Tubas and Teaching

vintage music closed shop
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Whew. Today I can breathe. Fall break has arrived.

I just finished the first quarter of my eleventh year at my current school and my ninth year as the principal. It doesn’t seem possible. Truth be told, there always seem to be new challenges and in many ways, the job has become more difficult (maybe just my age). However, the kids remain constant. Don’t get me wrong. They change. Their behaviors change. The kids I work with now are different than the kids I had eight years ago, but surprisingly every year junior high KIDS keep showing up at my school. Kids. They are some of the best “button pushers” in the world, but that is part of the experience of being a tween. It makes them aggravating and adorable.

On Thursday evening, I was running on fumes. I attended our band concert (which is always uplifting). The director asked me to help return a couple of tubas to school (since I have a truck). After the concert, a young man approached me to let me know I was supposed to take his tuba. The tuba was bigger than he was, so I helped him carry it to its case. Enroute I saw Jairo — a percussionist in the band and a student in the class I am currently teaching. Jairo is bright, he is kind, and he also has a mischevious intelligence about him.

I told him, “Hey Jairo, I’ll bet your head could fit inside this tuba.”

He quickly replied, “Can I try?”

Yep. Why not?

So Jairo proceeded to stick his head inside the bell of the tuba, pulling it out and proclaiming, “It fits!” He gave me a fist bump and ran off to tell friends about his success.

That is quintessential junior high. Pure joy upon discovering that your head fits in the bell of a tuba.

It is interactions like these that keep me going — that remind me that my purpose is to serve kids, not to attend to the bureaucratic nightmare that much of education has become. As a principal, it has NEVER been kids that have me on the edge of making a change. Throughout my career, two things have become increasingly frustrating (again, maybe it’s my age). Before proceeding, I want to make it clear that many of these issues stem from national and state directives and the buck is simply passed down to districts and schools.

My first (and most significant frustration) is a lack of understanding by decision-makers (national, state, and local) about what ensuring equitable opportunities for all students is really like for our teachers and staff members. I’m sure this is true at all schools, but I really feel it at our Title I school where we serve such a diverse student population (academic, socio-economic, racial, linguistic, social-emotional, etc.). Data can be a critical, and helpful tool for making decisions, but if you don’t spend substantial time at a school and in classrooms, it can also paint an incomplete or even inaccurate picture. Data must include observation and anecdotal evidence. High academic expectations are absolutely critical for our kids, but to get beyond “crisis mode,” we have to ensure that the basic physical and social-emotional needs of students are met. To do that, we need more teachers, counselors, para-professional support, behavioral specialists, and material resources. I’ve heard people in our community say things like, “Just focus on teaching.” Those are people who never spend time in schools, or they simply have no sense of (or concern for) the greater good. Public education is about the greater good. Educators want to be heard, but “hearing” requires spending enough time in schools, or classrooms to truly understand the challenges teachers face.

The second thing that destroys passion for educators is all of the “extra stuff” they are asked to do that has a tenuous (at best) connection to helping kids. Professional development that is not relevant, seemingly endless meetings and training that pull teachers out of the classroom, a lack of substitute teachers that results in requiring teachers to cover classes during their prep period (a result of a state that struggles to place value on education). I know the teachers at my school could add to this list. As a school administrator, I have my own concerns. I have always tried to prioritize being visible on campus, observing in classrooms, and interacting with kids, but I increasingly see my email inbox and calendar high-jacked by “other things” making it difficult to stay focused on what is most important. Our students.

As a society, we frequently make statements about how we value educators — specifically teachers. I know that in our school community and district we have many supporters and advocates, and for that I am thankful. But, I’m not convinced that as a society we are really listening to what educators have to say. Obviously, a truly living wage is one way we honor teachers, but even more important is actually taking the time to see and hear what they need. I believe that most educators are more than willing to do what is needed to meet the needs of the whole child — they just need the resources and support necessary to do it without running themselves into the ground.

So here I am, in my favorite coffee shop on the first day of Fall Break getting some frustration out of my mind and onto paper.

In the meantime, I will do my best to find hope in the little things — like the fact that Jairo’s head fits in a tuba. That is something worthy of celebration.

Thoughts represented in this blog post are my own and are not intended to represent any individual or organization.

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