It’s my first year of teaching. As I have a background in both music and political science, I’m asked to teach one block of Social Science 9. I love teaching about the history of English monarchs and the French revolution, but no matter how enthusiastic I am, some students completely disengage, folding their arms and resting their heads on their desks. I am puzzled. One day, I walk into class and notice that one of the students I had previously categorized as disengaged is speaking animatedly to a friend about her regalia. I have no idea what she is talking about but continue to listen, eventually discerning regalia is something that is worn and that members of her family had helped her make it. I ask her if she would bring her regalia to class and show it to us. She agrees and, receiving permission from her Elders to do so, wears her regalia to the next class, standing tall. She explains to us the significance of the different aspects of her dress, and who contributed to its creation. Although I speak multiple languages and have previously prided myself on being able to enter many cultural and linguistic environments, I feel like I am in a different world. There is so much I don’t know about my students’ various First Nations cultures. I feel very awkward, ignorant, and humbled, realizing I am not meeting some of my students’ needs but unsure of how to proceed.
I have returned to my school, fresh from a year’s study leave to complete my Master’s in Music conducting degree. I am full of energy. One of my Grade 6 band students has also returned from spending a few months in the Punjab, visiting relatives with her family. She tells me that she has brought home a harmonium. One of her relatives in India, noting her interest in music, had purchased it for her to encourage her exploration. I have no idea what a harmonium looks like so I ask her if she would bring it to the next class, which she eagerly does, showing us the keys and bellows, and playing a little for us. It is basically a show and tell event. I don’t think to ask her at what events people in her community play the instrument, if the harmonium is used to accompany a singer, or if there is someone in the Indo-Canadian community who might provide her with lessons and/or be willing to come to our class to tell us more about the instrument. I feel very awkward and ignorant, realizing I am not meeting some of my students’ needs but unsure of how to bridge this divide.
I’ve been teaching for 16 years. I believe that I am an experienced and capable music educator. Approximately 50% of the Grade 5-12 school’s students participate in mostly elective music classes, so I interpret that statistic as a sign that I am meeting students’ needs. I’m on a school bus traveling with my Grade 7 concert band, returning from a wonderful festival in the Kootenays. I sit with a sociable student who chats to me about his daily life. He speaks of various aunties and the activities he has done with each. I remark on what a large family he has, sharing with him that I had had only one aunt who had passed away when I was in high school. He pauses, turns to me, hesitates again as he gathers his thoughts, then looks directly at me. With wisdom far beyond what 13-year-olds typically demonstrate, he does what Willy Ermine (2007) has called “two-eyed seeing,” seeing simultaneously from two vantage points. He gently says, “Oh, Ms. Prest, aunties are all the women who look after me, look out for me. It doesn’t mean that they are related to me. It’s different in my culture. Everybody helps.” I feel very awkward and ignorant, realizing that I still don’t have an adequate window into my students’ lives. But this time, I also am grateful to my student for sharing his knowledge, and I feel surer of how to proceed. Early the next school year, I contact the manager of one of the two local First Nations, someone with whom I have developed a relationship over the years, and I ask him if we might begin to plan a “music” experience, perhaps making an instrument, in the historic building the Upper Similkameen First Nation has restored. One of the rooms contains historic artifacts and photos of the students’ ancestors hang on its four walls, creating an atmosphere where students can connect with their past. Over the course of a few months, he responds positively and puts me in touch with the person I should contact to plan the activity.
If it were possible to travel through time, there are things I would like to say today to my former teaching self. Hopefully, if I could say the following, my former self would be open to learning:
- It’s okay to be ignorant about a student’s cultural reality, but once you realize your lack of awareness, act on it. Your ignorance may be new to you, but it is already obvious to the people whose culture you know little about.
- Be proud of your score study ability and conducting acumen, but also be aware that music is not the center of what you do; your students are.
- It’s a gift when students are our teachers, sharing the funds of knowledge that they already possess and bring to their learning environments.
- Fear of making a mistake can be an excuse not to do anything. Reach out, be brave, take responsibility, and continue to learn. Do think about the words you use and how they might affect others before you speak.
- Apologize when you realize you have inadvertently done something insensitive, and then actually do something constructive to make things better (related to #1). To a degree, intent is important, but we all know which road is paved with good intentions. We must be responsible for the consequences of our actions, regardless of our intent.
- Decolonization is not an abstract concept. It occurs in the choices we make in our everyday lives. We must be alert to the moments when we have the opportunity to consciously change our habits. Decolonization is an ongoing process, rather than a destination because we never “arrive.”
Roger Mantie observed in a recent blog that “When music learning becomes inclusive of everyone, it shifts from being a private or semi-private ‘good’ to being a truly public good.” He reasoned so eruditely that we take this time to consciously “build back better.” What a wonderful opportunity to make changes within ourselves and develop more robust relationships with our students and local communities to help realize that goal.
by Dr. Anita Prest