Sometimes you realise something important, a light bulb moment of self-understanding, in the oddest of places.
This one happened as I was driving to pick up my supermarket shopping from the click and collect service. And it only happened, possibly, as I had the radio on and was listening to a particular conversation. If the supermarket had still had a convenient slot (the laptop was playing up and we lost the one we booked), I would never have been in the car, never been listening to the radio, never heard the conversation, never started thinking, never made the connection. But, maybe it happened for a reason.
The conversation on the radio was about a project to do with people taking up their instruments again; those they played well, those they didn’t play so well, those they have always wanted to learn but never got round to it for whatever reason. BBC Music’s Get Playing is creating a Virtual Orchestra, playing the Toreador’s March from ‘Carmen’. To help people, there are all sorts of video masterclasses and other resources available, so I understand from the conversation on the radio.
So it set me thinking. I ought to do some practice. I haven’t for a long time. I feel bad about that.
Then I started thinking about why I haven’t, and, to be honest, part of the reason is that there are so many toys and other things in front of the piano, that I just don’t get myself organised to do it. But there is another, much bigger reason, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought through it and made connections.
The biggest reason has to be time constraints caused by work and the professional expectations laid on us. I am expected, and need to, spend vast amounts of my time prepping, reviewing, assessing, etc. But it leaves little time for other things, including instrumental practice. I thought about why I didn’t tend to do practice in school any more. I certainly used to years ago. I remembered that for a long time now, I have felt too guilty to use my time playing the piano or practising my other instruments. The only allowable practice time was for learning and accompaniment or piece of music for a particular lessons. Anything else would be seen as frivolous and not working on the things I should be working on. Like the prepping, reviewing, assessing, etc. So I stopped doing it. I expected to be told off, or at the very least advised (in that way that says you will do it, or…)6 that I would be better using my time elsewhere. Practice time was my choice and therefore should take place in my own time. Not my job’s time. So, as I said, I stopped. I allowed my skills to stagnate. Because of the pressures to conform to a particular way of working as a teacher. Because of my own conscience. It made me sad. It makes me sad. What skill development have I missed out on?
And that is when I made the connection. A “Hallelujah ” moment, if you will. The point I had failed to realise over all these years is that practising my instruments is relevant. It is professional development. It is central to my role. It is centrally to the person, the teacher I am. I need those skills to do my job. I didn’t spend all those years training to suddenly stop developing when I started teaching. But that is what the expectations of the system made me think, feel, believe! All that time I have wasted by not developing my skills. And how much happier may I have been?
What I needed was someone higher up than me tell me that it was alright to practise, alright to use my in-school non-contact time (well some of it, as I still need to do the other things) practising my instruments. I wish they had. Other teachers go on training courses, or read about or research their subjects. I have just realised that practising comes under the same umbrella.
Now you may well think that I have been a bit slow on the uptake and it should have been obvious. I don’t disagree. I am not stupid to have not realised before though. Think about the system and how it works. Does it really work well when a teacher feels that they are not allowed to use their professional time to develop the skills that are integral to their job, because they should be filling out forms, ticking boxes, assessing, reviewing and planning/prepping? Does the system work when a teacher feels that others see those aspects as by far the most important part of the role and that if they don’t fit in the narrow expectations of the job, then they are in the wrong at the least, and inherently lazy at the worst? And I can see that the rule-makers, be they politicians, civil servants, or management, will say “But we never said you couldn’t”. But that is beside the point. It is the expectations laid on us, and the examples from other instances which prove to those of us at the bottom of the pile that we must be in the wrong. And everything has to be accountable and measurable. I don’t have the time currently, with a young family to look after, to do any more exams to prove the amount I have progressed using my professional time for practices. So I can’t easily prove my progress.I
But we are not in the wrong, and we shouldn’t have to provide a specific way of measuring success. All of us need the time to develop our skills, and prove their development through the usage of them in our day-to-day teaching lives, and we should not feel guilty about doing so. A scientist needs to use their time to read new research (or even conduct their own); an English or Languages teacher needs time to read literature (yes, actual stories, novels, poetry); an Art teacher needs time to work on developing their own specialist creative area; a Humanities teacher needs time to read, to research, to even watch about different aspects of their subject. And a Music teacher needs to practice their instruments. This time will make us better teachers, more informed teachers, more effective teachers, happier teachers.
It has taken me too long to realise what I should have done years ago. I am not going to leave it to those higher up to tell us it is fine to practice, although I plead for them to listen and to check their charges to ensure that they are aware that these areas do count as professional development and therefore acceptable to do in professional time. I am going to make sure people know.
And I can’t wait to start practising in my own professional time again 😊