No matter what happens in my life, I will always consider myself lucky to be my parents’ daughter. They have always been my role models, and my mother has become one of my best friends and mentors. But I didn’t just ask her to take time out of her insanely busy life to write for the blog simply because she was my mom. She also happens to be an outstanding educator and advocate for public arts education who has more experience and knowledge in her left big toenail than anyone else in her field. (That might my humble hyperbolized opinion, but forreal, she knows her stuff.) My mother not only worked tirelessly to raise my sister and I, but she has also worked tirelessly for almost 40 years serving low-income public school students and their families. Teachers like my mother rarely get the praise (or compensation) they deserve, and arts teachers have been especially targeted in recent years. Despite all that, my mother still writes about her career with positivity, pride, and passion. I have had many inspiring teachers in my life, but my mother will always be number one. She constantly teaches me to give myself to my passions, to use my talents for good, and that working to enrich the lives of others ultimately enriches my own.
Mackie asked me to write about music education from my point of view as a “veteran” teacher. March is Music in Our Schools Month and it is a good time for those who are not part of it on a daily basis to think about it and reflect. What did music in your schools mean to you?
I’ll focus on my experience as a public school elementary general music teacher and tell you about my students. They had fun in music class. They performed for their families. They learned about composers, rhythm, beat, instruments, melody, harmony, form, dynamics, tempo, listening, movement, different cultures, and played games and sang songs. They went on field trips to the symphony, the opera, and many other performing groups. They had assemblies at school with performing artists and created their own music.
One of the best things for me was that I got to spend 21 years (out of 35 total years) teaching at the same school. I built the program and focused it on the climate and culture of the students and their families. The art teacher and I became best friends and did many all-school projects together. We brought the outside world into the arts and showed the kids that they could make the arts part of their worlds, too. I had an extra-curricular choir that met every week throughout the school year and did a tour each semester. We sang for community groups, senior centers, and residents of nursing homes. The students felt like their music helped someone. At some point later in my time there, I even began teaching the children of my former students!
Of course, not every one of my students loved music class all the time. Not every one of them went on to participate in ensembles in middle and high school. And only a very few of them made music their professions. But I do believe that every one of them learned something and that every one of them felt the power of music in their souls. They learned how to work together for the benefit of the group. They learned how to express themselves without using words or fists. They learned that listening to music can soothe and inspire, along with thrill and chill. They learned that dancing is for everyone. They learned that singing is fun. They learned about the role of music in other cultures and in their own. And they learned that anyone can make music.
It didn’t matter where my students lived, how much money they had, or what race or ethnicity they were. It didn’t matter if they had music at home. They got to experience music education the same way everyone else did.
I have a poster I bought the first year I taught. It says, “Music is for everyone.” The only way that’s going to happen is if we keep music (and all the arts) in the public schools. Over the years, that has never been easy. Parents and other groups have always had to lobby for accessible arts programs, especially in public schools, and they must continue to do so. Now that we live in a data-based world, research has finally caught up with what I’ve always known: Students who are involved with the arts learn more and do better on standardized tests, have better attendance, and develop more responsibility. But what the data will never show is something only the students know: With the arts, they have a place where they can always be themselves—in the music room, the art room, on the theater stage, or the dance floor. The arts give students purpose and bring families and communities together.
If I’ve done anything to change the world, I hope it has been to provide that place where my students could always be themselves and make music together.
Jane O. has taught general and instrumental music in the public schools for almost 40 years. She holds a Bachelor of Music Education from Drake University, as well as a Master of Arts in Education. She was a founding member of the Waukee Area Arts Council and has served many local arts organizations throughout her career. Jane continues to teach, recently leading the cause to secure a presidential grant through the Turnaround Arts program. This pilot program was so successful, her school is no longer eligible for Turnaround status. Her favorite arts-related events are her daughters’ theatre shows and performances, of course! When she’s not busy saving the world, you can find her reading, gardening, or spending time with her family.