Thursday, August 4, 2016

Teach Like a Country Music Star

Life is just full of lessons, isn't it?

When I began my blog three years ago, my vision was to reflect on my life as an elementary school teacher and a middle-aged (I really hate that term!) woman. The title, "Lessons Planned, Lessons Learned," emanated from what I already knew: that the lessons you plan don't always turn out the way you expect, and sometimes the most valuable lessons are learned in the most unexpected places.

As I began writing, this last idea became even clearer. Many of my experiences outside of school led to some sort of revelation that impacted my role as teacher. This has happened repeatedly, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised last week to find myself thinking about my teaching practices at a Keith Urban concert. I know, it seems a little incongruous, but it's true.

Let me pause here to explain a little about myself.  I have been a huge Keith Urban fan for many years. Not the stalker, gonna-need-a-restraining-order kind of fan. Just one who will make sure she buys each CD as soon as it comes out and keep said CD in her car stereo pretty much until the next one is released.  When my now 14-year-old son was two years old, he could identify just about any Keith Urban song. Whenever one came on the radio, his sweet little voice would call out gleefully, "Kee Uhban!"

Fortunately, I am married to a man who is not offended by my borderline obsession. He has taken me to numerous concerts, even going so far as to drive nine hours to get to one in Las Vegas. Yeah, I will never forget that one, and not just because of the long hours in the car. My husband got seats on the aisle and midway through the concert, Keith walked down that very aisle right past us to get to a smaller stage that had been set up in the back.  He was close enough to touch. My husband practically pushed me toward him. But as Keith made his way toward us, I noticed how everyone was reaching out, trying to touch him. It seemed kind of . . . weird. I don't like it when one of my students pokes me to get my attention, I couldn't imagine having hundreds trying to grope me. Plus, even though I may feel like I know him from listening to his music, I don't actually know the man. So, when he was within my reach, I just stood there and let him walk by.  It's a decision I have kicked myself for many times.

But seizing opportunities is not the lesson I learned recently, although it certainly plays a role in it.

Last week, my husband Dan and our two boys, Jared and Jack, went on vacation in Lake Tahoe. It is one of my favorite places, having vacationed there frequently my entire life. From the first view of the clear blue water and the first whiff of pine-scented mountain air, all the tension in my body melts away. I was especially looking forward to our little getaway this year as life had been a wee bit more stressful than usual in the prior weeks and it was almost time to start preparing for a new school year, which definitely was bound to add to my stress levels. To make our trip even better, Keith Urban was performing at the Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena.  Keith Urban and Lake Tahoe? It seemed like the perfect combination to me.

My plan the night of the concert was to enjoy a couple of hours of good music. To not think but simply feel.  And honestly, that is what I did.  But a teacher brain is hard to turn off completely, and the events of the evening eventually led me to ponder what life lessons could be found in the experience.

When we arrived at the concert venue, I noticed right away that there was once again a small stage set up toward the back. And once again, Dan and I had an aisle seat, but of course I had no way of knowing if Keith would walk down that particular aisle.  It didn't really matter since I'm not a crazy stalker fan anyway, right? I was just there to enjoy the music and temporarily escape reality. (Okay, I'll admit that I was secretly hoping that this would be the chance to make up for my previously missed opportunity.)

Well, fate was working in my favor that night, and Keith did walk down our aisle. I actually almost missed it, though, as I was a little distracted by a fight that had broken out between two women a few rows in front of me.  As the fighting got more intense and drinks were spilled and hair was pulled, my husband moved me from the aisle, fearing that the fight would move our way. Suddenly, he nudged me back toward the aisle and there, right in front of me was Keith Urban.  Without even thinking, I stuck my hand out. And he grabbed it!

I think I expected that any contact would be just a quick high-five kind of thing, so I was surprised when he held onto my hand for a second and squeezed it. Now, I know that this is all in a day's work for him. I doubt he even knew which crazy fan the hand belonged to. Mine was just another hand thrust out toward him, asking, begging, for contact. And touching those hands is just what he does. The thing that struck me was he could have just given me a casual high-five. The fact that he held on for a second sent a powerful message. While it may not have mattered to him that he was touching my hand, his firm grasp conveyed he understood that it mattered to me. And even though he had somewhere to get to and many more hands reaching toward him, he took that extra second that made all the difference to me.


A second. That's all it was.  It doesn't seem like a lot, does it?  Yet, how many times do I feel I don't have that extra second to give to the hands reaching out to me? In the classroom it seems like I am always in such a hurry to get to my next stage and there are an overwhelming number of hands demanding my attention. So much emphasis is placed on standards and accountability these days that it is easy to lose sight of the very heart of teaching. Too often I am consumed with worry about what my students are learning and at what rate, and I forget that sometimes all my students really want or need is to feel a connection to their teacher. Just like me, they, too, carry the weight of their world on their shoulders into the classroom each day. Now, I'm no celebrity, but what if one extra second from me could ease their burden just a bit? Maybe by giving them that one extra second, something much more valuable than time would be gained.

And here's the other thing I realized. You don't have to ask Keith Urban if he likes his job.  He makes that abundantly clear. You can see it in the energy of his performance, the smile on his face, and the twinkle of his eyes. I will confess that I don't love every song on Ripcord, his current CD. When you see him perform, though, you can't help but be caught up in the joy and energy. He is making music the way he wants and incorporating different influences, not following some prescribed formula guaranteed to produce desired results.  He isn't just going through the motions.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have had students ask me if I like teaching. They shouldn't have to ask.  It should be clear in everything I do.  I realized as I thought about the passionate performances Keith Urban delivers time and time again that I need to get back in touch with what makes me love teaching.  I need to make it fun again. With all the focus on standards, testing, and accountability, it has been forgotten that teaching truly is an art. I need to get up on that stage and not worry about whether the music I make fits neatly into a box that has been defined by others. I need to make sure that it is full of life and energy that sweeps across the audience and carries them away. I need to teach with joy and passion, so that no one ever wonders if I like what I am doing. The learning will follow.

Next week, 20+ little bodies will walk through my door. I won't know what burdens they carry with them, what they might need to escape. But I will hold onto their hands, a second longer than maybe I really need to, and let them know they matter and I am glad they are there. They are the reason I am there. Not Common Core State Standards. Not standardized tests. Not district-mandated curriculum. I will make it clear that I am right where I want to be, doing what I love to do. I will teach like a country music star. 

Who knows, I may even teach them a Keith Urban song or two.

Waiting for the concert to begin.



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