There is a certain kind of giddy I get when I think about the students I teach. Every one of them brings to me a renewed sense of the world around me.
When I first started teaching, I worked as an after school music tutor. After a few sessions, I knew that teaching was misunderstood as a profession in the United States. This certainly was not a job for “those who can’t.” Curious on how I could expand my approach, I started the way all of us did before there was google – I asked more experienced teachers for advice.
One afternoon at Waffle House (a cheap diner in Atlanta that was the frequent meeting place before Starbucks arrived) I met with a teacher whom I had respected for many years. I listened as she complained about difficult students, red tape, problems with parents, and lack of resources. She had recently retired and was excited about walking away from nearly 30 years of teaching. At the end of our talk, I asked her if she had any positive advice for me as a new teacher. She said, “Children are empty water glasses, and you are the water pitcher. It is your job to fill all the glasses and keep them full until they leave your class. That is all you can do.”
I thanked her for her input, left Waffle House, and cried all the way home.
How was it that teaching was seen as an exhausting, one way dump of information, and children were seen as empty? True, I may have over-extended the analogy as it applies to most others, but in this scenario it seemed accurate. To this teacher, her work was not much more than just an assembly line. Fill them with facts, most likely by rote, make sure they retain it, and then move them along.
I carried this experience with me for many years, and backed away from teaching. Being only 16 years of age I had not completed my own education, much less had the experience to know why her water glass analogy bothered me so much. I knew it didn’t feel right, but I had no way to articulate an alternative approach.
It wasn’t until I re-united with my mentor some years later that I was able to understand what I wanted to do as a teacher. My mentor, Ms. Stefanie, had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted me to step in as her substitute teacher. I had been removed raising 2 young children, my first child born when I was 21 years of age, which took up most of my time. But I did have the occasional student or two that came to my home for lessons. Despite my withdrawal, Stefanie reached out to me to support her and her students.
We met at a local pasta and pizza place near her home, Bounding with excitement over getting to visit with my favourite person on earth, I found it difficult to focus on anything. In fact, I got lost on my way there because I started to daydream instead of following the mapquest directions I had printed out.
The conversation started like we had just seen each other yesterday. We laughed and reminisced about my early days as a student with her. We talked about my children which she carefully made segway into a discussion about my isolation. I told her I missed music, but I have a feeling she already knew. She made her proposal about teaching for her, and seemed confident that I was the right person for the job.
My mood fell. I was juggling feelings of inadequacy and questioned her faith in me. I shared with her the water glass analogy I had heard when I was a teenager and how much it bothered me. She stayed positive and calm, and gave me the reassuring smile that said everything was about to get better. Then she said, “Laura. You think about everything on your own terms, and through your own eyes. Why should this be any different?”
She gave me a few moments to digest what she had said. Then, she gave me the most powerful piece of advice in my teaching career. She placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “You need to come to the city and teach for me. This way the students can remind you why you love music, just as you did for me.”
In two sentences, my entire perspective on teaching was unbounded. The water glass analogy had bothered me so much because it was one way and removed of passion. I saw students as learning partners. I would be learning as much from them as they would from me and in that exchange, we would both feel a deep love for music. Though Stefanie succumbed to cancer shortly after that conversation, I can relive it in my imagination as though it happened yesterday.
As I enter my 25th year as a teacher, I continue to stay true to Stefanie’s words. Each lesson is an exciting adventure with the student, sharing our love and passion for music. I share everything I know and everything I am, placing myself in a state of vulnerability, rather than authority. In that moment, when the student connects with me, it is then we both realize life has a soundtrack and we are playing along.