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Saying Goodbye: Reflections Of A Music Teacher

Jackie Zielke and eighth-grader Chartreanna Watson practice a guitar duet at Brady Middle School in Pepper Pike, Ohio.

This weekend, NPR Ed is featuring dispatches from teachers about the ups and downs of their work.

Early each December, the HR department of Orange City Schools in Pepper Pike, Ohio, places a checklist in our mailboxes. It asks about our employment plans for the next school year. Choices include sabbatical leave, acquiring advanced degrees, and the one everyone dreams of checking: I will be retiring at the end of the current school year.

When that paper arrived in my mailbox last year, I was feeling discouraged. Students weren't practicing their instruments, rude behavior was on the rise and a few parents were making me miserable. My retirement date seemed light-years away.

I envisioned myself checking that elusive box and breaking out in cartwheels and whoops of joy.

When this year started, things were going so well, I hadn't even thought about the checklist.

Then one Wednesday afternoon, there it was.

I picked it up and planned to walk back to my office to sign it in private.

But holding that paper in my hand, I was overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions I hadn't anticipated.

I'll never again introduce the fifth-grade students to instrumental music, and my eighth-grade American music curriculum will sit in a binder forever. I thought: Will the next teacher show them how the music of our country is built on the songs of the slaves?

I won't be sharing my love of Mozart with the seventh grade or watching their reactions as they experience aleatoric music by John Cage, or The Planets by Holst. They always love Mars the best.

The checklist suddenly made me feel useless, old and sad.

I stood where I was, checked the box and sent it to HR.

Then I walked the long hallway back toward the music rooms. No whoops of joy. No cartwheels.

Looking Back

I've worked in the Orange City School District, near Cleveland, for 18 years. I am grateful for the kids who came my way and the dedicated teachers with whom I work.

But it was my two years in an inner-city school in southern Ohio that shaped my teaching the most.

There, I taught middle school — my favorite age. My General Music room was in the basement and was roach-infested. The art room was the only other classroom down there. Heating ducts hung from the ceiling and large weight-bearing columns ran floor-to-ceiling, making movement challenging. I had very few materials and spent a lot of my income and time to make up for that.

In my two-year tenure there, I had my first student say "F*** you, lady" as I encouraged him to participate in an activity. I saw kids come to school hungry, some with bruises or cigarette burns on their arms. I learned a lot of Black History in that school, which later came in handy. I was pushed up against a wall and choked by an angry eighth-grade girl. She was mad at life and I was there.

My purse was stolen. An angry parent with a gun led to my first school lockdown. We had a security guard who used cocaine.

The school had no instrumental music program. I scheduled an appointment with the principal and asked if I could start one. I went to pawnshops, flea markets and music shops and begged, borrowed and stole band instruments.

Soon, kids were coming before school and during recess to learn how to play, and by Christmas, we had a concert band of 100 kids.

Good behavior and rapt attention led to fulfilling rehearsals. As the students' playing improved, I could see their pride and sense of accomplishment grow. They didn't need praise from me, it was intrinsic: the joy-producing, healing power of music.

After two years, I moved to another city and another school. I felt like a mother abandoning her children. Who would care for them? Who would encourage them? Would they keep playing into high school?

Those kids are over 30 now. I hope some of them have had a chance to improve their lives and rise above their conditions. This music teacher wishes she could thank them for showing that kindness is the most effective teaching tool and that the presence of the arts in every school is there to uplift, sustain and give some kids a reason to get up in the morning.

In all of the schools where I have taught, I have loved the quirky and unexpected comments of kids. I have relished the challenges of motivating the unmotivated and keeping the brightest from becoming bored. I have savored the 30-second conversations with teachers in the hallway or at the copy machine, and I have embraced the constant learning and growing.

After thousands of lesson plans later, I am grateful for the chance to have had important work to do each day.

Jackie Zielke is retiring this year after 34 years of teaching music. She's also the mom of NPR Ed's visual journalist, LA Johnson.

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