Special Edition

The 2015 State Teachers of the Year

Making Beautiful Music: How to Strike the Right Notes as an Educator

Making Beautiful Music: How to Strike the Right Notes as an Educator

She saved me; that’s certain. Her approach blended content knowledge, instructional strategies and other less tangible, life-changing gifts. Mrs. Linda Francisco stands as the educator who had the single most profound influence on me. A recently retired piano and choir teacher at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Mrs. Francisco remains the role model who can inspire all of us to be the kind of educators we have the potential to be.

She saved me; that’s certain. Her approach blended content knowledge, instructional strategies and other less tangible, life-changing gifts. Mrs. Linda Francisco stands as the educator who had the single most profound influence on me.

A recently retired piano and choir teacher at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Mrs. Francisco remains the role model who can inspire all of us to be the kind of educators we have the potential to be.

Know as Much as You Can Know

Mrs. Francisco could play that piano with a competence that entranced me. She exemplified her content knowledge by demonstrating performance abilities day after day. When we students were ready to begin work on new songs, she played them for us with flawless skill and contagious passion. Hearing her was an opening to imagining ourselves playing with that kind of proficiency. Later, when we struggled, her explanations of chords, rests and octaves eased us forward. Of course we learned, because her expertise was irrefutable.

Teachers owe it to themselves and to their students to acquire and maintain content knowledge that is equally irrefutable. We must own our roles as experts, standing proudly with a professional demeanor built upon study, reflection and depth. Certainly, no one can know everything, but we must know where we can discover anything, and we must have the willingness to pursue that discovery. Credibility is built upon content knowledge as a key cornerstone, so staying committed to up-to-date and vigorous nurturing of content knowledge is an absolute.

Expand the Instructional Strategies You Use

The first time my fingering betrayed me was for a song called “Juanita.” A gorgeous, floating melody sounded harder to reproduce than it actually was … if the fingering was correct, that is. I was determined to ignore the weaklings (ring and pinky fingers) so the power fingers could dominate, but that led to twisted smears of blurry half-struck notes. Mrs. Francisco assigned finger numbers to each note, made me play each hand solo with the correct finger positions and slowed down the pace to a dirge-like tempo until I could execute properly. Reuniting the hands and increasing the tempo was the reward, the soaring outcome making me want to sit up with concert-pianist posture and arched wrists conveying a delicacy previously foreign to the preteen I was. Mrs. Francisco’s strategies worked, and soon I was sending the whispery melody of “Juanita” flitting through the halls of the blind school.

I think of that fingering showdown when I make decisions about how to eradicate the improper use of “you” in the formal writing of my sophomore English students. Saying “stop” would be as ineffective as if Mrs. Francisco had simply “told” me to use correct fingering. Instead, I break down the process, drill frustrating but fundamental exercises and wait for the students’ awe when they discover “you” is not what they meant at all. Having a strong sense of diverse instructional strategies is crucial because the fingering flops and the “you” intrusions never disappear permanently in songs or essays. However, if we as educators immerse ourselves in learning a bevy of strategies, we can be persistent and varied in their application, knowing there is always another option when one approach doesn’t succeed.

Give Freely of Those Immeasurable Gifts

If Mrs. Francisco had only possessed content knowledge and instructional strategies, she would have been a good teacher, not the great educator she was. Instead, she saw what her students needed and reached within her heart to fulfill that need. Declining vision? That was the reality of some of her students, so she transcribed songs by hand onto oversized musical staffs, one note at a time, bigger and bigger until those notes were big enough that we could see them. Braille? That was the written language of yet other students, so she learned it herself, showing us she would go that extra mile. Isolation? That is too often the companion of disability, so she entered us in competitions open to all youth musicians, weaving through public school hallways with a string of blind kids behind her, linked by hands holding elbows, just one part of the nervous and excited crowd. Whatever we needed, she found a way to fill that need. In the process, her students became warriors whose fingers on piano keys pounded out a victory song.

I am one such warrior, a once broken and distraught girl whose vision was slipping into nothingness when I had the good fortune to be in Mrs. Francisco’s classroom. However, it cannot be “good fortune” that students land in the presence of educators who teach from their heart: every child deserves such a teacher in every classroom. We must be willing as educators to be compassionate, responsive, aware, available, creative, supportive and real. If we approach teaching in a mechanical and dispassionate manner, we might as well hire robots. If we see students only as names on a computer screen, no knowledge or strategies will be good enough to inject the learning process with hope. If we succumb to the negativity that presses in from all sides in this profession today, we might burn out, leave and thus miss the chance to change a student’s life the way Mrs. Francisco changed mine.

Educators Can Be a Child’s Saving Grace

So how did she save me? I was in such a dark place when I had Mrs. Francisco as a teacher, literally with my deteriorating vision and figuratively with my broken spirit. Anorexia, depression, hopelessness…they were what I knew the best. As bright and capable as I was, I did not know how to move forward. She knew. As she helped me first discover and then nurture my gift for playing the piano, she saved me from myself by showing me that learning yields joy. How many of our students need that kind of rescue? We may never know, but if we hold back from making our classrooms dynamic and compassionate places of learning, we fail. What other professions can claim such a poignant, powerful ability to impact a life? Teaching is like a song with deep chords and obvious melodies, but sometimes it is the grace notes--the extra flourishes brought about when humanity enters the classroom in the form of an outstanding educator—that can change a simple song into a rousing masterpiece.

Nimmer

Kathy Nimmer is Indiana’s 2015 State Teacher of the Year as selected by the Council of Chief State School Officers and a finalist for 2015 National Teacher of the Year.

 

She is from West Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches high school English and creative writing at William Henry Harrison High School. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (2003/2013) and has been teaching since 1992. She was named Sagamore of the Wabash in 2014, awarded the Butler-Cooley Excellence in Teaching Award in 2004, presented with the Golden Apple in 1998 and is a two-time recipient of the Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. In 2009, she was named a Lilly Distinguished Fellow, giving her the opportunity to fulfill the lifelong dream of writing and editing an anthology (including her personal experience) about assistance dogs: Two Plus Four Equals One. This followed a book of poetry in 2006, entitled Minutes in the Dark, Eternity in the Light.

 

She is a frequent public speaker at local, state and national events. In March 2014, she was honored to give a TED Talk at TEDxPurdue. 

 

Kathy earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Education with minors in special education and communications from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois. She earned her Master of Arts in English from Purdue University.

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