Why High School Musicals Matter

I recently completed a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! with my students. Due to limited scheduling capacity in the auditorium, commitments to other activities, and a number of other factors, our vocal musical department produces a musical during the month of June. While most teachers were packing up their classrooms for summer maintenance, planning vacations with family, or gearing up for workshops, I was choreographing “The Farmer and the Cowman”, and tracking down a butter churn—among the many other things directing a musical production demands.

 

And I love it.

 

Some of my colleagues think I’m crazy for giving up a month of my hard-earned summer vacation to be at school from 9-4 most days running through “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”…just one more time. From a practical standpoint, the timing has worked beautifully for us. We don’t have to share the facility with anybody, which means 5 weeks of uninterrupted time on stage. Most of the students are unattached to other activities—with the notable exception of the 4 football team members who came to rehearsal after morning workouts. And, sponsorships aren’t difficult to find because most businesses are enjoying a hiatus from the constant requests by multiple activities for donations or program ads.

 

But there are some other positives to the experience that are less than obvious. The new friendships I forged with the teachers from other departments who volunteered their time as well to assist with the production.

Donna

My trusty side-kick, Ms. Dobbs, vacuuming the girls’ dressing room at 1am after our final show.

The partnership with our local community college, who provided all the sets, several props, and the expertise of their resident technical director. And of course, there are the kids.

 

 

You get to watch your students through a completely different lens when leading them through something as outrageously daunting as a full-scale musical. I mean…we are asking them to do what, at one time, only professionals did on Broadway. Once upon a time, every single production was a first-run Broadway show, and therefore unavailable for amateur performance.

 

There’s something about that kind of experience that brings the kids together, as well.   The boys in this particular production are a perfect example.  This cast included boys who just finished 8th grade, and boys who will be entering their senior year. Boys who are all-star actors, and boys who were on the state championship winning football team this year. Boys who were selected (for the 2nd time) to the ACDA National Honor Choir…just before taking over the starting position as center on the football team. One minute I’d hear them cajoling each other over who beat whom on NBA All Stars the night before, the next they were belting every song from “Dear Evan Hansen” at the top of their lungs. When a certain Thunder trade occurred during the Friday night performance, you could hear an audible holler from the greenroom backstage. The next night, they ran circles around the stage when I announced next summer’s production would be Hairspray.
Cast2This, and so many other immeasurable, invaluable, unapparent reasons are why music and art have existed for so long, and will continue to for ages to come.  It brings people together.  It’s so very human at its core.

 

I’ll end this post with my director’s note from the program this year:

 

A good friend once told me, what matters can’t always be measured.

Truer words were perhaps never spoken, especially when assessing the value of performing arts. Throughout the production, our cast have rehearsed songs, practiced dances, and memorized lines. But what they have learned goes so far beyond the basic components of the show: discipline, work ethic, commitment, collaboration, responsibility, self-assessment, perseverance. The often difficult task of taking constructive criticism. The ability to set a goal and see it through. Delayed gratification. These are things we can’t tangibly measure, but I think we can all agree they certainly matter. And this is what is at the very heart of fine arts education. We don’t just teach art. We use it as a tool for growing more confident and capable people.

And that is what remains when the final show is finished, when the set is struck, and when the last note of the curtain call fades: students who are a little more mature and slightly more equipped to handle whatever challenges are thrown at them. This is the return on your investment for the time and resources devoted to this project over the last few weeks. Ultimately, it’s not about the production. It’s about the people we become as a result of the experience.

Without the help of many people, these projects would never come to fruition. It takes a village to build sets, design lighting, choreograph every production number, fit and alter costumes, track down hard-to-find prop pieces, navigate the many facets (and frustrations) of an outdated sound system, prepare and decorate the lobby, designand format programs, and the list goes on and on…

People ask me, how in the world do you manage it?

And my response is, I don’t. WE do.

͟So thanks, village. You know who you are. And you’re “doin’ fine” in my book.

 

…And a Little Bit Worse

Someone once told me, “Feelings are neither right nor wrong. Feelings just…are.

 

I’ve never forgotten that. And it has popped into my mind ever since when I find myself in emotionally charged situations.

 

We don’t necessarily have control over our feelings. They just happen…they just..are. We do have control in how we respond to our feelings, but to attempt to shut them off completely can be a detriment to our emotional and mental health.

 

It’s also why we should avoid telling people how they should feel about something. To say to someone they should or shouldn’t feel a certain way is to imply that their feelings are wrong. It isn’t helpful, and it’s patronizing.

 

That’s why I get so defensive when somebody outside my profession tries to direct or even scold my thoughts and feelings about what is going on in the education world today, especially what is happening in Oklahoma. You see, there is a difference between sympathy and empathy.   Sympathy is something you feel for somebody who is experiencing something you imagine to be difficult. Empathy is when you know it to be difficult because you have experienced it (or are experiencing it). To sympathize is to feel for someone. To empathize is to feel with someone. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s still there.

 

In the hours and days following November 8th and Oklahoma’s defeat of SQ779, which would have circumvented legislators and established a continuous source of funding for our teachers and schools, I commiserated with a small group of educators. We all agreed on the events that would unfold in the coming months:

  1. Legislators would give lip service to educators by attempting to carry the banner for teacher pay raises (in front of as many cameras and journalists as possible).
  2. With as much pomp and circumstance as possible, several bills for teacher pay raises would be filed, most if not all of which would have no plan for funding.
  3. A few would make it out of committee.
  4. One or two might pass their respective chambers.
  5. All bills pertaining to teacher raises and increased funding for education would be dead by May.
  6. Legislators would simultaneously shrug their shoulders and pat themselves on the back for their attempts, claiming a framework for future endeavors had been established.

 

I’m not sure if you’ve followed the shenanigans of this legislative session, but that’s pretty much EXACTLY how it unfolded.

 

I’m grateful for the words of encouragement from stakeholders. I’m glad that parents, community members, and even some businesses have contacted their legislators. I thank God for my students. They keep my going.

But you cannot possibly fully understand how low the morale is in the teaching profession in Oklahoma without being a part of it right now. Last week, I heard of yet another gifted veteran teacher in my field leaving this state for TX. On the same day, a first year teacher deferred accepting what is a very prominent, respected position in my field until she could visit a job fair in TX the following week. A few days later, another colleague informed me one of the openings in her school—a highly sought-after metro-area high school—had ZERO applicants. The job had been posted for more than two weeks.

 

Every day, administrators are making decisions about what programs to cut so they can keep the lights on. They’re trying to figure out how to squeeze more desks into classrooms that weren’t meant to hold 40 students. More districts are considering shorter school weeks and years, which hurt our most disadvantaged students and families. Teachers are getting shamed into accepting a pay-cut themselves in order to save other teachers’ positions. We’re making do with old textbooks, and any athletics or arts programs surviving the cuts are being asked to subsidize their entire program themselves. I entered this profession 12 years ago, and I cannot impart upon those of you reading this how drastically different it is.

 

So you’ll have to forgive me if I get a little short with people who try to tell me to stay positive, to refrain from criticizing our leaders, and to be patient. All that’s gotten us so far is a little bit deeper in the hole. I’m afraid next year it’s same song…second verse…a little bit louder…

 

Get What You Need

Today, I took a sick day and stayed home.  Not for me, though I have struggled with my health lately thanks to what the doctor said is a nasty upper respiratory virus making its way around.  Two days of relentless fever and general misery gave way to what’s going on two weeks of relentless coughing fits that make my students fear I might actually hack up a lung in the middle of rehearsals.  But that wasn’t enough to make me take a break.  My son ran a fever overnight which means he couldn’t go to daycare today.

 

Between doting on and fetching things for the buddy, today I:

 

~Took a nap

~cleaned the kitchen

~Finished TWO loads of laundry—like, actually washed, dried, sorted, folded, and put away TWO entire loads of laundry (to some, that is an unimpressive feat…those people obviously don’t know me, and haven’t seen me pull clean clothes out of the drier for myself or my kids for multiple days in a row…)

~Watched vloggers I like on youtube

~Cleaned out my daughters’ drawers and closets

~painted my toenails

~took what, by mom standards, can only be called a heavenly, luxurious shower that included a new shampoo and conditioner I’ve wanted to try, a deep conditioning hair treatment, and an exfoliator for my poor feet

~Enjoyed two hours in the beautiful weather on my front porch

~Read several chapters in two new books I recently acquired from the library

 

In short, it was a lovely, restful, rejuvenating day.  And the buddy feels better, too.

 

If you’re a teacher, you likely understand the hassle and guilt associated with taking a sick day.  It’s such a hassle to leave sub plans.  We feel so guilty when oFile Apr 18, 9 41 40 PMthers have to cover our classes.  We worry the kids won’t behave in our absence.  It’s why many of us just suck it up and come to school despite the fact our bodies, and dare I say it, our minds are screaming for a break.  Because the kids need us, and there’s no way they can accomplish anything without us and our superhuman teacher powers.

 

But I’ve begun to think that smells less like martyrdom and instead, reeks faintly of self-righteousness.  Of course they can be productive without us—isn’t that the whole point of education?  We’re supposed to be fostering independence and encouraging personal responsibility.  Maybe they won’t be as productive without us, but they can live without us for a day.  Or two.  Or even three.  In fact, it might be good for them—something about accountability-and-making-their-own-way-and-now-they’ll-appreciate-us-even-more or the rather.

 

What I’m saying is, sacrificing our own health for the sake of staying in charge for 180 days is more about us than it is about them.  What’s more, we assign ourselves too much importance when we neglect to care for ourselves citing the excuse that the students can’t get by without us.  If that is truly the case, what kind of teachers are we?

 

Yes, it’s a pain in the as-piring teacher’s well-laid out lesson plans to be gone, to hand over the keys, albeit temporarily, to our kingdom:  our classrooms.  But if the result of a well-placed sick or personal day is more patience, less exhaustion, more energy, and fewer lung expectorating coughing fits, then isn’t it worth it?

 

“Better Plan” Update

It’s been 4 months, 22 days since Oklahomans decided buying booze in the grocery store is important and funding teacher raises isn’t.

The Greater OKC Chamber killed the bill by pumping over $900,000 into a convoluted ad campaign that misled the public. They claimed there would be a “better plan” for funding teacher pay, which will soon be 51st in the nation.

With this legislative session more than halfway finished, I felt it was time to update the public as to the progress towards a “better plan”.

Here’s what the legislature has accomplished in addressing low teacher pay:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coincidentally, it’s the same amount of lobbying the Greater OKC Chamber has done on behalf of teachers.

Go figure.

Tick Tock, OK.

In the Name of Love?

I can still see the look of indignation and astonishment spread across a certain state legislator’s face when I told him that I DON’T feel persecuted.  Not at all.  He was surprised to hear me—a middle class, white, Christian in the buckle of the Bible belt—say that in no way do I feel my religious liberties are threatened.  That same state legislator justified his disagreement with me by rattling off a story about an elementary student who wasn’t allowed to sing “God’s not Dead” at some school assembly.

 

I’ve got something to say to my Christian brothers and sisters, and some of you aren’t going to like it.  Friends, if your definition of “persecution” is a seven-year-old girl being unable to sing a less-than-adequate Christian pop song, then you can probably stop reading this post now because you and I will likely never be on the same page.  And I’ll say the same about being unable to force students to recite the Lord’s prayer, or listen to prayer or scripture over the school-wide intercom.

 

Brothers and Sisters, if you think God is deterred from being present in our lives because you don’t say a prayer from the press box at a football game, then you have a much narrower view of God than I do.  If you are deterred from carrying out our calling as followers of Jesus to LOVE and care for our neighbors (all of them) because you can’t hold an in-class Bible study, then you have a completely different idea of this calling than I do.

 

My God is powerful, but sometimes in subtle ways, at times undetectable by us.  My God can speak through my actions:  patience, kindness, passion, integrity, thoughtfulness, sympathy, radical hospitality, and joy.  My God doesn’t need me to thump my Bible to prove God is here.  To honor God we should care for others, and believe me, if you do that, God can speak for God’s self.

 

I bring this up because I’m growing weary of hearing state leaders justify useless, time-wasting, or even often unconstitutional legislation with the rhetoric they are somehow carrying out God’s will.  Call me crazy, but in a world where millions still live without clean water, in a country where half of those living in poverty are children, and in a state where 60% of kids need school for adequate nutrition, I don’t believe erecting the 10 Commandments on our capitol lawn is atop Jesus’s to-do list.  If we want to clang our cymbals or drum our noisy gong about how our steps are guided by our belief in Jesus, we better make sure that kind of declaration is true of our motives all the time.  Stop using Christian rhetoric when it suits our political ambition (banning abortions) and abandoning it when it doesn’t (eliminating programs that help poor mothers and children).  Stop using people’s willingness to answer God’s call to serve others as an adequate excuse to pay them poorly.

 

I’m working on the log in my own eye.  Have you even noticed the one in yours?

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

With spring break on the horizon, hunting season is upon us.  Specifically I mean job hunting for teachers.  Many districts have already begun enrollment for next year, and they’re gathering letters of intent from tenured teachers.  They’re also determining exactly how many teachers they need and how many they can afford to hire for the following year.  Job postings are going up.

In fact, job postings are going up in districts here and in surrounding states.

With every passing day in this legislative session, the odds of passing a plan to raise teacher pay get slimmer.  A few options have made it out of committee, but they all share one common flaw:  they don’t have revenue plans.  In other words, they don’t have a way to fund these plans.  It doesn’t take a rocket brain scientist to figure out what happens if you tell districts to pay teachers more without providing more revenue:  lay offs.  A teacher pay raise without a funding source is just another unfunded mandate from our legislature.  I’m not surprised at all.  I was only ever surprised that people voted down a fully-funded teacher pay plan because they thought our legislators would take care of the problem.

I said in November my family would likely look at moving out of Oklahoma next year, and that I would seek employment in a state that values education and educators more than Oklahoma does.  I don’t want to leave.  I like my school.  I love my students.  The parents have stepped up to invest in the program I’m directing and their children deserve a good teacher.  I like my neighborhood, and I love the life we live in Norman.

But I also don’t think it’s healthy to continue letting Oklahoma off the hook for the way it treats its educators and, quite frankly, other employees who provide necessary social services.  If we as teachers keep going above and beyond the call of duty despite being so poorly treated and compensated, then we are just enabling our abusers.  They will continue to do what they’ve always done, because they continue to get what they’ve always gotten:  educators willing to martyr themselves to the profession “for the sake of the children.”

There’s got to be a tipping point.  A point at which the well is dry, and we simply say, “no more!”  It’s easy for some people to vilify teachers for wanting our state to do the right thing.  Other states have found a way, and that’s one of the reasons we find ourselves 51st in teacher pay in the nation at the end of this year.  Some legislators continue to paint educators as greedy union thugs.

What’s so greedy about a college-educated professional wanting a salary that doesn’t qualify them for government subsidies?  What’s so greedy about wanting certified professionals in every classroom?  What’s so greedy about wanting our districts to attract the best and the brightest educators to fill vacancies, instead of begging anybody with a heartbeat to take a teaching position?

I don’t want to leave.  But the fact we are a state that pays its legislators a salary that is higher than that of an educator with a master’s degree and 10 years experience is absolutely heart-breaking.

And it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.

Oklahoma: It’s Not Me, It’s You!

I started writing yesterday, and it turned into a 1000 word rant about how much I hate to hear people justify low teacher pay with the false perception that “teachers only work 9 months out of the year.”  Twice now, I stepped away from that post.  Most of the people who read my blog know that teachers work well beyond their 7.5 hourfile-feb-27-7-53-56-pm day and 180 day contract year.  They don’t even have to drive by a school to see cars in the parking lot after 5pm to know that the teaching contract doesn’t adequately represent what the job really entails.  And as for other people, the ones who buy the 9 month myth, well…I can’t imagine anything I write is going to change their minds.

 

I’ve been saying for a few years now that it’s a tough time to be a teacher.  As if the unending and unfunded mandates from the higher ups or the constant “reform” strategies from non-educators weren’t enough, this morning a friend posted an article reminding us that Oklahoma will soon rank dead last in teacher pay.  That’s 51st.  Behind South Dakota and Mississippi, who found a way to fund teacher raises.  There are plenty of plans for teacher pay raises in the mix at the capitol right now.  But they all share one commonality:  none of them have a plan for funding.  And the constant struggle against what seems like an incessant war against public education is affecting my mood.

 

Listen, Oklahoma:  it’s not me, its you!

 

I love my job.  It’s never boring.  Every day presents new challenges and new chances to be important in the life of a child.  I have the unique opportunity, no…obligation…to inspire kids for several years.  During the school year, some of them spend more time with me than with their families.  Teenagers have the power to both amaze and annoy me.  It’s a paradox that makes my days interesting, and my time in the classroom never, ever dull.

 

So why am I struggling to enjoy my days in the classroom as I used to?

 

Oklahoma:  it’s not me, it’s you!

 

All my life, I’ve ever only wanted to be a teacher.  Throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, this was my answer to the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  In the first semester of college, I declared my major:  music education.  I never wavered in that calling.  Even now, I find great fulfillment in recruiting and encouraging talented new people to my profession.  I tell them that teaching is the most rewarding and simultaneously frustrating work there is.

 

So why would I suddenly question a lifelong calling to such an important profession?

 

Oklahoma:  it’s not me, it’s you!

 

You have used my dedication, my passion, my integrity against me.  You have cited my fierce calling to a noble profession as justification for paying me poorly.  You have called me greedy for seeking financial security for my family.  Nobody expects to become a millionaire in the education field (unless you’re a billionaire heiress who wants to redirect education funds to poor-performing charter schools for profit).  But it’s unfair to deny college-educated professionals a wage that allows us to feed and clothe our own kids, put a roof over their heads, and maybe even send them to college someday.

 

I don’t want to leave my profession or the state I’ve called home for all of the nearly 35 years I’ve been alive.  But something’s gotta give.  And if it does…Oklahoma, it’s not me.  It’s you.