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This is Lifelong Learning

Karen Cross • CommentaryOctober 2022 • October 13, 2022

For years, principal Robin Scott has watched through her office window as eager sixth graders met outside in the early days of school, showing off their first sounds on new instrument mouthpieces. Then—just months later—she marveled at those same students as they confidently performed full pieces of music. She’s always been intrigued by the exponential growth beginners display over the span of one school year.

Unlike her students at Stafford MS, she didn’t grow up with a strong music education. Back then, she simply didn’t have much interest in it. However, after working as an administrator in schools with excellent music educators and programs, her appreciation and respect for music education quickly grew. Since opening Stafford MS in 2008, she says she came to realize it’s not just a music program; it’s where these students fit—it’s their home. 

From Principal to Beginner
Last summer, Principal Scott told Stafford MS Band Directors Laura Bell and Chase Rogers she wanted to learn about music and how to play an instrument. “I was just so intrigued by our kids and admired the program so much I wanted to learn and be part of it. And I knew from the minute I said it I was committed,” Scott explained. 

The directors informed her right away she would play the clarinet. “At first I was surprised by their quick decision, but I’ve been through this enough—watching them help students choose—and I was certain they knew what was right for me.” As a clarinetist, she was set to join the sixth graders in Laura Bell’s second-period class. 

As the first day of school neared, Scott was both excited and anxious to start. “Even though your new peers are 11 years old, you still feel the stress to perform well,” she explained. “I thought—I’m 53 and these kids are 11—surely, I can do something they can do, but I also knew there are a lot of things they can do that I can’t!” Like the sixth graders seated next to her, Scott showed up daily, followed the directions of their teacher Ms. Bell, and quickly shed that initial stress. She knew to succeed, she would need to make a commitment to do the required work, and commit is precisely what she did.

“This is unlocking a whole new world for these students, and it’s helping them be ready for life…” — Principal Robin Scott

Scott arrived at her office early to practice. She joined the class every day she was on campus. She completed every assessment. She took her turn when it was time for the dreaded down the row. She got tutoring from an eighth grader when she needed to catch up. “She was more devoted and committed to the class than I could have ever imagined,” said Bell. On some Fridays, Scott missed school to travel with her husband to Arkansas to watch their son’s college football game. With her husband behind the wheel and her in the passenger seat, Scott set her music on the dash, connected with the second-period class over Google Meet on her phone, and played along with her sixth-grade classmates. “We got some strange looks along those trips!” 

Learning Made Easier
When discussing what it was like to be an adult beginner, Scott quickly responded her challenges weren’t as much about learning music or the instrument as they were with being a student and a principal. “I told the other students my principal job sometimes gets in the way of my band class!” She said because her teacher was so good at her job—breaking the learning process down so they could experience success along the way—it never seemed difficult. “She also put us at ease by conveying her own experiences and reminding us she too, was once a student. She tied our learning to other subjects, and she celebrated success so well. We might totally mess something up, and she would critique it, but she did so in a way that felt good and was motivating. She was always so affirming!”

Instead of being the only one to offer students feedback, Bell taught them how to critique each other. At first, though, no one wanted to criticize their principal. Scott said, “After I played, the other students would just tell me I sounded good, but I knew it wasn’t good and reminded them I needed their honest feedback. Eventually, they got comfortable giving it.” Scott emphasized how this is a valuable aspect of music education—students gain the life lessons of being vulnerable, willing to fail, and learning from the process. “The whole environment was a safe space where we could fail, and boy did we fail sometimes! It was always clear it was okay, and this is what we do in life—we fail and we learn.”

Unlike the limited observations typically afforded an administrator, as a student, Scott had the unique opportunity to witness great teaching in action every day. “Laura took herself and her job seriously, but she also knew she was working with sixth graders, and they need someone who can be goofy and silly at times. Her patience was incredible, and she was assertive when she needed to be,” Scott explained. “She treated me like any other kid. If my embouchure wasn’t right or if I wasn’t tapping my foot in tempo, she’d point it out. I didn’t get a pass because I was the principal.” 

Music Education Unlocks a Whole New World
After just one year in the clarinet class, Scott says she now hears music differently—in a more informed and curious way. She seeks to learn more about composers and the music’s history. “It gave me a greater appreciation for all fine arts and what it takes.” The experience has also deepened her perspective about the importance of music education in her students’ lives. “This is unlocking a whole new world for these students, and it’s helping them be ready for life—whether it’s a job, marriage, or anything else, they’re learning valuable how-to-succeed skills.” 

As important as she knows music education is, Scott emphasizes teachers must remember music study is a choice. “Your students are electing to come to you, so your job is to make them want to continue wanting to be there. With so many choices, you need to make sure your environment is welcoming and balance your high expectations with fun.”

She also believes no middle schooler should be forced to choose one interest over another, and that means teachers in all the fine arts, other electives, and sports must work together. “Middle school is not the time to make students make those choices,” she stated. Similarly, Scott doesn’t want to see students removed from a music class for remediation. “Don’t pull a kid for remediation from music class just because it’s an elective. You might change the course of their life or alter their future—while not on purpose, it can still be the result. There are often other ways.”

The Joy of Making Music
From that first day of creating sounds on a mouthpiece, through each week of incrementally building skills, to the point when she was able to play a full piece of music, Scott explains she experienced true joy. “It was just so much fun!” And just like it is for young music students, she loved being part of the group. “I always admired how these kids had a group they belonged to, and now I was one of them. These are my people! 

Scott did become one of them, but she also became their role model—demonstrating to them that no matter your age, you can keep challenging yourself to learn new skills.

Reflecting on her experience from last year, Scott shared, “Being in that class was the highlight of my year, and it’s in the top five in my 28 years in education. I was surprised at how quickly the year went, and I was so disappointed it was over. I realized going to class is what I looked forward to every day!”

What It’s Like to Teach Your Principal
Scott is quick to praise music educators for their dedication, passion, and hard work, especially her clarinet teacher, Laura Bell. We asked Bell to offer her reflections about teaching her administrator in the beginner clarinet class last year. 

How did your students benefit from having their principal as a fellow student in their class?
One of the most valuable takeaways for my students (and for the directors, too) is it’s never too late to learn something new! Rather than closing the door on what felt like a missed opportunity, Robin stepped out of her comfort zone and swung a door wide open! It was inspiring!

I also believe my students benefited greatly from having an adult sit alongside them every day, making the same mistakes they were making, learning from them, and getting better. They learned quickly it was a safe space and felt comfortable taking risks. She modeled that for them daily. 

What’s been most satisfying about teaching an adult, especially your principal, to play an instrument?
It was a blast having an administrator in my class every day! As a music educator, we know the importance and the value of what we do. We see the light-bulb moments that happen regularly, we see students embrace challenges and learn to work through them, and we see kids’ confidence soar because of it. Robin has always been an incredible supporter of the fine arts on our campus, but for her to truly experience the class from a student’s perspective is something I will treasure forever. 

Was there anything surprising about having your principal in the beginner class?
I was surprised by so many things along the way! Robin took her role as a clarinet student very seriously. She was more devoted and committed to the class than I could have ever imagined. 

Our varsity group performs for our staff before UIL every year, and Robin has always been front and center for it, but this year was even more special. She stood next to the clarinet section, followed along in the music while they played, and was moved to tears because she could connect to the music in a way she had never been able to before. She told the students and staff how impactful it was after we played, because she finally understood. That’s an experience I will always remember and be grateful for. 

How has this become an advocacy opportunity in your community?
I have no doubt her participation in our band class has had a huge impact on advocacy across the state! The publicity her story has received around our district and throughout the DFW Metroplex has been amazing and it has gone viral! It has everyone talking about music education and its importance in our schools. It has administrators asking themselves what they can do to have an impact with their students in a similar way. Robin has always been a servant-leader. She has the biggest heart for serving students, and I know her experience has the potential to shape administrators’ opinions regarding the importance of fine arts education. What a powerful opportunity!

Karen Cross is TMEA Communications manager. 

This article is reprinted from the August 2022 issue of Southwestern Musician and is published with permission from Texas Music Educators Association. Images courtesy of Frisco ISD Communications.

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