The Right Question

A recent story on the local morning news involved someone being shot at an apartment complex. There were not many details. One adult shot another adult. While listening to the report I kept thinking, “I wonder if there were any children present?”

Had I heard the same story any morning previous, my reaction might have been different. That is what happens when we view our surroundings through a different lens. Gain a new perspective.

Why did this story have this effect on me on this particular day? Because the day before I attended a professional development workshop for educators entitled “The Trauma-Informed Classroom.” Dr. Barbara Sorrels, author of the book “Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma,” was our presenter.

One of the most powerful moments of the day was listening to an actual 911 recording. The voice we heard was a six-year-old little girl named Lisa. Lisa was witnessing a violent attack on her mom and siblings by her stepfather. And it was not the first.

It is difficult for me to imagine the awful things this little girl witnessed. The fear in her voice was almost palpable. Her cries for help were interchanged with moments of extreme clarity. She provided crucial information and displayed incredible bravery.

The screams of this little girl caused a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Once the recording ended, the room remained silent. Dr. Sorrels then asked us to discuss how memories from this event might affect Lisa in the future. What images, smells, sounds, etc. might trigger negative responses from her?

All I could think was, “How can a child be expected to function at school after such a traumatic event?”

The workshop continued with stories of other trauma children, their caregivers, and teachers. We also explored ways to help promote healing.

By the end of the day, I felt emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed. How could I use this information to positively influence my classroom? How could it help me better connect with my students?

Dr. Sorrels encouraged us to start with one objective, helping one child at a time. And then another idea and another child, and so on. I reviewed my notes, and one thing stood out-a comparison of two questions. The questions represent two ways I might respond to a child’s behavior.

What is wrong with you?

What happened to you?

These questions have definitely been asked inside my teacher brain. And more often than not, I asked the first question. I should be asking the second.

So where do I begin?

  • Be mindful that a frustrating “behavior” might actually be a reaction to trauma.
  • Realize my perspective in approaching a child has the power to foster healing.
  • Be willing to ask the right question.

The Mom Friend

I love my young teacher friends. Their energy is contagious! They are passionate about life and have innovative ideas. Young singles, young marrieds, young parents…each with their own set of plans for the future. Working hard to navigate the busy world of home, family, career.

In these circles, I often find myself taking on the role of “Mom.” I have even referred to some of them as my adopted kids. I have three practically grown children of my own, so the mom part comes pretty naturally. And the truth is, I am usually old enough to be their mom. Shhh…

With these young friends, the advice is both given and received. They listen to my personal life stories and share theirs. Sometimes we affirm each other’s choices, other times offer reassurance that it’s not the end of the world.

I count on these “kids” to keep me going. I’m not sure they realize the length of their influence. Their presence can turn the day around with a word, a smile, a hug.

Honestly, I’m just glad they want to hang out with me. 😉

One of these sweet friends recently said to me, “You’re the best kind of friend. You’re a mom and a friend.” I’ll take it!

I often wondered what it would be like to have more kids. In a small way, I guess I have a bit of an idea.

Teaching Connections

Why is change so difficult? Even intentional changes come with a certain level of nervousness. Whether it is a move, a new job, having another baby…even though exciting, each requires adjustments.

Before any rumors get started, no-I am not having another baby! 😉 I am, however, changing jobs. Although excited, I’m also a tad anxious. And yet, reflecting on my emotions brings one word to mind~connections.

Life as a teacher is all about connections. Bonds with students, families, and co-workers create the framework for what happens in a classroom. It is a window to the surrounding community. As a teacher, I am responsible for making a positive impact on that community from my small space.

For the past five years, I spent every day in the Peters Elementary music classroom. My students grew from cute little kindergarteners to fourth-grade school leaders right before my eyes. I listened as they sang and played instruments. I laughed and cried with them as we shared our life stories-family members with cancer, death, divorce, new siblings, graduations, birthdays. They knew my stories, and I knew theirs.

The three years prior to occupying that room, I taught special education in the same building, different room. Here I learned much more than I taught. Connections from that time remain strong. Students, families, and colleagues from those teaching years hold a special place in my heart.

But now it is time for a new chapter, an adventure. I will continue teaching music, but at a different school in our district, Ellen Ochoa Elementary. I will be one of two music teachers in a building set to hold approximately one thousand students. We have our work cut out for us. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.

You know what the beautifully ironic thing is? Those connections from my years at Peters-friends, colleagues, families, students-are the ones cheering me on.

Thanks to their encouragement, my focus has shifted. No need to be nervous; just continue making connections. Connections with new colleagues. Connections with a new community. Most of all, connections with the kiddos who enter my music room. After all, that’s where the teaching begins.

My Favorite Seat

The past several weeks, I’ve spent many hours in my favorite seat. Hours practicing piano, preparing for rehearsals with young musicians. Some were singers, others played instruments. All of them dedicated and hardworking students. My job? To be their accompanist, providing support for their music-making endeavors.

Opportunities like these often fill my head with thoughts of more performing jobs. Memories of the years when playing piano consumed more of my time begin to surface. And although those were good times, this train of thought can be a dangerous one. Feelings of restlessness begin to creep in, causing uncertainty and doubts about my teaching.

Not so on this particular occasion…

This past Thursday, I spent the day accompanying high school students at State Solo-N-Ensemble contest. That evening I also participated in their chamber music concert. Such a fun, rewarding day of performing.

What happened after the concert had the most surprising impact.

As I left the concert, my phone started buzzing. The students I had accompanied all day were sending thanks through text messages.

“Thank you for being my accompanist!!!”
“Thank you for everything, Mrs. Morris!”
“I loved playing music with you!”

Suddenly my thoughts were not on seeking more playing opportunities. My thoughts were on the amazing opportunities I already have. “Best of both worlds” kept entering my mind. Both worlds? What does that mean?

Ah…performing and teaching.

Yes, my favorite seat is behind the piano. However, I cannot spend all my time there. Time spent in a classroom is also important. I must recognize the value of getting off of that piano bench and teaching the next generation.

Who knows, maybe some of my elementary students will grow up to be accomplished musicians. Maybe future requests for an accompanist will come from some of them. I hope so!

Accompanying my son, Robert. 🙂

“Mrs. Morris Said So!”

A parent stopped me in the hall this morning. ”Our family had an interesting conversation about you at our house last night.” My first thought was, “Oh dear. What did I say?”

Her daughter, a first grader, was sharing all the things she wanted to be when she grows up. Her older brother chimed in, saying she would have to choose. She could not be all those things. Her response? ”Yes, I can! Mrs. Morris said so!”

As the mom and I continued to talk, I remembered an impromptu conversation from her daughter’s class the day before. At the end of class, we watched the Wintergatan Marble Machine video. Students love this video, and so do I! It sparks imagination and encourages great discussions. https://youtu.be/IvUU8joBb1Q

After students watch the video for the first time, I ask the following questions. Do you think the marble machine creator is a musician? An engineer? A builder? A mathematician? The answer is always yes! This leads to conversations about what students want to be when they grow up. I love to encourage the idea that they don’t have to be just one thing.

On this particular day, I mentioned that I had not always been a music teacher. Being curious little beings, several began to ask about my other jobs. So, I shared my list. I have worked as a piano teacher, staff accompanist, college instructor, paraprofessional, special education teacher, and currently an elementary music teacher.

Apparently, this one little girl took our conversation to heart. At home, after declaring, “Mrs. Morris said so!” she continued with “Mrs. Morris has been at least five or six different things.” Then she proceeded to share my list with her family. She really was listening!

Her mom and I had a good laugh. Our conversation ended on an encouraging note. “The kids just love you.” Her kind words started my day with a smile.

I’m thankful what stuck with her daughter was not, “Mrs. Morris was grumpy today.” Some days that is true. And I also learned an important lesson. Evidently “Mrs. Morris said so!” carries a lot more clout coming from a self-confident first-grader than from a grumpy Mrs. Morris. 😉

Go Practice!

When it comes to practicing challenging music, I am a little out of practice. 😉 Yes, I have rehearsed and performed solos with high school students and played for our all-school musical this school year. There were challenges, but none which required extended focused practice.

I am currently preparing to accompany seven college students at the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competition. Each singer prepares four pieces from different time periods with contrasting styles.

Let’s do some math: 7 singers x 4 pieces = 28 individual songs.

I have played some of this music in years past. Some songs immediately returned to my hands. Muscle memory took over and the notes fit right under my fingers. Others, not so easy. Plus there are new ones I’m learning for the first time.

While talking to my mom on the phone today, I mentioned going home to practice after school. She laughed and said, “It’s been a while since you’ve really had to practice, huh?” I’m afraid she is right.

I have great sight-reading skills. Skills which have helped me through many a lesson, rehearsal, and even some performances. Not a practice I would recommend. And certainly not one acceptable for this current playing opportunity.

Practicing is hard work! Not a new truth. It was my life for many years. I can’t say I miss spending 3-4 hours a day in a practice room. But I was young and didn’t need to rest or stretch every 30 minutes. Nor did I have these pains in my neck and shoulders…

Despite the physical challenges which now accompany extended practice time, it is time well-spent. The list of benefits could go on and on, but here are a few:

  • Finally correcting a wrong note/rhythm
  • Repeating a particular phrase until it works
  • Combining my practice with the practice of others
  • Creating beautiful music

I suppose this experience falls into the life-long learner category. Learning new music and re-learning old. Discovering the need to change my practice habits. Shorter amounts of time, practicing more efficiently. Yes, I still have the ability. The process just looks a little different than it did thirty years ago.

I’ve had some dinner and taken a couple of Aleve. Put on a pot of decaf. Beginning to feel a tiny bit rested. Guess I’d better go practice! 🎶🎹🎶

Longevity

I have thought about this word many times in recent days. Longevity. I’ve often said I hope to be the ninety-something-year-old grandma playing the piano at the nursing home. My family usually chuckles or says, “I’m sure you will be!”

Typically, we think of longevity in reference to long life. Obviously, I have no way of knowing how many years I will spend on this Earth. However, I cannot deny the common thread woven enduringly (so far) through my fifty-one years. Music! Here’s to forty-eight more. 😉

Picture me, maybe seven
Stringy hair in my eyes
Sitting on the piano bench
Grandma sweetly smiles
Hands on keys, eyes on notes
Melodies flowing clear
Sharing music from my heart
Even though young in years

Picture me, fifty-one
Trying to hide the gray
Teaching music to little ones
Exhausted every day
Hands on keys, eyes on notes
Melodies flowing clear
Sharing music from my heart
During these middle years

Picture me, ninety-nine
Grey hair in a bun
Glasses perched on the end of my nose
Ready for some fun
Hands on keys, eyes on notes
Melodies flowing clear
Sharing music from my heart
Even after all these years

Where do the years go?