As I prepared for my second year of teaching at YAMA this fall, I forced myself to look ahead to the darker days of winter when the gloss of learning a new instrument starts to fade and motivation issues set in. In the beginning, classroom management is made easy by the fact friendships haven't yet blossomed and the student's eagerness to impress their new teacher. This is when the kids are the spongiest, eager and ready to take on the responsibilities of being a YAMA kid. It is a golden opportunity for the teachers to prepare the kids for the high standards of behavior we expect in the program. I knew that if I was able to set a tone that nurtured responsibility, curiosity, and pride, that when we faced challenging times, these roots would help keep us strong.
They've seen the previous year's YAMA orchestra at school assemblies, heard about the many concerts throughout the year, and seen the buses coming to pick up students for field trips. We talk about respecting our peers, the importance of staying quiet while the teacher is talking, and taking care of our instruments. While these guidelines are crucial, there is a greater need at the heart of the matter.
We can all relate to feeling insecure in a group setting. The fear of making a mistake or some kind of social faux pas can immobilize us, ultimately creating walls that will prevent us from doing our best learning and shining our brightest. I wanted to get to the roots of those apprehensions. How could I make every child feel safe and understand the essential role they play in making their classmates feel the same way?
I spent a lot of time creating routine with the kids in the early weeks. As humans, we rely on routines to help guide our actions. Once routines are established, especially positive and healthy ones, we feel safe exploring, expressing creativity and demonstrating vulnerability. One of our favorite routines in the Preludio violin section is going from rest to play position. Always the same five steps, always done to the best of our abilities, and always looking for ways to make it better.
Keeping a routine gives the students time to practice a very specific set of skills, and while review can sometimes lead to sighs or eye-rolls, it's ultimately showing each student that they can do something very well. There is a fine line between the excitement of learning something new and the frustration at not being able to do it right away. Insert a routine and a reminder that this skill was once difficult, and group morale is immediately boosted.
TRUST & VULNERABILITY
Two words that are challenging and frightening for all of us, yet without these in place how can we have strive, explore, and express? I often have students play for one another. Mistakes are always made, second and third chances given, and my response usually goes something like this, “That was very brave of you to play for us. I loved the way you went for it and how your classmates listened quietly. Thank you for sharing that with us.” I've had students avoid eye contact with me, begging me not to ask them to 'perform,' yet after experiencing positive reinforcement every student is now eager to share their very best music making.
Peer teaching is another way to build trust among the students, and an opportunity to learn a very specific skill. There is a silent understanding, an exchange of vulnerability and trust between 'teacher' and 'student' that creates a tangible feeling of empowerment and pride.
The incoming YAMA kids walk through the door their first day knowing that they are going to be a part of something special. As teachers, we have the opportunity to go beyond teaching the skills needed to play an instrument. The students are handing us their trust, and it's up to us to cultivate an environment where they feel safe to show vulnerability, discover pride, and find their voice.
-Jenny Humphrey, Teaching Artist