Most of the teachers I know have spent two weeks recovering from a frenzy of concerts and are now facing the start of the festival season. Interspersed among the performance activities and high-stakes tests are state Music Educators Association conferences, and for string teachers the granddaddy of them all, the national convention of the American String Teachers Association.
I have always been struck by how isolated we can feel in our work. Most music teachers work in an environment where, literally, no one else speaks their language. Teachers and administrators who are well-educated and highly trained as teachers freely admit they know nothing about music. So much for those who are supposed to be the mentors and the improvers of teaching processes. Schools focus their inservice offerings on the generalities of teaching (some of which can be quite helpful) and on basic subject areas such as math, reading and science. This situation can leave a striving string teacher feeling frustrated and alone.
The obvious answer would seem to be closer contact with other music teachers. You think?? But the problem is how to achieve that. I believe that all of us need to make an extra effort toward professional accomplishment. I truly believe that every string teacher knows something that can be useful to other string teachers. The problem is that most of us seem to operate in a vacuum. We go to work each day, interact (for better or worse) with our students, don’t interact much with other teachers due to the peripatetic nature of our work, leave late every day after all the extra rehearsals or whatever, and go home to have a life outside of teaching music (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) This has always been the way our jobs work.
In my younger days, when there were fewer schools and fewer things to do in our free time, we used to go to each others’ concerts, which were usually followed by some friendly libations. These events were always learning experiences and we always left with a new idea or two. It seems like this kind of comraderie doesn’t happen much any more. This makes participation in your music teacher organizations and attendance at your professional conferences all the more important. Imagine how helpful and uplifting it can be to spend two or three days in the company of a thousand or more other people who speak the same language you do. Imagine being able to choose from a multitude of presentations and gain new skills, knowledge, ideas and materials from people who are recognized leaders in our profession. Imagine being inspired by performances from the finest musical organizations, led by people who may be a lot like you. Imagine having the opportunity to get involved in the advancement of our profession. Imagine gaining the skills and experience to guide others down the path to success.
Every time I say these things, someone comes back with how it’s so expensive, it’s so far away, it comes at a bad time, it eats my only three-day skiing weekend, yadayada. The truth is, none of us can afford NOT to attend these conferences. We NEED that information. We NEED that inspiration so we can face the challenges of our teaching situations. We NEED to support each other, professionally and personally. We NEED that professional association which is our collective voice to the powers that be. So we need to pay those association dues, read those journals, attend and learn at the conferences those dues help provide, and contribute time, money, talent and effort to help make our work better in some small way. You may find that you want to be a leader. That’s great. But good followers are needed, too.
So sacrifice a few lattes and make your plans to go to those conferences. Go to a friend’s concert. Be part of an adult orchestra of some kind and encourage your students to come hear you. Take part in a summer workshop. It’s our professional responsibility to be more than someone who goes to work every day and grinds it out. We all have a responsibility to give to our profession as well as to take from it. If you live and teach in Washington, I hope I’ll see you in Yakima in February. And if you really want an experience, I’ll see you in Atlanta in March. Then there’s Birch Bay in August, when a whole bunch of positive-feeling folks get cranked up to do their best for another year. This is really a wonderful thing we do, teaching kids to play strings as we open up their world. Take part!