Lessons Learned from Favorite Teacher

The Week 3 Topic for the Share #YourEduStory Blog Challenge is "How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?" When I think of my favorite teacher I immediately think of the educator that had the greatest influence on me which is my high school band director, Mr. Barrera. I was a band geek throughout high school in an ultra-competitive marching band program. During high school, I was able to travel throughout California, New York, Florida, Arizona, and Utah because of band. Participation in band opened up the world for me in the same way I wish for my students, not through actual travel but through learning about different cultures and perspectives.

From 1987-1991, we only lost 4 times. That's quite a record for a program that competed practically every weekend during the Fall competition season. Our four losses occurred at the first competition each season where we placed 2nd. Otherwise we won. This doesn't happen by accident. This is design. This is leadership. This is having an ambitious goal, planning the necessary steps to accomplish it, engaging others in believing and supporting the goal, and then implementing it with the help of diverse stakeholders.

I follow the same steps in the classroom. Most of my career has been spent teaching students with disabilities. All too often teachers, administrators, and society-at-large is quick to tell me and my students what they can and cannot do because of an label. I don't buy it. As a person with a disability myself, I know what low expectations feel like. It was something I experienced frequently in school but never in band. In band, it didn't matter if you were a member of the state honor band, if you just picked up an instrument, or if you were hard-of-hearing and missed your entrance because you couldn't hear the bass trombone cue a beat before. You were expected to figure it out. Mr. Barrerra expected excellence and got it. He had a goal, a plan, a team, and refined and executed upon it year after year.

Excellence was built on risk-taking and a commitment to continuous improvement. I found this gem on YouTube that is my sophomore year field show. Even watching this more than twenty-five years later in less than HD quality, I see the gaps and breaks in formation. I see where things can be improved. Every Monday after competition we would watch the tapes and I remember hoping that those gaps or breaks weren't caused by me because there very well might be yelling and the throbbing forehead vein may appear. Even with convincing wins year after year there was little time for celebration but rather time for reflection and improvement. It makes me wonder if it really wasn't about the wins but rather the art. We were doing things at the high school level that were considered new and innovative at the time. Rather than delivering the expected field show he had a vision for what was possible and figured out how to make it happen.

It goes back to expectations. As a Special Day Class teacher, I was expected to teach towards IEP goal mastery. That's what is expected. What is unexpected is to also teach grade level standards and achieve results very few expected from students with disabilities in a self-contained environment. Just like band, it wasn't about the "wins" on standardized testing but rather providing opportunities beyond expectations. The opportunity I provide within my classroom is access. I strive to provide access to content and learning in a way that students as individuals can best understand. One must be willing to take risks and do the unexpected.

I believe I differ in my approach though. I never want my students to feel the need to just figure it out on their own. I want to guide and support them through the process. I never want my students motivated by fear, a desire to please, or solely by wins on the way to perfection. Why? Because even though my high school band experience had a profound effect on me, I am not a musician. Mr. Barrera's methods did not help me develop an intrinsic motivation to rehearse, practice, and memorize my music. Nor, did I develop a deep appreciation for music. I essentially retired from playing upon high school graduation. I think the greatest success of teachers is measured not by what students do and accomplish within our classroom but rather what they do when they leave our classrooms. Have my methods of creating ambitious goals, planning strategically, and taking risks by doing the unexpected created intrinsic motivation and desire for learning and continuous improvement for my students when they leave my room? I hope so.