How I Found My Most Creative Teaching: My Journey into the World of Special Education
By: Vivian Gonzalez
It was December 1999, and I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree in violin performance, when I suddenly and fervently decided that my purpose in life was to teach. More specifically, I wanted to do for the children of Miami-Dade County what had been done for me. Since I was five years old it seemed like all the music teachers and musicians of Miami-Dade County wanted me to reach my dreams of being a violinist. I was given free private lessons, free instruments, and encouraged every step of the way by amazing teachers. The older I grew, the more I understood how rare this was. After reaching a high accomplishment level on violin, I did what no one expected, and I became passionate about affording the same opportunities to as many children in my community as I could. My epiphany was met with mixed reviews, but 15 years after my first day as a teacher, I am as sure as I ever was that this is my calling.
How it all started:
I was determined to be a teacher, so I went in to speak with the district music supervisor and he was shocked. I had always been a performer, and he wasn’t so convinced teaching was for me. He had me observe some teachers to make sure that I really wanted to do this. Of course two weeks later, I was still determined. Now I realize that December isn’t the best time for this revelation, but at the time, I had no idea. He said that there was one opening that was close to my home, but that it was an elementary school for Emotionally Handicapped and Severely Emotionally Disturbed students. Of course, I was young and very naïve, and I thought, “music is love, and these children need help with their emotions and what better way to do that than through music.” Again, I am reminding you that I was very young…just 21… and naïve.
I was set that I was the person who was going to help these children through music education, so I scheduled a meeting with the principal. He gave me the address of the school, and I had no idea there was a school so close to my house. When I drove there, I realized why I didn’t know this…it was because it didn’t look like a school. I walked in and the principal walked me to the music room. The first thing I noticed was that he had to use a security card to unlock the door. As soon as he opened the door a very tall boy went running out of the room screaming words I had never in my life heard in a school. We entered the room, which was enormous, and I immediately knew it was not an elementary school.
After the shock of finding out that it was a middle school that had children who were sometimes older than a traditional middle school age due to retention, I was taken to the office for an interview. I thought it was strange when there were no less than six people in the room with me. It was even odder when they started asking questions about how I felt about physically restraining students and what I would do if I was to be hit by a student instead of asking any music-related questions. Let’s keep in mind that I was 21, 5’1”, about 130 lbs., and a violinist, so this line of questioning was a little concerning. Somehow I survived the interview, and the principal was generous enough to hire me and support my idea of creating a steel drum and hand percussion ensemble.
Learning the Ropes:
I spent the next four years watching some of the best teachers I have ever encountered. Their specialty wasn’t necessarily the content area that they were teaching, but in the art of teaching itself. As often as I could, I would spend my planning period walking into classrooms just to watch these rock star teachers, and I would sit in awe. These teachers had a million ways to manage a classroom, redirect behavior, motivate students, and structure their room and lessons for learning for each child in the room. Because of their willingness to accept me, a music teacher, into their world and allow me to learn from them, I have been able to find my most creative teaching.
Yes, in my time there, there was plenty of violence. I had to physically restrain students, I was punched in the face a few times, I had more threats and obscenities screamed at me than I could possibly count, I visited students in the hospital and even had to attend one of my students’ funerals. But the students and I also created the World Ensemble, which was recognized throughout the district and created a real sense of pride and belonging for the school and the students. They worked hard and belonged to a positive group. For some of my students this was the first time they were successful and engaged, and the first time their parent(s) could be proud of them. This is the power of music. This is what music education can do, that few other subjects can.
What I Learned:
- Behavior Management is the cornerstone to any classroom. Every teacher has a style that they are comfortable with, but it’s important to be flexible for special learners. Sometimes, when giving advice to colleagues about a student they are having behavior issues with, I tell them that it’s like asking a square peg to fit in a round hole. You have to know what are the really important, non-negotiable points in your classroom and be flexible with the rest. I tell my students all the time that fair is not everyone getting the same thing, but rather everyone getting what they need.
- Planning is the most important part of teaching students with special needs, and the time to get the most creative! When I present on the inclusion of special learners in the music classroom, I always say that music teachers are content experts, it’s like the puzzle is already put together in our minds. We have to break that puzzle into a thousand pieces, and find ways to guide our students to put it back together for themselves. I LOVE this part, because it’s like a treasure hunt.
- I also plan as if every student in my room is a special learner. That sounds strange, I know. But if you plan as if every student is a special learner, then you are sure to reach all of them. In the end, teaching special needs students is just high level teaching. Planning a lesson should include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic components to reach all the learners.
- Themes and Sequencing: Students learn best when you are tying things together. Planning in units and making sure that your sequencing has a natural arch helps all students to retain the material and better apply it to new concepts or other subjects.
- Every child deserves to have music education in their lives. Every child deserves to be part of a musical ensemble. It’s not always easy to accept a special needs student into an ensemble class, but I am passionate about helping teachers feel like they can do it. The gift of being part of an ensemble is something only music educators can give. In many cases we are the only ones who can reach these children. I may have been naïve and only 21, but I was right: Music IS love, and ALL our children need help with their emotions…and what better way to do that than through music?
About the author:
Vivian Gonzalez began studying the violin at age 5. At age ten, Ms. Gonzalez made her solo debut with the former Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida. She is a proud product of Miami Dade County Public Schools Magnet Programs and community music organizations. Currently, Ms. Gonzalez is a 2014 Grammy Music Educator Award Top-Ten Finalist teaching general and magnet music at South Miami K-8 Center. She also serves as the NAfME IN-Ovations Council Southern Representative, the FL-ASTA Awards Chair, FEMEA District 1 Chair, and is a member of the editorial committee for the International Journal of Music Education: Practice. Ms. Gonzalez was recently recognized as a featured teacher for the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
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