I spent the last year of my teaching career living and teaching from an rather poorly constructed Audio Visual cart. It was originally designed to hold those old 16 mm film projectors that, at one time, were the mainstay of geography classes and Friday afternoons. Later it became a way to transport books and other supplies from one classroom to another at the beginning and end of each school year. It also served as a coffee cart during staff meetings, and held water jugs during the school’s annual play day.
Now it had become the way I was expected to move my music program throughout the primary and junior divisions of my school.
At night, I would keep my cart in the school’s computer storage room and in the morning I would load it up with supplies for the day and go out, attempting to teach to a curriculum that, while written in the key of rich musical exploration, composition, improvisation and appreciation, never really seemed to fully resonate with me or my students. My cart could never hold the resources that I had accumulated to provide the type of musical experiences about which I dreamed.
Oh, we had the resources: sets of Orff instruments, drums and shakers from all over the world, electronic keyboards that could emulate a full orchestra and a class set of ukuleles that almost always stayed in tune. Traditional tools of the trade combined with more modern technologies to create a space for exploration and creation! But the music room was more than just a physical teaching space. It was a place of social interaction, experimentation and confidence-building!
I may have been the only one who noticed, but when I lost that physical space and was forced to push my cart from class to class, I lost an important part of my identity as a teacher. Not only could I not offer my students access to the type of program in which we had invested, both my connection to both my work and my colleagues changed.
It changed because space is an important dimension in the teaching-learning dynamic. It’s where student, teacher and subject matter come together and it says to all involved, “This is important stuff and it matters.” More than that, however, it says, “You’re important stuff and you matter.” And without dedicated space, it’s easy to get lost, feel ungrounded and unconnected. As strange as it might seem to others, when I lost my dedicated music classroom, a little piece of my own dedication shifted and moved elsewhere. A sense of compromise began to creep into the program decisions I made. Not everything was possible (or practical) anymore and the way that I approached the prescribed curriculum changed.
Not only was there no place for me to land at the beginning of each day, and no place to set up and get organized, but there was no home for the extra-curricular music activities that were so much part of my life as a teacher. (Imagine a phys-ed teacher with no gymnasium!) And there was no place for kids to come and hang out, listen to music or try out an instrument or a musical idea that may have been running through their head during math class. In a sense, when I lost my classroom, a void was created that extended well beyond the boundaries of my particular program.
This week the Peel District School Board announced a decision to close nearly 100 classrooms and relegate a number of music and French language teachers to life on the cart. Apparently, schools don’t have the money to clean an entire school anymore. The solution? Don’t use the entire school. The thinking is that vocal-music and French language teachers don’t need space of their own in order to do their work. They are confident that, while it may be inconvenient and a bit of a hassle for everyone, that things will work themselves out.
And you know what? They’re probably right. Good teachers will always find a way to make it work. I tried to make it work.
But while the Board’s financial folks are counting the savings on one hand, they need to be sure that they are accounting for the costs on the other: quality programming, quality teaching and the type of learning that happens when dedicated space is seen as an essential part of our work as educators.
There are many questions that emerge as the result of the Board’s approach to problem solving. Perhaps one of the most important might be: Do we really want important dimensions of our public education system to be available a la carte?