Growing up, I found myself living under my brother’s shadow. Although I looked up to him, the time would come for me to blaze my own trail. Like my father, my brother became a pastor. My path would be different.
One Sunday before heading off to college, a church elder asked if I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps. To his dismay, I answered, “No.” Expecting the conversation to be over, he asked a second question: “Why not?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Because my feet are music shaped.”
If you are a music teacher, I suspect that you too had a defining moment when you realized that your feet were music shaped. I also suspect that one or more influential music teachers changed your life so much, that you joined the profession.
If you are a Christian teacher, I suspect that you have also contemplated how to live your faith in the classroom. In 2018, I had the privilege to share my thoughts with the NAfME Collegiate Chapter at Wheaton College. The following thirteen points are from that presentation:
1. Be Open to God’s Work
This means accepting His placement, whether it be at a public school, or a private college. When in the classroom, our job is to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17 – NIV). In education, giving back to Caesar means bringing about learning through best teaching practices. It also means respecting administrators, collaborating with colleagues, and putting student needs first.
2. Love People the Way They Need to be Loved
We are made in the image of God and will serve Him best when we see Jesus in each student. We learn at different speeds, so adjust pacing and instruction so that no student is left behind.
3. Reflect on God’s Word
Sanctification includes regular church attendance. Nevertheless, there are times when we get off task, doubt our worth, or question the value of what we do. Here is what His word tells us:
Philippians 4:8 (NIV) – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.
Joshua 1:9 (ESV) – Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV) – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.
Isaiah 41:10 (ESV) – Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Galatians 6:9 (ESV) – And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Over the years, I have failed to use the most powerful tool in the teaching toolbox because of my own arrogance or time mismanagement. HOWEVER, it is never too late to start praying. Knowing that the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf, all one needs to say are five simple words or less: Jesus bless my teaching. Amen!
5. Always Encourage and Never Discourage
Courage is the ability to do something frightening. When we encourage, we inspire our students to face challenges with courage. When we discourage, we dissuade our students so that they face challenges apart from courage.
6. Praise Publicly and Discipline Privately
Often, music teachers offer praise that is vague, or praise that reflects back onto the teacher. For example, saying that a student’s counting is “good” does not pinpoint or reinforce what is good about it. In addition, saying “I like your counting” uses the personal pronoun “I,” which reflects back onto the teacher. On the other hand, praise that is specific and focused on the process is more likely to reinforce desired behavior. An example is as follows: “Your accurate and even counting demonstrates an advanced level of rhythmic musicianship!”
When disciplining a student, do it privately. In addition, ask “what” instead of “why.” Often, there is a tolerable explanation for a behavior and asking “what” will yield an honest answer. For example, if a student is tardy, say the following: “I noticed that you entered the classroom late. What happened?” (After 35 years of teaching, I can assure you that asking “why” often leads to a dishonest answer. I surmise that “why” questions the motive behind the behavior and not the behavior itself.)
7. Look to Others for Inspiration
Take advice from mentors, colleagues, counselors, saints, and even historical figures. Here are some wonderful words of wisdom:
Mother Teresa – Let no one ever come to you without leaving better.
Bernard of Clairvaux – There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.
George Washington Carver – How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.
8. Standards are Our Friend
Standards provide a framework for teaching. They also guide and defend pedagogical and repertoire choices. For example, if you program a sacred work and are challenged to justify its place in the curriculum, be prepared to show how it meets state and national fine arts standards. By doing so, you bring credit to your teaching and preserve the sacred work.
9. Turn Your Word Into Gold: The Art of Enforceable Statements for the School
This splendid resource from the Love and Logic Institute Inc. provides a model for healthy communication.
10. You are More than Your Emotions
We can make rash decisions when our feelings are involved. In the heat of the moment, ask yourself, “Is it fact or feelings?” (When in doubt, sleep on that email response before hitting “send.”)
11. Be Patient
Remind yourself and students that good things generally take time, while bad things often happen instantly. (If you doubt this, think about the last time your ensemble rehearsed an overly-challenging work!)
12. Be on Fire – but Don’t Burn Out
We burn out when we fail to understand the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. An unannounced fire drill during the final dress rehearsal is an inconvenience. Cancer is a problem.
Let light shine on all that is good!
Rev. Dr. John W. Kleinig – While a blind man is unable to see, a sighted man could choose to see, or choose to close his eyes. However, a sighted man can only see as long as he remains in the light.
Matthew 5:16 (NIV) – In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.
In closing, I would like to share a story about God’s presence during a most unusual middle school field trip…
It was January, 2019 and my lead trombone player Sam had lost his mother to cancer. Due to cold weather, our Wednesday after-school rehearsal was canceled and rescheduled for Friday. Knowing how tight-knit our Jazz Band was, both my Superintendent and School Board President asked me to take the kids to the Friday evening wake. We would go to support Sam.
Once rehearsal ended, we gathered in the cafeteria, ate pizza, and then boarded the bus. But before we departed, I learned that most of my students had never been to a funeral visitation. So, I took a few minutes to describe the experience, to explain etiquette, and to answer questions.
Upon arrival, my students entered the visitation room and surrounded Sam. Instantly, a smile came across his face. Sam was back with the band and all was well. And then it happened. Ben, a quiet and thoughtful 8th grader, asked Sam if he could pray for him. Sam nodded yes. Placing his right hand on Sam’s left shoulder, Ben bowed his head, closed his eyes, and prayed, “Dear God, please be with Sam and his family. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.”
In an instant, God’s work was done. And that day, living my faith in the classroom was stepping aside and letting God work through Ben. I learned that the light was there. And by remaining in it, I was able to see. We all could see.