it critically, a criminal could do that.  And Dr. King knew that.  His next sentence states, “But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”  Gregory Louie, a science teacher who loves 7th Graders speaks to this issue when he says, “What is education?  It is a life-long process of recognizing one’s gifts and talents, of putting those gifts and talents to good use in service of the greater good. Education leads a person to find their place in society with all the attending rights and responsibilities of adulthood.”

In Mr. Louie’s statement above I noticed a few important things.  The first is that three step process we talked about in the beginning.  In recognizing our gifts and talents we take the first step (plant the seed).  Next we use those gifts and talents to make life better for those around us (nourish the seed).  That’s how  we find our rightful place in society with all the rights and privileges that entails (harvest the fruit).  Secondly,  his words, to use our gifts and talents in service of the greater good, implies high moral conduct, a sense of right and wrong, a standard of behavior above any individual’s private needs and desires.

It must be so,  for if we live in communities of any sort and reap the myriad benefits of that association, then we share a primary responsibility  to act for the betterment of the community as a whole, even if we must sacrifice some of our own personal pleasure to do so.  If we know enough — are well enough educated — to be willing to sacrifice our time and talents in the service of others — and do it consistently — then our education has become  a crown upon our head, a sheild of protection girding our loins, and a sword of valor in our hands.  Education has become the most important single achievement of our lifetime,  one sure thing that raises our consciousness and propels us forward — even “to infinity and beyond,” to quote Buzz Lightyear.

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