A Note from the Academic Editor:
The Sunshine File
By NAfME Member Corin T. Overland, Academic Editor of Music Educators Journal
This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Music Educators Journal.
“Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”—Stephen Schwartz, “For Good,” from the Broadway musical Wicked (2003)
“You’re going to need a sunshine file,” I say.
“A what?” The class of preservice undergraduate teachers I am lecturing to are confused by the new term. I’m not surprised. Veteran teachers will likely know what I’m talking about or even have sunshine files of their own (although perhaps called by a different name). However, these young folks are still early in their studies and haven’t experienced some of the harder realities of being an educator yet. For them, teaching means standing on a podium and conducting through beloved pieces in front of eager, bright-eyed, perfectly behaved students. Any challenges are minimal. The school is perfect, the parents are supportive, and the music is flawless. I admire their enthusiasm.
“A sunshine file,” I repeat, handing out a plain, manilla envelope to each of them. “It’s a collection of all the thank-you cards, gifts, trinkets, or notes from students or parents telling you how you have affected their lives.” I pull out a cardboard box that holds my own to demonstrate—it is a hodgepodge of pictures, scrapbooks, homemade bracelets, concert programs, unused coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia I’ve collected over the years, meaningless to anyone other than myself and the person who sent it.
“Keep this close by when you start teaching,” I say, “and any time you get a gift or note, put it in your file, and hang on to it.”
“Why?” they ask.
“Because,” I say, “as a teacher, sometimes you will have days that are just awful. Nothing will go right, your students will be mad at you, and you will wonder why in the world you ever went into this profession. On days like this, when you want to just quit, you take out your sunshine file and go through it to remind yourself that what you are doing actually made a difference for someone.”
Given that anywhere between 19 and 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years of their careers,1 my hope is that taking the time to preserve these tokens will help my class persevere through the difficult first few years of their professional lives. I have no data to support that theory, but I always hope.
Of course, I’m certain no one will be surprised to read yet another inspirational column about how teachers change lives. It is, of course, true, but still a well-worn aphorism—practically cliché at this point. I’d like to shift the focus, however. While many of these stories focus on the immediate effects teachers have on their own students, we tend to forget about the ripple of secondary and multigenerational effects our interactions have in the world. As an example, I’m certain many of my peers and colleagues have had students come back to them years later and say, “I am a teacher now because of you.” It is the longevity of our actions that I want to highlight. Our students go into the world and pass on the information and ideals we give to them as musicians, activists, and teachers in their own rights. The cycle repeats, extending into wider social circles and into future generations.
“Our students go into the world and pass on the information and ideals we give to them as musicians, activists, and teachers in their own rights.”
The longitudinal and generational effect that a single teacher can have is an underappreciated metric but an important one. Research on general classroom subjects suggests that the effects of a good teacher can be seen in achievement tests up to five years after the student leaves the classroom. Sadly, the same downstream effect can be seen for ineffective teachers—one year of poor teaching can correlate with lower achievement scores several years later, an effect that cannot be made up even if the student has exemplary teachers from that point onward.2 Now, these studies were limited to documenting teacher prowess and student achievement in standardized subjects, like math, but for music teachers, any possible persistence effect of good teaching is just as important to understand given that we frequently have the same students in our classes for many years. There may even be a compounding or multiplicative effect on achievement that comes from having the same excellent teacher several years in a row.
In an era of coronavirus, I cannot help but think of this in epidemiological terms, which might be described as the R0 (pronounced “R-nought”) of a teacher. For a virus, the R0 is a numerical value used to indicate the number of new cases expected to arise from contact with a single, infected individual. An R0 of eighteen means that one person is estimated to pass the disease to eighteen other people. I hope I will be forgiven for using the analogy, but the virulence of good teaching is a compelling image, especially in music. Consider those moments when the lessons or experiences you have given to your students are transferred to others: postconcert celebrations where students rush into the hallways singing their favorite song or when they bring a friend to your after-school guitar club just to talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan. Good music teaching does not just convey information. It doesn’t even just make good music. It spreads. It infects. It passes your joy, interest, curiosity, and creativity to—and through—students, who in turn pass it to theirs, who in turn pass it to theirs.
“Good music teaching does not just convey information. . . It spreads. It infects. It passes your joy, interest, curiosity, and creativity to—and through—students . . .”
To take the virus analogy one step further, consider that the effects of a teacher are often transmitted asymptomatically. In other words, we are not always aware of the effects we have on people. I recall a prior student of mine who came to visit years after she had graduated. Like so many other high schoolers, she had had difficulty negotiating the typical trials of adolescence and came by to thank me for what she described only as “what I said to her after class.” To this day, I have no earthly idea what she was talking about. Any conversations she and I had were completely unremarkable from my perspective, and I have no memory of what words of advice or comfort I might have offered. I can only hope they were reasonable. Had she not stopped by to share, I might never have known what she felt. Students can be inscrutable. It takes a very special type of courage and faith to go to work every day with them, never really knowing for sure if you’re getting through.
This column is dedicated in loving memory to my perpetually fabulous wife who touched countless lives.
Dr. Karen Kennedy (1970–2020)
Despite our best efforts, we sometimes have limited control over our learning outcomes. We can spend hours crafting the perfect lesson or concert program, yet the thing they remember years later is the time you let them borrow a pencil when they needed it. You can have students demonstrate perfect recall of a concept you introduced or profoundly shift their viewpoint based on a discussion you hosted and still have no conscious knowledge that it was you who put them on that path. It is possible, maybe even likely, to reach the end of a career and never really understand how many people you were important to, how many lives you shaped, and how many generations were made better by your being there. That’s what your sunshine file is for. It is a reminder of your influence and your potential.
As you read this, we will be entering what will likely be another very unusual holiday season for music teachers. I suspect most of you have already made contingency plans for concerts, performances, and classroom projects in response to the new normal, in whatever form that might be at the time of publication. I invite you to keep this idea of longevity and persistence in mind as you read the articles in this [December 2020] issue and as we enter the holiday season and the new year. I invite you to reflect on those for whom you may have been a catalyst for change, even if both you and they are unaware of your presence in their lives. Perhaps it may be time to revisit, add to, or even start your own sunshine file. No matter what adjustments you might be making to your teaching practices, I think it is safe to assume that the ripple effects from your tireless work this season will be felt and appreciated by your students, and then their students, and in many generations to come.
- Leib Sutcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Desiree Carver-Thomas, A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.(Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, 2016), accessed September 15, 2020,https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/coming-crisis-teaching-brief.
- Daniel McCaffrey, J. R. Lockwood, Daniel M. Koretz, and Laura S. Hamilton, Evaluating Value-Added Models for Teacher Accountability(Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 2003), 36.
About the author:
Dr. Corin Overland is Associate Professor of Professional Practice at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, where he teaches courses in choral music education and choral conducting. He received a Ph.D. in music education from Temple University, and an MM in choral conducting from the University of Missouri—Kansas City Conservatory of Music and has over fifteen years of experience as a practicing music teacher in a variety of public and private school settings.
Overland is frequently in demand for his work with early adolescent choral ensembles and has conducted All-State and festival choruses in Minnesota, Maryland, Colorado, Kansas, Hawaii, Oregon, Delaware, South Carolina, and Florida. He is a member of the GRAMMY Recording Academy (Professional Division) and has choral compositions in print with Alliance and Santa Barbara Music Publishing.
Overland’s research interests focus on economic and labor issues pertaining to arts education, teacher evaluation, and for-profit rock music schools. His research and scholarship on these and other topics appear in the Journal of Research in Historical Music Education, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, College Music Symposium, Contributions to Music Education, and the Music Educators Journal. He has authored chapters appearing in Contemporary Research in Music Education: Learning Across the Lifespan (Routledge) and the 2016 International Yearbook on Research in Arts Education (Waxmann Verlag). He is a content consultant for the State of Florida’s Performing Fine Arts Assessment music teacher evaluation system, and a peer reviewer for NAfME, AERA, and the International Yearbook on Arts Education (INRAE). He is the current Chair and Academic Editor of the Music Educators Journal and has served on the Editorial Board since 2014.
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December 16, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)