“I Teach—What’s Your Superpower?”
Member Spotlight: Argine Safari
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 Teaching Music.
THERE’S A SIGN on the piano in the room where NAfME member Argine Safari teaches music to grades 9–12 at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey. It reads: “I teach—what’s your superpower?” An enthusiastic and inspiring educator, Safari was chosen as the New Jersey Teacher of the Year for 2016–17. Her journey, which began in Armenia and took her through Russia and finally to the United States in 1994 with her husband and young daughter, has been filled with joys and challenges.
Although Safari began to study piano at age six, teaching music came much later and after considerable soul-searching. She recounts, “After emigrating to the United States, I went back to college and graduated with a business degree, and then held jobs as a translator, insurance agent, and financial advisor. But I stayed active in music during evenings and weekends: Music was the thing that kept me going during hard times.”
Safari’s decision to be a music educator was the result of a revelation. She says, “The pivotal moment for me was when I decided to help a student who had lost her father in the 9/11 attacks prepare for the rigorous admissions process for a competitive tuition-free music performance school in New York City, and the student was accepted. None of my performing experiences compared to the feeling I had when I learned about her success. That’s when I knew I had to turn my passion for music into a career of teaching.”
It’s her students who keep her motivated. “They are my true inspiration. They walk into my classroom eager to learn and share the beauty of music together and, suddenly, all my worries disappear, and I feel impelled to share my knowledge and love for music with them. My students taught me to never take a single day for granted, but to consider it an opportunity to help them believe in themselves through music. The truth is, my students gave meaning to my life.”
When asked about the most challenging part of her job, Safari reflects on her past, saying, “I grew up in Armenia, a country with a long, rich history of music and the arts. There, music teachers are among the most respected professionals. As an American music educator, I struggle to maintain that status within our society, as I find myself continuously advocating for the profession and speaking of the importance of the arts in our schools. It is my strong belief that each child in America deserves to get high-quality music and arts education, regardless of his or her background or home zip code. No schools should face budget cuts that affect their music or arts programs.”
Safari offers several tips for successful teaching:
- Create strong connections with your students. Spend the time to get to know each student. Learn about their dreams, fears, worries, their aspirations. Uncover one unique talent in each student. Show every student that you care about him or her.
- Have high expectations of your students, but even higher expectations of yourself. Never stop learning and sharpening your skills; continue to practice daily. Teach with passion and joy, and your students will fall in love with music and you.
- When you feel frustrated and hopeless, sit back and think about your own journey and what brought you here. Remember that you have a purpose. There is a reason you are where you are. Believe that with consistency, hard work, and hope, you will eventually succeed.
- Regardless of what others say, what you do every day truly matters. You have the ability to influence your students’ lives and help them find talents and passions that they are not even aware of. Embrace that.
Because she was once a refugee, Safari has a deep understanding of diversity. She remembers how hard it was to learn how to fit in in a new culture. She admits that “it took a lot of hard work and self-discovery to finally realize that I, too, could contribute to my new world. This is why I feel strongly about connecting with my students and helping them find their own voice. Music and the other arts are blind to academic levels, cultural differences, and socioeconomic spectra. We must create an all-inclusive environment where every student is respected and accepted. Only then can true learning happen.”
Safari views her classroom as a beautiful mosaic where each student represents a very special color. She says, “I embrace the beauty of these colors—each of my students is an important piece that makes the entire artwork unique and powerful. My job is to make sure that each of us maintains our own identity, but we become one when we’re making music together.”
The one lesson that Safari has tried hard to teach her students is that, “With passion, drive and hard work, anything is possible. I want my students to discover their unique talents and come out of my classroom believing in themselves and knowing that if they can dream it, they can accomplish it.”
Summing up her efforts as a music teacher, Safari says, “I’m honored and humbled to have been a part of the lives of so many outstanding young men and women. I’ve taught them that hard work, persistence, patience, and humility will ultimately lead them to excellence and success. I cannot help but sing their praises for allowing me to give them the key—major and minor—to reaching the high notes of their own potential.”