Updated: May 18, 2018
If you don’t know already, I will begin my MAT in Elementary Education at NC State University this fall and graduate Spring 2020 (same day that my husband will graduate from Duke)! It was incredibly tough to make a step out of the orchestra classroom full time and towards a new kind of classroom. Since I planned on being an orchestra teacher for so long, this was not an easy decision, but at the same time, I am so excited to become an elementary educator while continuing to teach violin lessons on the side! Below is my statement of purpose I submitted with my graduate application: it explains in detail why I chose to engage a different area of education.
“Psh, Mrs. Bryant, this is suppose to be an orchestra class…not no writin’ class” was a line I would hear frequently throughout the first couple of months of my teaching. Simultaneously teaching both middle and high school—each Title-I and rural—was hard. Many of my students did not have parents as role models or many inspirational opportunities to keep them motivated in school. That being said, my students were still the toughest children I have ever met, resilient and determined even if these traits were often not manifested in their efforts at school. Having the opportunity to teach these admirable students only confirmed my passion for improving the lives of children through education.
Despite their troubled childhoods, I was determined that my students would fall in love with music, that music could be their outlet as it was mine. I spent four years working to earn a degree in orchestral education so that I could share my love for music, knowing my passion would be reflected in my students. In retrospect, this was overly ambitious. When one of my tenth graders attempted to sing the alphabet and could not make it past the letter M, I realized I would have to alter my entire year of lesson plans. As I witnessed the majority of my students struggling with basic reading and writing skills, it became clear to me that my classroom would be geared towards improving these skills as well as musical competency. Basic educational needs were a higher priority than encouraging an affinity for Bach and Brahms: I felt obliged to do what I could to realize the latter through meeting the former.
Gaining access to their previous test scores and refusing to believe what I saw fortified the broader but nascent vision I had for my classroom. To have a more concrete picture of my students’ academic capabilities, I asked them to write a paragraph describing why they were interested in music, why music was inspirational to them, a seemingly fun and not terribly taxing prompt. The first sheet’s entire contents were a name and the prompt. “Alright,” I thought, “maybe he was tired.” I flipped to the second: name, prompt, and a (failed) attempt to spell “orchestra.” The third student supplied name, prompt, and half a sentence. Paper after paper, there was no coherent paragraph. When I got home that day, I cried, “how did these beautiful, talented children get to middle and high school without being able to formulate a paragraph?”
As an educator, it is my responsibility to have faith in my students. That means building a relationship with my students, not giving up even when it is difficult (because it will be difficult), and continuing to find growth opportunities for myself, the educator. Every benchmark and report card period, my students knew to have their grades ready to show me as they left my class, though in truth, I already knew. By the end of the school year, many students were excited to show me their report cards. Even if the improvement was small, I ecasticaly cheered for them. I believe a significant part of the teacher’s task is being your students’ cheerleader no matter how microscopic the marginal improvement is.
After my experience teaching orchestra, I became inspired to help students from an earlier age. It is impossible to make enough of a change in my students’ literacy and numeracy simply around the margins of an orchestra curriculum. A more sizeable impact requires more time, the kind of time an elementary teacher has: all day, every day, all year. Not only is teaching a love of mine but a purpose to which I know I want to dedicate my life.