First a disclaimer, my dad is not a teacher. He has been a Pastor, Chaplain, Chaplain Trainer, Corporate Trainer, and Suicide Prevention Trainer. In all of these roles he has taught me many things. In the next few paragraphs I will explore and attempt to share some of these ideas in relationship to how we manage, recruit, and retain students in our programs. Key ideas will be:
- Whatever you do, do with passion, dedication, love, and excellence.
- People matter before awards, honors, material items, and performance goals.
- Treat everyone with dignity and respect.
- Never lose sight of the big picture for the small gain.
- “If you aren’t understood you aren’t communicating…communication is a 2-way street.
- Make a difference, get involved, LEAD.
I believe that the number one way we manage the choral classroom is to approach the job with passion, dedication, love, and excellence. I have watched this time and time again. He loves his work, he is dedicated and strives for excellence. People are drawn to this dedication and passion. If you love what you do, it will show, kids will respect you for it. I am often in awe of the reality of being a choral director. In many ways I get to play each and every day. I get to be a part of the process of making beautiful music and get to hang out with some amazing young folks in the process. In the 19 years I have spent in the classroom I have witnessed multiple times the impact that this makes. Students sense how much you care about them and if you truly care, you have won the first battle in managing the classroom.
To my dad people matter more than just about anything else. He has had the good fortune to be in many positions and has received many honors, however these are not the things that drive him. People drive him, the work he does with and for people is what matters. As choral directors it is easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day push to excel. The concert can matter more than the current issues faced by our students. I think we need to constantly step back and realize that life is about priorities. If we focus on what is truly important, the other stuff seems to figure itself out. My dad was never too busy to stop and help people. I have witnessed him helping elderly ladies with household repairs, filling sandbags during floods, making trips to Haiti after the earthquake there, and spending time in Joplin MO after a major tornado devastated that city. All of this happened while he was very busy, he could have claimed to be too busy, but never did.
The third lesson I learned from my dad was to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I think the best example of this was watching my dad with his cousin Lester and his brother Danny. Lester was several years older than my dad, and he had Downs Syndrome. He had a hard time communicating, in fact could be near impossible to understand. I watched my dad numerous times sit and “visit” with Les and carry on long conversations. He would tease him about eating (he had a major affinity towards fried chicken). Les was a cherished member of the family. My uncle Danny was also a special needs individual. When just a baby Danny had a disorder that would leave him paralyzed on his right side and plagued with seizures. My dad loved his younger brother, I remember one visit that he made to my dad’s house where my dad set him up with a spatula and the grill so he could do the cooking or the evening. This made my uncle Danny light up. Being a contributor to the family dinner was just the thing he needed to smile and feel a part of the event. This has been a constant guide to me in my classroom. Each student, no matter their ability, their story, their talent level, or their contribution deserves respect. They deserve to have the same experience as the most talented and high achieving student.
Next my dad taught me never to lose sight of the big picture for a small gain. This was a constant theme that I have witnessed over and over again. The big picture is always prevalent. My dad would say it this way “Never sacrifice on the alter of the temporary that which is eternal.” To be honest, there are many things that we as choral directors know will get us to a performance faste,r that might not be the best way to achieve the goal. Often we are tempted to drive the rehearsal from the piano, pushing students forward by rote on literature that may be a bit above their ability level. If we take the piano away from them too early, they will never be able to read it. I would argue that our ability to manage goes up when students are being appropriately challenged. When we have an expectation that they will be actively engaged in the musicality of the classroom. Being pushed to listen, read, think, create, and develop on their own. This takes time, building musical literacy is painful at times, but necessary to the development of our students.
Communication is key in a classroom. I have heard my dad say many times “If you aren’t understood you aren’t communicating…communication is a 2-way street.” Often we say something once, or we talk to a choir that is not listening. I believe that the words that are said within the context of a rehearsal should be brief but effective. We should look for signs of communication, strive to connect with them on an emotional level. Help them to understand what good music is made of. And most importantly teach them the importance of communicating with an audience. Help them understand the power that is present in good musical composition and how it can heal the soul. Next time you speak to your choir, look around. How is the message being received? My choirs often hear me say 2 things one is “when I am talking you are not” and the second is “I’ll wait!” The second one has been referred to by a few choir students as my way to guilt them into submission…whatever works! This is a huge classroom management tool because it allows the classroom minutes to be used efficiently and effectively.
The final lesson I learned from my dad was to make a difference, get involved, and LEAD. From the time I was a small child my dad was all about making a difference for the community around him. He has been involved in Law Enforcement Chaplaincy in one way or another for as long as I can remember. He has worked with drug and alcohol treatment patients, he has helped victims of disaster, and has been involved in numerous critical incident stress debriefings throughout the state of ND. In fact, if there is a major traumatic event in Western ND, he will probably be there within days to work with the first responders to help them deal with their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I admire this a great deal. I take serious the drive to get involved and be a leader. This can happen in your community, in the music world, and all over. When your students see you involved in the school community it makes a difference. Go to games and activities. Understand who students are when they aren’t singing. Spend time getting to know who they are. I have often found that students who can, at first, be annoying have a story that helps you understand the “why.” Often when I understand the story I can work more effectively, and I can understand their behavior. Let students see you lead. Share with them what you are involved in outside of the classroom and school And, most importantly, allow them opportunities for leadership. I don’t have to do everything by myself. I often have to allow students to do things that I could do faster and more effectively than they can, however part of the process of learning is the struggle. Sometimes sending them home frustrated to work on a solo or section part on their own is the best tool for THEIR learning. Allowing them to be independent is a gift that we give our students. It’s not about them needing us, it’s about THEM!
As I close, I would like to leave you with this quote: “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be.” Rita Pierson (Educator)