Trust What You Bring to this Profession

Trust What you Bring to this Profession
By Rhonda Draper

“We teach who we are” (Palmer, 2007, p. 1). I am a performer, singer, actor, public speaker, problem solver and history student. My teaching involves integrating subject matter across the arts, community and performance. I was born into a musical family. My mom sang, played the piano, knew how to harmonize and regularly took part in the music program at our family church. I watched her, listened to her and, with my finger on hers, started to follow the lines of music on the smooth, cool page of the thick hymnal. My father sang bass in quartets, played the guitar and sang at home. Singing seemed to me a normal family activity. At the age of three, I performed my first duet on stage with my sister. The people laughed and clapped and I started to learn that I had something to contribute. My sister and I sang duets many times as we grew up. Singing the harmony part became my role. There came a time when I started to sing on my own with my sister accompanying me on the piano. At times, I would finish singing and there would be a hushed pause over the crowd. It startled me at first. Didn’t they like it? Then they would clap loudly or remain so hushed that I sensed that I had communicated something to them. I tasted the power of what I consider to be the deep language of music.

During those same years, my mom would take my sister and me to ‘Care Homes’ or homes for the elderly on many Saturday mornings. People often sat slumped in their wheel chairs and seemed unresponsive to us as we walked by them and found our place in the common area. Sometimes I would say hi to the people and try to make them smile. Some responded and some would not. Some seemed unreachable. We were told that some of the people were considered non-communicative, rendered ‘non-verbal’ as a result of a stroke or another malady. My mom would then go to the piano and start to play and sing “You are my Sunshine”, “I’ve been Working on the Railroad” or another well-known song. As a child, I watched something happen during those moments. People would start to tap their hands or feet to the music. I would see tears brimming and rolling down the cheeks of those who were supposed to be non-communicative. Sometimes, those who were deemed non-verbal would mouth the words. We went Saturday after Saturday and I saw this phenomenon repeat itself again and again. I began to join in. I sang with my mom and my sister. I learned to play the piano and sometimes my playing and my singing had a similar effect. Music was a way of communicating with crowds, with individuals – even with the seemingly unreachable.

These early and often repeated musical experiences stood out in my childhood. They allowed me to see myself as a genuine contributor and they acquainted me with the power of music. They gave me an aesthetic lens through which to see and interpret events in my life. While observing the effects of music, I was also developing my own skill and capacity to take the stage, whether small or large, and offer what I had to my community. I came to understand and trust in music’s capacity to stir hearts, to open something in the inner landscape. I had experienced it with people of varying ages, varying capacities and in varied environments. As I contributed my growing skills and talents, I grew in confidence and I was thanked, encouraged and applauded by the community for the leadership roles I embraced.

I have now become a music specialist in the public school system and teach music for students from kindergarten through grade 6. I have also explored ways of integrating the arts across the curriculum in an effort to harness the power of the arts to assist in the learning process. I am buoyed by these early experiences which seemed like unique gifts to me and to others. Encouraged by my childhood experiences, I have designed many arts projects/experiences with the aim of inviting students on to stages large and small to experience self-development and the power of the arts. Whether social dance, a drama, a concert or drumming at a festival, I have attempted to cast a vision for the next project to my students while remaining open to their suggestions for how they might contribute. We create together. This approach supports the child, allowing him or her to build on past experiences while incorporating new encounters. We co-create within a plan or a structured experience. I cheer for my students as they dare to offer their ideas, skills and talents: a master of ceremony, a script writer, a dancer, singer, photographer, videographer, narrator, costume designer, costume organizer, stage manager, technical assistant, program designer, usher, choreographer etc.

My work as an educator is born out of my lived experiences. So are yours. These are our embodied lessons. We know them well because we carry them with us. Don’t doubt yourself. Teach who you are. That is your unique gift to our profession.

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