I've been involved with education most of my life - as a pupil, student, teacher, teacher of teachers and since 1998 a freelance music workshop leader. Running workshops in schools is now only a small part of my portfolio of activities. Recently I met someone working in a shop who addressed me by name. He had recognised me from when I took some djembes into his so-called "failing school" for a project more than ten years ago. Although I was surprised when he remembered my name I was even more surprised and very moved when he credited me with having sparked his interest in music, an interest that now sees him playing in several bands, playing a variety of music at a high level and offers of places at two of London's more prestigious conservatoires. I have heard second or third hand anecdotes that a few former pupils and workshop participants remembered something we did together; adults I've supported in sharing music with children have also occasionally been very complimentary, but this is the first time I have come face to face with someone who claims my intervention may have played a significant part in defining his future. I shall be sixty next month. I feel pleased that a career may not have been wasted after all.
That was last week. This week I have experienced some awful failures. I know that my workshops have every potential to be interesting and, of course, fun. I love to see the raw beginnings of chaotic ideas coalesce into music and the biggest reward is always to see the look on the face of a pupil who knows they have achieved something significant. Such a glow is infectious. I am running regular workshops in one school at the moment. I know I am there to cover something called PPA time two afternoons a week, but after a couple of years of doing the work I still don't know what PPA means. I gather it is something to do with planning, preparation and marking and I have a vague memory of it being a sop to teachers having their contracts unilaterally changed during the Thatcher years, when among other things, the working year was extended by five days - the so-called "Baker Days". Incidentally, I wonder how many people knew that Kenneth Baker was also responsible for music being in the National Curriculum at all? The story I heard is that when the notion of discrete subjects was being argued about the milk-snatching premiere crossed music off the list of subjects deemed important enough to be worthy of inclusion. Baker, then the education secretary who always made me think of the Cheshire Cat, announced at a conference (was it one of the annual N.U.T. Easter bashes?) the glad tidings that music would be included in the National Curriculum. I'd love to have seen the ensuing memos and have been a fly on the wall at the next cabinet meeting.
One class in my PPA school contains a number of spiky characters. I find the most difficult classes are often ones where pupils don't seem to like themselves very much. One can only imagine the kinds of lives that lead young people to these awful conclusions about themselves. I could go into the class, point to the percussion trolley and say, "Go." Actually, I'm pretty sure that some good stuff would happen without any intervention whatsoever from me, but at some point, someone is going to want some justification from me about what I am doing; my aims and objectives need to be articulated; progression needs to be demonstrable; my tactics for differentiation need to be cogent. The OfSTED monster needs its incessant thirst for Evidence slaked. I can play that game. I may now be long-lapsed, but years ago I trained to inspect, was sent on three school inspections in places as far afield as Lancashire and Surrey and hated every second of the experience. My ability to justify myself, as well as being able to help young people consolidate and improve their musical ideas is what I am being paid for.
Of course, if I have to have a plan, I am obliged at some point to share that with the participants of the workshop. They need to know what to do and what the criteria might include for them to refine and improve their ideas and their music. I believe passionately that one of the fundamental skills in musical activity is listening - I assume I have been engaged because my own pedagogical approaches and beliefs have a long-established reputation for producing results. We listen to ourselves, to each other, to instructions and suggestions for improvement from instructors, directors and our peers. We learn to listen with increasing attention to subtle details in our music. Are we playing what we thought we agreed? Are we in time and in tune? Are we holding the tempo and are we blending with the ensemble appropriately? Listening is vital and I insist on it. The plan begins to unravel when the adults in the school don't seem to get it. For example, staff passing through the hall stop and and chat, even when I am addressing the pupils. I often wait for them to stop so that I can carry on. When that hasn't worked I have gone over to them and quietly requested them to talk somewhere else. It still happens. In one class the teaching assistants who accompany the reception pupils to my sessions have decided it is a good time to listen to children read. Whatever I am doing or saying always has to happen over the noise, sometimes quite obtrusive noise, of at least two other voices. I guess by this method we reinforce the skills of children to be able to multi-task doing homework in front of the television. I am not convinced that either activity ends up being carried out with appropriate mindfulness. Is there any connection between this lack of respect for ourselves and the work of others and the behaviour of the eight and nine year-olds who pass comment on everything I say, who always want to have a final word in any exchange, who appear to be under the impression that participation in a set task is optional, who answer back when spoken to, who shout and scream, flail and flounce if they don't get their own way? Not all the children in that class behave this way, but among the ones who want to get on with the job are the impatient ones who are just as disruptive when they add to the disturbance by remonstrating with their fellows for their poor behaviour or simply shout for everyone else to "Shut up!". No matter how many times I point out that this kind of "help" is ultimately unproductive they continue. This requires us to stop altogether while I sit everyone down and we have to wait for silence so I can address the behaviour. I refuse to shout over the top of their noise to get their attention. Waiting for the cessation of arguments that have broken out on opposite sides of the room about who made bunny ears behind whom or who pulled a face at whom slows the pace of the lesson to a dead stop. I am embarrassed when the head comes into my lesson and somehow makes the children stop talking among themselves and become quiet. She doesn't shout either, but she has their attention in a way that I lack. I see the pupils for forty-five minutes a week. I am not their teacher, nor their head-teacher. Other people see them every day. I don't understand what is going wrong and what I can do about it, but I have to wonder if there is no unity of approach about how to respect others whether there is actually much within my power to address. Maybe I'm just getting too old for this game.
Many congratulations to the young shop assistant. Whether I had a significant part to play in his life or not is really not that important. Something sparked his interest and his achievements are the results of his own hard graft. A part of me can't help being a bit proud of being included in the story though. Rewards in teaching come rarely. This once in a lifetime encounter sticks a finger in the dyke that sees me losing confidence by the day.