This above all: to thine own self be true.

I think this is very good advice. I try to do this as much as I can. When I was at University, I would talk a lot about being honest – to myself and others, but often I think I was brutal and unkind (to others, but often to myself). I don’t think that’s the best way to live – but I think to be true to yourself is the best way to be that I know.

I’m doing lots of thinking abut yoga at the moment – and this is also good advice. I’m doing a lot of thinking about where I want to be teaching, and what is the right way to teach – and this is what I’m using as my standard. I think part of the reason I am such a good teacher is that I try to be as honest and truthful to my craft as I can. I also think that’s what makes me such a good musician too. (I don’t mean to sound like I’ve disappeared up my own arse here – I hope it doesn’t read that way.)

I think self-authenticity is under-rated you know. I’m not sure it’s valued as much as it should be.

I don’t like to be cranky. I mostly pretend to be cranky in classes, usually. Every so often I really am cranky, but most of the time, I amuse myself by pulling a few faces and getting a little bit snarly if I need to. Really, if the truth be known, I love the kids I teach so much, and admire them so enormously for just getting to school and smiling their way through the day, that being a bit wriggly in a music lesson doesn’t really matter to me one way or the other. I just work a bit harder to get them to engage.

But something happened last week that really did make me cranky. It wasn’t from a child in a class. It wasn’t from a teacher I work with. It was by someone who should know better.

I am in a school where I have two huge choir groups – one of 90 at a time, and one of 150. When I have told other music teachers about this they look at me with eyebrows raised. I don’t have a pianist with me (I can’t  – there’s no piano at the school), I don’t have a microphone. I do have teachers there helping me with crowd control (some more that others) – but actually, I don’t need anything else. The kids are all engaged (apart from about two. I haven’t been able to win them over. Not yet.) and I actually have a really good time. There are jokes, and laughing, and me doing little dances, and blowing kisses to kids doing a fabulous job, and lots and lots of singing. And lots of smiling.

Lots of engagement. Lots of joy. Lots of fun. And huge, huge groups of kids.

Now, I know my teaching methods are… well, not normal. I think of the teachers that I admired at school, and university. Their teaching methods weren’t conventional either. But I remember the joy of learning from them. And I like to think I do this for the children I see. They laugh with me. They laugh at me. The older ones call me ‘Rach’. At no point do I think they disrespect me, or what I do.

I also have lots of banter going with another teacher. I adore this teacher. He’s like the brother I never had. I re-write songs poking fun at him. He gets his class to write songs poking fun at me. We are a double-act on the day I’m in there. We greet each other with a hug in front of all the kids at the school. They see how much we respect each other, even though we tease one another. And these kids are learning how it is possible to laugh and joke with someone, but not step over the line, and not be cruel. And also how to laugh at yourself. And do you know – not one of the kids we see tries to do it once they leave music.

This person-who-should-know-better came to see these huge choirs. He saw the engagement. He saw the smiling. He saw the joy. And he saw the banter. And then he questioned it. But not to my face.

The carpet was totally pulled out from under my feet. I was angry. I’m not anymore. There’s no point. I won’t get an apology. But I was cranky. Really cranky. My brother-from-another-mother acted as I knew he would, and was horrified on my behalf and had my back. But I may have said some words I can’t type. And stomped around the house a bit. And kicked some furniture.

Grr.

I have just had an amazing last week teaching at a school out in western NSW. I blog about it a lot. I love going out here. And I’m writing this as I sit on my first night home, pretty tired and worn-out – but on a huge high. I taught for three days, and then was lucky enough to see their talent night – lots of class groups, solo performers, gymnasts, poets, you name it – performing to raise money.

I’m pretty brain-dead, but wanted to write something tonight as I’m packing up all my lesson plans and getting ready for the new week ahead. And when I’m tired, I tend to like lists – so here’s one after my last week.

  1. The kids at this school are beautiful. And they love music.
  2. The teachers are an incredible bunch of people. They are some of my favourite people to see and work with. Thank you for all your love and support – and your excellent drumming.
  3. I like sitting around fire-pits enormously. It’s a great way to spend an evening.
  4. I laugh a lot at this school.
  5. Teaching music is a tremendous privilege. I love music so much – and I love that these kids have such a positive start on their musical journey.
  6. I feel very loved at this school.
  7. One of my favourite moments was telling a parent how much I loved teaching her son, and how beautiful he is in drumming classes, and watching the range of emotions on her face. It wasn’t what she was expecting to hear, I don’t think. And it was excellent to say it to her. He deserved his praise.
  8. Being out in ‘big sky country is good for my soul.

I have used the word ‘love’ too much in this post. Sorry about that. I’m tired.

Last week I was at a school. I’ve not been there for a long time – but long enough to start to get to know most of the kids I see. I’ve sussed out most of the ones who would play up in the classroom, the ones who would rather goof around than admit they are finding something hard, the quiet ones, the ones who struggle. One of the most important parts of my job (as I see it) is to engage those kids and praise them. The kids who sail through school aren’t my first concern (although I like them a lot) – they are easy to teach. That’s not really why I’m there.

I djembe drum with year 6 at this school. Most of them love it, and most lessons are easy. I don’t have many discipline problems. But one lesson, just at the end of term was different. Everyone was tired. They had a not-so-competent casual teacher with them. And most of the boys were challenging. One of them wasn’t, interestingly. He’s a kid who isn’t very bright. Who often chooses to be a bit of a doofus. And who I know does it tough at home. I praised him in the moment, and he loved it. He’s decided drumming is ‘his thing’. He takes it seriously, and himself seriously when he’s in music.

Last week, I had them all again. (I’ve been away on holidays, so I missed the first two weeks of term.) My conversation with their normal teacher went like this….”Mrs A, I just need to tell you about the last class I had with your crew. Some of the boys were, well, a bit not-so-great. They drummed when they shouldn’t, and mucked around a bit.”

Some of the girls agreed and had a whinge. I knew they would. Thanks, girlies! The teacher played along.”Oh really? Oh, I’m really sorry to hear that.” Boys look a bit sorry for themselves.

“But Mrs A, there was one boy who didn’t. He had all this silliness going on around him, and he ignored it. He drummed he concentrated, he listened – he was actually the most perfect person in the class.”

“Oh, I’m so pleased to hear that!” says their teacher. Its obvious by her face she has no idea where I’m going with this. But I make her guess. It takes her five goes. When she says my little chappie’s name, not only is she surprised, but he’s surprised I remember. She is delighted.

He isn’t normally on the receiving end of this sort of praise. He bursts into tears. Although I don’t normally like making kids cry, this time I did. You deserved this praise, my friend. You were fabulous. And I wanted everyone to know.

I am aware that I may walk into trouble with this post. I am still going to write it, though. I mightn’t say what I want very well, but I’m going to try.

It’s NAIDOC week (yep – I know. Here comes the trouble…) and I want to add my voice to many others talking about it. I am not Aboriginal, or a Torres Strait Islander. I am white – very white. But I teach a lot of Aboriginal kids, and work with Aboriginal Education Officers. I am inspired by Aboriginal musicians and dancers I meet in schools. I try to learn from them, and respect what I learn. I think you could say that I know a little bit about Aboriginal culture, and realise I only know a little bit (better than knowing a little bit and thinking you know a lot).

I do know a lot about teaching music, though, and the power of it.

I have had a version of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ written for me by a Sydney musician and elder. I love that he’s done this, and taught me the words, and allowed me to hand on this song to others. There’s a fabulous backing track that has been made. And, respectfully, I have taught this song to a number of kids now. The teaching children part of this process has been a doddle. They love it. They love to sing in any different language – but for many kids, especially if they are Aboriginal (or from the Torres Strait), this is especially significant. They swell with pride. I am not exaggerating one bit – I see it. Their chests fill, and they raise their heads, and they own this version of the song. And then they sing it outside the music room – to their reading teacher, or their friends, or their relatives.

It’s all the other stuff that has been really hard. One teacher (who is white) told me she wouldn’t sing this ‘monkey language’ (I was gobsmacked. I am not often speechless. This floored me.). Another teacher (who is Aboriginal) told me what I was doing was tokenistic, and wrong. I’ve been called an interfering white #$%@. I’ve been told that it’s the ‘wrong’ language. And then I see white children and non-white children singing this song together, and keep coming back to that.

Here’s my point I’m trying to make…. Isn’t the preservation of any Aboriginal language worth doing? Isn’t giving Aboriginal kids (who sometimes don’t have much to be proud about) something to be proud about a good thing? Isn’t singing together important? Isn’t sharing culture a way to bridge gaps between people?

I’m not an expert on reconciliation. I’m certainly not an expert on Aboriginal and Torres Strait music or culture. But I do see a change in children as they sing this song. They are proud. And happy. And love to sing it. All children. I understand that I, as a whitey, need to be culturally sensitive. And I am trying my very best. And I know I won’t please everyone. But I wish these people who are very quick to criticise could see the pride that I see in these singing children. Because, for me, that’s what is most important.

Thank you to Matt, for giving me the words to teach.