Guest post by Patrick Nearing
Last spring, my students and I had our first concert together. I was so proud of these students for everything they had accomplished. I was the first music teacher at their school in at least eight years. I was very grateful to land at this elementary school after a very difficult first year of teaching at another school. It was so rewarding to see everyone finding their voice and hamming it up like crazy. In particular, one student had the biggest smile, and his excitement was clear as he sang at the top of his lungs.
When I started my second year of teaching, I was again the new teacher in the building. I started right away, trying to learn every student's name. A music teacher sees all the students, so no small task. But as you all know, some students let you know who they are right away.
This third-grade boy was drawing my attention, William. He would enter the music room and proceed to do everything I asked him not to do. I would ask William if he had permission to touch this or that; he was sure that he didn't need permission.
William was interested in doing only what made him happy. He would often leave the classroom and "elope." Distracting other students was not an offense; they had important things to discuss. While every other student waited quietly to enter the music room, William would walk in like he owned the place. Talk about a self-determined person; William was not worried that his behavior might cost him friends. He just seemed convinced that everything would be fine.
My first challenge was to bring William into class and keep him there. With his homeroom teacher and the principal, we agreed that doors would be kept locked, and if William left the room, he would not be allowed to return until he spoke to the principal. It took some time, but eventually, he was settling in when he arrived in class. William wanted to "play" the piano, and I told him he could sometimes come in during my prep time if it were okay with his homeroom teacher. William was not interested in learning how to play; like everything else, he wanted to show me what he could do. William played his own song, and it was always the same ideas, though they were put together in various ways. He was so pleased when he was given a special time to play for the talent show; he was the opening act!
William figured out that using his manners earned him more time on the piano, and as we began to build some mutual respect, I could see him making an effort to manage his behavior during class. This didn't happen overnight, and William had plenty of days when he was back to his old tricks, but bit by bit, he worked at making improvements. I learned that William was interested in Dinosaurs and Dragons, he loved drawing, and he liked fancy pencils. I gathered up some things and left them on my desk or workstation, where William would see them. It never took long for William to see those things and boldly told me, "I want that, you should give it to me," and we would make a deal for how he could earn a reward.
What I learned from William was that he is a kind boy with a vivid imagination who likes to draw and tell stories about his drawing. I also learned that while he will participate in music class successfully, he has his own musical ideas that are as important to him as his stories and drawings. With a little encouragement, William showed me the importance of positive relationships when managing all these growing young musicians. I was a little upset this year when I heard William was not returning to our school, his living situation had changed, and we had not heard from his family.
As we finished our first day of school in August, I was surprised to see William on the steps, talking to his friends. I called his name, and he ran over and gave me a big hug; I was even more surprised when he said, "I can't wait for music class, you are my favorite teacher!"