New Roles: Part 2 “Teacher Identity”

In one of my music education classes (more than 15 years ago) our professor told us that we must be musicians first and educators second. I’ve reflected on his statement often through the years. I suppose he meant that we needed to keep up our practice as we continue to teach it to others, but something about his assertion has always bothered me. 

I wanted to be a teacher since I was as young as 6 years old. Like most kids I wanted to be many things as I grew up, astronaut, paleontologist, police officer; but it was always followed by “or a teacher”. By high school I knew I would teach, but debated between math or music. I deeply identified myself as an educator. 

When I think back to the idea of a music teacher being a “musician first” I am reminded of the saying:

I find this very offensive (as do most teachers, I’m sure). I think my professor’s statement bothered me because I identified first as a teacher. Would that make me a weaker music teacher? Was I “those who can’t”?

I was lucky enough to get a contract teaching beginner band and upper elementary music in my first year. Though it was my dream job, I struggled with many things as a new teacher. After hitting rock bottom I was mentored and given a second chance. I learned A LOT and finished the year a much stronger teacher. 

The following year I got a contact teaching elementary music. My view of myself was “Band Teacher”, but I worked hard and learned how to adapt my pedagogy to younger students with different resources and instruments. I was lucky to be hired back full time, as long as I took on the role of classroom teacher as well. For the next couple years I identified as “Band Teacher (who teaches elementary music and Grade 2)”. I was stubbornly set in my identity as a band teacher, not realizing that as I learned more in my new role I was taking on a new identity. 

A few years later my family took a leap and moved across the Rockies to the West Coast where I took on a full time elementary music position. By then I simply identified as “Music Teacher”.  I was surprised that first year that I missed having some time in the “regular” classroom. The next two years I added Math Enrichment and Learning Support to my timetable. I loved the balance of time in the music classes and supporting individuals and small groups in my support roles. Though my job was more diverse, I still felt I was “Music Teacher”. 

Then I got hired by our public school board. Starting over meant putting in my time as a substitute teacher and filling temporary contracts. Having the lowest seniority meant taking any job I was offered. I spent the year in 2 different contracts, both as “Music Teacher teaching grades k-2 because those are the only jobs available right now.” The whole year I was missing my music classes and waiting to see what jobs might be posted. 

At the end of the year I was placed at an incredible school where I taught in a K/1/2 class one day per week and spent the remaining 4 days as a Resource Teacher. I found the new role of supporting many teachers and students to be challenging and fulfilling. There are many parallels to the role of music teacher, which I will write about in another post. Surprisingly I realized that I did not miss my music classes. By the end of the year I had changed my identity. 

I now see myself as an “Educator”.  I think I always have been an educator first. I want to see my students first, not the subject I teach. I want to adapt for their needs first. I want to find out where they are and help them move forward. I want to teach kids first, content (music or otherwise) second. 

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New Roles: Part 1 “The Caregiver”

This school year felt like a marathon. One I didn’t plan to run. Someone slapped a racing bib on my back and shot the starting pistol, jolting me away from my regular summer non-routine. Mid-August 2015 my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Together, we began a journey through surgeries, radiation therapy, rehabilitation and now recovery. I took on the role of caregiver; of my husband, of our children, and of our household. 

I’ve been very lucky for years as my husband has been the primary parent. He got the kids to school, cleaned & managed the house, and supported me in anything I needed to do to further my teaching career. When presented with the regular questions from colleagues about how I could work full time with our large family, I was always able to brag about not having to worry about any of the usual “Mom” responsibilities. It was a shock to my system to suddenly take on everything and continue to work full time. 

With amazing support from family, friends, colleagues, my childrens’ teachers and counsellor, my employer, and my Union I made it through. I also learned a lot!

1. We need to take care of ourselves before we can care for others. 

This seems obvious. I’ve said it to others many times. People told me as well, but it took a while for me to understand. I thought I was fine and coping well. A colleague refered me to our wellness program, where I was assigned a “rehabilitation consultant”. She helped me see my own struggles (panic attacks, sleepwalking, ever-present feelings of guilt, etc), set wellness goals, and access resources & time to achieve those goals. Without this support, my abilities to help my family and my students would have suffered greatly. 
I have to acknowledge my privilege in this. I am lucky to have a secure job, a union that can provide me with a personal consultant, and the means to continue to access resources even after being discharged from the rehabilitation program. All employees should be so well supported.

2. It really does take a village!

I had a lot of outside help. Family members and a good friend came to stay with us for 1-3 weeks at a time. Friends & colleagues provided many meals to get us through the 6 and a half weeks of daily radiation treatments. My school district provided many options for how to navigate all the specialist appointments and the people in HR were knowledgeable, helpful, and compassionate to my situation. My administrators were helpful and supportive throughout, always concerned about me and my family first. 

Again I count myself incredibly lucky to have such a “village” to help us. I am reminded that not everyone has access to such such support. It would feel very lonely and hopeless if not for everyone around us. 

3. Perspective. 

During the most draining weeks (radiation therapy) our school board was having many of our special education files audited. As part of our school Resource Team (I’ll get to that in Part 2), I was involved in meticulously going through files and checking IEP’s in preparation. During the stress of the audit I was questioned by a new colleague as to how I could be so calm. I explained  that while the audit was important, due to our current family experience I knew there were much bigger things to worry about in life. 

I had a similar experience at report card time for our children. The daily radiation therapy took almost the entire 2nd term. During this time we were not able to check in with the kids in regards to homework and tests. They were in charge of watching each other every evening for the first 3 weeks, and under the care of friends and family the last 3. As a result, grades slipped on their term 2 report cards. I reassured the kids that we were very aware that the drop in grades was a result of high stress and lower parental support, and that I knew they would go back up (which they did). 

This year has helped me to see the big picture and prioritize where to focus my energy. 

Overall I feel a lot of gratitude for all the support and understanding we have received this year. We survived and I know we will thrive again. 

I take these lessons with me as I help families of students. As teachers we need to approach parents with understanding and compassion. Find out if they have the supports they need to provide the support we ask of them. Approach parents with caring, not judgement. They might only be surviving too. 

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Is Your Job The Most Important?


I am not an actor. I do not teach acting, but I believe that the above quote applies to my discipline of music. When I am teaching a piece of music to a group of students I often talk about how all parts are important. Whether you provide the melody, harmony, bass, or rhythm your part is integral to the whole piece. Even the percussionist who has to count 82 bars of rests so they can play the one cymbal crash at section D is vital to the success of the piece of music. Something would be missing if the crash was absent at that moment. I teach students that, like a sports team, they all need to know their role and respect each others’ roles. No one part is the most important.


We need to view education in the same light. It takes many people to make a school run smoothly. Administrators, office staff, custodians, building engineers, education assistants, cooks, supervision aides, interpreters, and teachers. Every one of these adults has an important role in providing a safe, engaging school environment for our students. There are no small roles – every person uses his/her strengths to meet the needs of students.

My current role is that of substitute teacher. I have heard opinions from other teachers that my role is not as important as theirs. I don’t have to plan, write report cards, call parents, etc. They do not consider that I often don’t know where (or if) I will be working day to day. I am constantly thinking “on my feet” as I try to follow plans (or create my own) while creating a safe and stable environment for students who I have just met. I am helping students adapt to a change in their routine, dealing with individual learning needs without prior knowledge of the students or planning time.

As a music teacher I have felt under-appreciated by some. Seen as a babysitter so teachers can have their prep. Viewed as a “fun” class where no “real” learning happens. Sometimes classroom teachers don’t understand that I have to build relationships with hundreds of students (who I only see 1-2 times per week), that I have a curriculum which I know well and follow, that I assess students on their learning using a variety of techniques, and that I differentiate for a variety of learning needs and levels just as a “regular” teacher does.

I’ve heard secondary teachers complain about elementary teachers and vice versa. I’ve know teachers who don’t clean things up because “it’s not their job”. I’ve experienced administrators who seem like they are on a power-trip. I’ve heard many people complain that someone else’s job is too easy – anyone could do it.

Why do some people feel that their job is more important or more difficult than anyone else’s?

How would our students function if they were hungry? How could we all stay safe and healthy if the building was not clean & equipment maintained? How many primary teachers would be able to clean up the “accidents” while still keeping their class under control? What would teachers who put on performances do without help in set-up and clean-up? How would our needy students function without the 1:1 support provided by their Education Assistant? How many people want to be the leader of the school, most often dealing with conflict?

We all have challenges in our jobs. It is important to recognize that each of us works together with the goal of supporting students. Though we might not understand everything our colleagues do, we need to recognize the contribution they make to the entire school community.

There are no small parts in education. Let’s not be small actors.

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Dive Deeper! Reflections on #EdcampDelta

About two weeks ago I attended my second edcamp! Just like my first edcamp experience it was a great day full of learning. I got a chance to connect with an old friend and colleague and meet a couple of my Twitter teacher connections face to face.

Most of the sessions I attended featured deep discussions around important educational issues. We shared ideas, questioned each other and came away with new understandings. The one sessions that didn’t dive as deep into the discussions was the “Things That Suck” session.

I had heard seen “Things That Suck” posted at my first edcamp and avoided it because I was fighting off a lot of negativity in my workplace and thought it was a session for complaining. Luckily, through discussions with my PLN I had learned that it was a session for debating topics in education. I decided I had to try it out! Though the discussions were short, the debates were interesting and got me to continue reflecting long after the day was finished.

What I found most beneficial were the conversations before, between and after the sessions. One group in particular got me thinking about how I use social media for professional growth. This group of teachers were on Twitter, but hadn’t found value in it. They were concerned that some educators seemed more concerned about their image than diving into discussions. The impression was that Twitter was being used as an echo-chamber, full of inspirational one-liners and articles that could be found with a Google search. I explained that through Twitter chats I had found educators who wanted to make meaningful connections and push each other to think differently about many issues.

I believe the edcamp model is so beneficial to educators because it is not an echo chamber. Teachers who attend know that in order to learn we need to be challenged in our beliefs and understandings. Being questioned about the things we say and do causes us to reflect on our purpose and decide if it is truly the best for our students.

The sessions and discussions at EdcampDelta have reinforced the need to push my own and others’ thinking deeper. I am more mindful of who I follow on Twitter and what I retweet. I am inspired to question more to gain a more thorough understanding. I am willing to be a bit more vulnerable in what I share so that I might learn more from my mistakes and failures.

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2014 in review

Neat to see stats for my first nine months of blogging! I hope to keep up with more posts soon. Wishing everyone Happy New Year!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 40 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Building Relationships

If I have realized anything over my past year as a connected educator it is that building relationships is of the highest importance. Only when the class culture is built on trust and respect will students be able to take the risks necessary to experience meaningful learning.

I remember studying Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs in my teaching program. At the time it was stressed as important, but didn’t mean a whole lot to me. I focused on curriculum and assessment. I was good at creating interesting lesson plans, adapting for a variety of learning needs and using a variety of formative and summative assessments. So I was perplexed early in my career over why some students were still “slipping through the cracks.”

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs I spent 6 years at one elementary school. I taught all the students music and shared a grade 2 class with another teacher. I have always liked the fact that as a music teacher I get to work with all (or most) of the students at a school. When I am out on the playground I know everyone’s name & might know a little something about them. But it took 2-3 years of teaching music classes before I felt that I could delve much deeper into concepts. Looking back I understand that it took much longer to build relationships with students when I only saw them 1-2 times per week for 40 minutes each time.

I marvelled at how much better I got to know the students in my grade 2 class. I learned much more about each child. I built relationships with their parents, siblings and sometimes extended families. I remembered one of my favourite teachers and how at the end of the year she had given the biggest hugs to the most troublesome students. As a child this perplexed me, but as a teacher I now understand how close a relationship she must have had with those students.

A few years later I find myself in a new district teaching in a regular classroom again. I know that for my students to succeed there are many needs that must be met. Relationship building has to come before curriculum can be learned. While I had connections with my previous students I had not purposefully made it a priority.

This year (and future ones) will be different. I am giving a higher priority to connections. One example is an idea I stole from a great teacher in my PLN (Kory Graham). I am having lunch with the special helpers each week. A different student gets to be interviewed by the class each day and at the end of the week the group (4-5 students) eats lunch with me. We just had our first one and it was so interesting to talk to the students in a relaxed setting. I am looking forward to the next few Friday lunches where I will learn more about my students and build the foundations for higher level learning.






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The Importance of Culture on Risk Taking

As teachers we want our students to try new things, leave their comfort zones and explore the great unknown. Though it can be uncomfortable, we know that it will bring growth and learning.


How do we create a space where this can happen? How often do we feel safe enough to take the leap ourselves?


I have been teaching elementary general music for the past 9 years. I have built strong music programs, taught hundreds of students, and am good at my job. I don’t say this to brag. I have enough training and experience at this point in my career that I feel very comfortable and confident in an elementary music classroom. So when I had the choice to give up the  K/1 class I had been teaching for 2 weeks to apply for a music position I could have chosen the easy path – I did not.

I started this school year as a TTOC (Teacher Teaching On Call – substitute teacher). I was called the day before teachers went back to work and asked to fill in a sick leave for a K/1 class. Having no contract I said, “Yes, I’d love to!” while freaking out inside. A job is a job! The next day saw me frantically trying to fill the shelves and walls of an empty makeshift kindergarten room while wondering what I had got myself into. I spent the weekend connecting with every kindergarten teacher I knew to get some first week advice. I put in many hours planning, prepping, meeting with parents, and finally connecting with my new class.

The staff were very friendly and supportive, making my transition from music specialist to classroom teacher as smooth as possible. There was a feeling of collaboration between teachers, support staff, and admin. Everyone was quick to offer help, with smiles and laughter. My principal lead the way, often jumping ahead of others – whether to assist in kindergarten orientation or to simply help me find the staples. It was quickly apparent that this was a safe place to ask questions and take risks.

Then the first round of teaching positions was posted. There it was – a full time elementary music specialist position. I had to make the choice between continuing in a teaching position outside my comfort zone or to apply for the safe elementary music job. I was able to sit with my administrator and discuss the options before me. She listened, gave me authentic feedback on my first 2 weeks at the school, and let me know that she would fully support me in my decision.

That conversation meant so much to me! I made the decision that a strong, supportive school culture was more important to me than teaching in my curricular comfort zone.

I know that I am going to learn a lot this year. I am going to try new things and grow as an educator. There will be many questions and challenges along the way.

My biggest challenge will be to create a safe and supportive environment that will encourage my students to take risks and leap into the great unknown.

goldfish jumping out of the water

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