How Do You Become an Excellent Teacher? Beg, Borrow, and Steal

By Lisa Sempsey and Crystal Pridmore

Music teachers are collectively some of the most generous, brilliant, compassionate people we know.  Though they have excellent ideas for how to effectively run a music program, many have hesitations when it comes to sharing their knowledge with other teachers. This stems from imposter syndrome, the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. Teachers believe that unless they come up with a lesson or idea from start to finish that is groundbreaking and NEVER SEEN BEFORE, they have nothing worth sharing. In this post, we’d like to posit that thinking that way is faulty at best and suggest a framework for growing past it.

As a new teacher, Lisa attended a Pennsylvania Music Educators Association state conference. It was here that she attended one of the most important, transformative sessions of her career. Though the name of the session presenter is lost to her memory, the lessons taken from that session have remained and guided her for two decades of teaching.  The session title was “Begged, Borrowed, and Stolen.”

The presenter was close to retirement himself and was passionate about empowering other music teachers.  He spent the session reassuring and reaffirming that the best of what ANY teacher does is usually something they have begged, borrowed, or stolen from someone else. This idea was liberating for a young teacher full of insecurities.  It is an important lesson for any teacher to embrace as they grow into excellence in their profession.

Here is our guide for the best ways to beg, borrow, and steal your way to mastery!

 

Beg

One of the best things new teachers can do for themselves is to take the opportunity to observe seasoned educators. So much of masterful teaching cannot be explicitly taught, but must rather be modeled and absorbed through repetition and experimentation. This observation can take place through videos found online, virtual workshops, or in the classroom. When the observer is struck by a particularly relevant, innovative, or interesting lesson, it is important to reach out to the presenter and “beg” for more information about their process. Many seasoned educators are open and eager to share their hard-won experiences. They will gladly guide another teacher through their process. 

Some questions to consider asking include:

  • How did you come up with this lesson/ technique? What was your inspiration?
  • What grade level have you had the most success in using this lesson with?
  • Why did this lesson feel so easy and fun to follow? What micro-steps were you taking mentally to lead us/ the students in the video?
  • What established skills would a student need to have first to follow along with this lesson?
  • How could I scaffold this lesson for a student who struggles with fine motor skills? A student who has a disability? A student who comes into an upper-grade class from another school and has less established musical skills? (whatever is relevant for you)

Seeking to understand the minute details of the lesson will help the observer more fully understand the needed steps to successfully guide students through the same process. Reaching out to a mentor teacher can be an act of courage well worth taking. These professional relationships are the foundation of a network of support that a teacher can turn to for continued growth. In the highly specialized field of music education where teachers can so often feel alone, a strong network of support is vital to provide a constant source of new energy and prevent teacher burnout. 

 

Borrow

Many teachers put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to develop new ideas before they begin to share what works in their classrooms with others. The truth is that some of the most successful lessons are not completely original ideas. In fact, the majority of lessons taught in music classrooms are not entirely new, rather they have been inspired by something or someone else. The original idea is borrowed and given a twist, sparked by something- a lesson, a book, a song, a process, a poem. That spark is a seed. That seed takes root and finds connections in the teacher’s mind as they begin to wonder, “How will this best engage and delight my students?”

Every region, every school, and every class has its own needs and culture. Keeping a lesson in its original form may not work for a variety of reasons. Taking the seed of an idea from somewhere else and adapting it to the unique needs of a particular group of students is often the pedagogical choice that best serves those students. 

Some ways to borrow include:

  • Taking a melody and creating your own lyrics for a particular book or concept (as is often done with melodies from the Music for Children Volumes by Keetman and Orff).
  • Use the dance steps from a folk dance to a more contemporary tune in a genre that your students will recognize.
  • Change the instrumentation for a song from pitched to unpitched percussion or vice versa.
  • Create a body percussion sequence to replace the words to a favorite canon.
  • Use the same book as another educator for a lesson, but change the songs and activities that accompany it.

Once a teacher gives themselves permission to borrow and change lessons and ideas from others, the opportunities for inspiration are endless.

 

Steal

Margie Orem, former San Diego AOSA chapter president and one of Crystal’s mentors, likes to say, “Good teachers borrow.  Great teachers steal!” Sometimes the lessons generously shared by others are so perfect in their current form that absolutely no changes are needed for them to be plunked down directly in any classroom and used as-is.  This is when it is not necessary to beg or borrow, but to steal. Take it, use it, and run with it because it’s genius and it just WORKS.

When those gems are discovered, it is even more important not to keep them a secret.  They are meant to be shared so that as many students can benefit from their brilliance as possible. And in that sharing, giving credit to the educators you’ve learned from gives your students a chance to see what amazing ideas can be found out there in the world beyond your classroom.

 

Share What Works

Teachers make room for community to form in their classrooms and schools.  By creating a safe, creative space for students to explore, they cultivate conditions in which students can thrive. It only makes sense that the individuals responsible for creating such an environment for students should also take the time to create such an environment for themselves. In making time to share and learn from other educators, teachers can create the very support system that will help them thrive in their professional lives. Music teachers are often the only music specialist at their school site, so it is easy to feel alone, misunderstood, and unsupported. Committing to building relationships with other teachers is attending to the human need in each of us for connection and encouragement.

Sharing can take many forms:

  • Share a quick lesson or video on social media with an idea that worked in your room.  If it was “begged, borrowed, or stolen”- ask permission, share the source, and tag them!
  • Pass along a book or link to a colleague
  • Start a text thread or chain on a messaging app with colleagues to share what you have going on in your classroom on a particular day
  • Listen to and pass along ideas you get from podcasts or blogs
  • Sign up for a slot at your local AOSA chapter sharing and give presenting a try

Though a teacher may beg, borrow, or steal their best lesson ideas from someone else, that does not detract from the fact that those lessons do, in fact, belong to them. A lesson that is placed in a classroom and gives the gifts of curiosity, wonder, and joy to students through the conduit of a compassionate educator is wondrous, indeed. Learning to beg, borrow, and steal with abandon is the key to growing into the best versions of our teacher selves.

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