Why I still practise my subject – and why you should too!

PGCE Secondary Music programme leader Tom Breeze still works professionally as a musician. In this opinion piece he explains why he thinks it’s so important to keep living and breathing your subject, no matter how hectic life in the classroom can be.
tom1When I was training as a secondary music teacher here at Cardiff Met, I quickly made the same discovery that all student teachers do: namely that teaching is an all-encompassing job that can very easily take over your life! After having a very active life as a professional musician, doing concerts, recordings and broadcasts all over the place, I quickly found I had a new existence that involved planning, evaluating and preparing lessons whenever I was not in school. The few concerts that I did agree to do during my PGCE year were fairly hair-raising experiences as I was woefully underprepared. I clearly remember cracking open one piece of music for the first time four hours before I was due to perform it – not a happy feeling!

The PGCE year is a very intense one, and I was prepared to accept that I needed to throw myself into it fully in order to do the best I could for my pupils. When I reached the end of the course, I had a moment to reflect on the longer journey – my career as a teacher. I felt I had no regrets about my ‘sabbatical’ from performing, but I knew I had to reach a compromise in the longer term.

A lot of research has been undertaken about teachers and their identities. That sense within ourselves of what we are has a huge bearing on what we do, what we prioritise, and how we present ourselves to our pupils. Are we musicians who happen to be teachers, or teachers who happen to be musicians? It didn’t take me long to find colleagues whose musical skills had taken a sharp downhill turn as a side-effect of their choice to pass on their love of the subject to others. As I embarked on my NQT year it seemed like a big sacrifice to make, and even at that early point of my career I was aware of the positive effect on pupils of seeing me play. A month before I started my new job, I made a promise to myself: however difficult it gets, I won’t stop being a musician.

Happily, I can say that I kept my promise. I combined my teaching with a career as an accompanist and orchestral musician, and sometimes pupils and colleagues would see me performing outside in the ‘real world’. I found that it gave me real credibility with the pupils when asking them to perform in my school concerts, to take that risk of getting on stage and playing or singing in front of their friends and family. They knew I wasn’t asking them to do something I didn’t do myself, and they knew I understood how they felt when they were about to walk onto the stage. People often forget that it’s often just as nerve-wracking for pupils to perform in the classroom environment as it is in a big school concert. With thirty of their peers watching them, it can be a bigger deal than doing the same thing in front of hundreds of strangers who they might never see again. As music teachers we have to be sensitive to this when we teach, and I believe that one of the simplest answers is to show them what we want by playing and singing at every opportunity.

Now, training the next generation of music teachers at Cardiff Met, I emphasise the need to ‘lead from the front’, to model being a musician in the classroom. Our BA Secondary Music students do their final year project on that very subject, investigating the impact on pupils of seeing their teachers as a performer or a composer in front of them. My secondary music colleague, Viv John, is a fellow believer in this philosophy, and we can both still be seen performing in concerts all over Wales and beyond. Viv is principal flautist of the Rhondda Symphony Orchestra and the Brecknock Sinfonia, and I perform baroque music on harpsichord and organ, most recently touring South Wales with the Wales Baroque Players.

As we approach the season of new year’s resolutions, it might be worth bearing all this in mind, whatever subject you’re training to teach. As teachers of any subject, I believe that the greatest power we have to inspire pupils and see us as role models is to continue practising our subject specialisms, both inside and outside of our classrooms. Perhaps you’re worried that your subject skills are going to take a back seat to all that paperwork. Maybe you feel that you might be seen to have ‘failed’ in your subject by taking the option of being a teacher. That ridiculous saying, ‘those who can, do – those who can’t, teach’ is there to be proved wrong by all of us. The solution to all these things is to bring your subject skills into your school even more. Be a historian, a writer, a scientist, an actor. Give the pupils something to aspire to and respect, and ensure that you are never asking them to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself!


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