On not giving people their money's worth, and also benevolent dictators

I think I know where my tendency comes from, as a teacher, to try to fill every moment chock-full with Productive Learning Experiences. When I was a freshman public school teacher, it was fear of the administration, and as a teacher of one-on-one piano and guitar lessons, it's the whole being-paid-by-the-hour thing.

Now, I'm the administrator of my own school, and I have a bunch of preschool kids attending a group "music camp" where the primary purpose is either:

having fun through learning music, or

learning music through having fun.

Whichever way you think of it, it's not appropriate nor effective to try to manage every second of the kids' time.

Instead, it's desirable to create an environment that has a strong framework, and then trust the kids to fill in that framework with their own choices, ideas, and actions.

I know that sounds like a concept you'd find in an education textbook that would never work in the real world. But student-centered learning really does work. I learned about it through Peggy-Jo Wilhelm, my amazing music education professor at the University of Maine.

I discussed in a previous post some of the specific activities and techniques I use with young children. This morning at camp, we incorporated the rhythm cards, resonator bells, and several other activities into our centers, where kids get to move from one activity to another at their leisure. Sometimes you will find three or four kids on one center; sometimes a child moves restlessly from one center to another; sometimes a child spends the entire time on just one activity, mimicking the way I did it and then adapting it into a different, equally valid game. I steal their ideas all the time.

Behavioral issues disappear (no "sitting still" is required). Other behavioral issues crop up, usually related to sharing. It is so fun as a teacher to sit back and witness the kids independently explore rhythm and  melody, sound and pattern. You become a facilitator not a dictator.

Of course, the dictator role is important, too.

"My turn is next!"

"Who's in charge?" I say.

They point to me. It is so important that I be in charge. It is vital that I have enough adult and teenage help so that I don't become frazzled, so I can maintain the benevolence in my benevolent dictatorship. It is crucial that I have the power, so that I can set the pace and foster the culture that allows me to share that power.

So I decide whose turn is next. But once that understanding is in place, we can go beyond turn-taking. I might present a new song, a new instrument, or new idea, and then just wait. Stretch the moment out. I leave little spaces where the kids can chime in, making suggestions, asking questions, relating the new thing to their own life in a way that often seems nonsensical to adults.

In classroom management, one of the first things I learned was to keep a fast pace. Don't allow any downtime, and the kids won't have a chance to get into trouble. Well...yes and no.

As a beginning teacher, a slower pace meant I was looking at my notes, or trying to remember the melody of a song, and generally creating a petri dish for mischief. But I've learned that activities need breathing room. Sometimes I can let the kids see me thinking, deciding. Sometimes I can try something new that I haven't planned out, allowing the kids to lead me. Sometimes we can take a few minutes to rest, singing a quiet song or having a quiet conversation. Doing that with a bunch of five-year-olds is incredible - it is such a different use of their energy.

Looking around Swiedler Hall, you might think the kids are running the show. No - at best it is a federation with the occasional illusion of democracy. And ideally, the ruler does not have to demonstrate her power.

Moments ago, a child of six came into the room, sobbing. Tara to the rescue: "Are you ok? What happened?" He could barely speak, so she went to investigate. She came back and said, "Uh...Smoothie King cleanup on Aisle One." Apparently he had dropped his smoothie all over the rug, and his teenage sister hollered at him.

his afternoon workshop was beginning, but the child was inconsolable. I led him away from the scene of the crime to a cool leather couch in the back room. "Here, this is a comfortable couch. Just relax, and when you're ready, you can join the camp. Here's some Kleenex."

I went back to work, keeping my eye on the boy. His sister came and went. Tara came and went. In the meantime, the kid stretched out and took a twenty-minute nap or so. Presently, he came to, and went of his own accord to join the session in progress.

My mind went to that neurotic place ("His mom is paying for this camp! He shouldn't be napping! Too much downtime!"). But as I continue to detox from all that school- and work-related baggage, I'm uncovering the sweet truth: the joy of leadership is to build the trust that allows the sharing of power, and the joy of sharing the power (i.e., teaching!) is to go beyond time, lesson plans and even subject matter to the core: discovering and celebrating our mutual humanity.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean up the remains of what appears to be a strawberry smoothie, and then teach a piano lesson or four. Thanks for reading.