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MALI Teacher Leader Story: David Coffey

March 27, 2018

Music Educator

This is one of several blog posts in 2018 that include stories of the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative (MALI) Phase 7 Teacher Leaders and Teaching Artist Leaders. This series includes a set of questions so you can learn a little bit about each leader. CLICK HERE  for more information on MALI. CLICK HERE  for more information on the 93 Teacher Leaders and 8 Teaching Artist Leaders.  CLICK HERE  for Arts education resources. CLICK HERE  for the MALI Resource Bank. Search in the “search archives” box on the bottom right side of this post for past teacher leader stories.  Thank you David for sharing your story!

David Coffey currently teaches music grades 6-12 for RSU 71 in Belfast. He is in his 15th year of teaching but only 4th year at RSU 71. He currently teach choirs grades 6-12, 6th grade general music, and high school modern band serving around 170 students. Outside of the school day he serves as music director for the middle school and high school musical productions, teach an a cappella group called Belfast Voices, and serve as Department Chair for the high school Visual and Performing Arts Department.

What do you like best about being a music educator?

I like the opportunity to open student’s minds to new discoveries.  Though it’s great when those discoveries are academically focused, social and civic discoveries are equally important to the building the lives of our students.  At the beginning of my career I adopted a vocal music motto; Building lives and voices with song. That is the essence of what I believe as a vocal music instructor and it brings me great joy when I am privileged enough to see it happen.  

What do you believe are three keys to ANY successful visual and performing arts education?

How have you found assessment to be helpful to you in your classroom?

The assessment practices I have developed over the past three years, online individualized vocal assessments based on voice type and level, enable me to enter into one on one digital conversations with students in ways that I was previously not able to in an ensemble setting.  Using Google Classroom as a platform I am able to assess students individually without losing any rehearsal time. The assessments I offer provide students an experience where they are able to learn a song on their own, record a video of it, receive feedback from me, reflect on and respond to that feedback by correcting their performance until standards are met.  This allows them to see and hear vocal growth as they continue through the choral program.

David’s students performing at Point Lookout for the arts and economic impact Maine Arts Commission luncheon.

What have been the benefits in becoming involved in the Maine Arts Leadership initiative?

By becoming involved in MALI I have encountered new colleagues, been given access to new resources and new ways of thinking, and because of those things I have grown as an educator.  The ultimate goal is growth, whether it be mentally, physically, spiritually, professionally or in the case of MALI, a growth fusion. In order to grow we must first acknowledge that there is room to grow (there always is!) and then seek or seize the opportunities as they arise.  I didn’t really know what to expect when I agreed to be involved but I am glad I did.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of the relationships I have built with the staff, students, parents, and the communities where I have worked over the course of my 15 years in education. Though not always easy and while this taken many forms it is always wonderful when the people involved feel a sense of satisfaction, self-worth, and joy. Whether it be working with students and audience members at concerts, preparing students for festivals, getting volunteers for our annual mattress sale, or lending a voice at a school board meeting we, as an education community, have academic, social, and civic responsibilities that we must see through together. What we do as educators, administrators, parents, and community members matters. How we support one another matters. Though not always perfect I am choosing to focus on the positive (or should I say “Accentuate the Positive”) things that have happened to me as an educator and hopefully the contributions I have made have helped to positively shape the lives of the educational communities I have been a part of.

What gets in the way of being a better teacher or doing a better job as a teacher?

David’s students taking a break from performing at Point Lookout for the arts and economic impact Maine Arts Commission luncheon

One word answer, me…okay, so maybe the answer isn’t quite that simple but that is pretty much the case.  Is it true that there are plenty of external factors at work? Yes, but ultimately it is me. Time is one of the biggest things I complain about; not enough time to do this because of that and not enough time to do that because of this. Let’s face it, there’s a lot on our plates. However, while all of that is true, I am starting to realize that maybe there isn’t enough time because I haven’t set limits for myself. Why haven’t I set these limits I might ask myself? Do the words guilt, pride, or ego ring a bell? I want so badly to do a “good” job and help as many people as possible but at the end of the day I haven’t always done a very good job of taking time to take care of me. It’s the whole analogy of putting on your air safety mask in the case of an emergency on an airplane. You can’t help your neighbor until you have put your mask on first. I don’t want to sound selfish or come across as thinking only about myself but this year I am trying to put my mask on first. Yes, I am very busy still but I am taking some time to focus on things I want to do, things that help me feel more refreshed, more energized. Do I have it all figured out? No, of course not, who does? Am I trying, am I doing my best given the circumstances I have to work with? You bet, it’s all I can do sometimes! What are you doing you might ask? Exercise was completely squeezed out of my schedule last year and it has taken its toll. While the toll was more mental than physical, it was noticeable. Knowing that exercise was an important part of my life that was missing I had to make some adjustments to my schedule and expectations of myself to add it back in. I am still working it out but I am glad I am trying, it has helped me and those around me immensely.

What have you accomplished through hard work and determination that might otherwise appear at first glance to be due to “luck” or circumstances?

Before I moved to Maine I worked for 10 years as a choral and eventually modern band (rock band) director serving students grades 6-12. I also directed the music for the fall musical, had an extra curricular a cappella group, and served on various committees here and there. Pretty standard fare for an Ohio music teacher.

However, when I moved to Maine all of that changed. I found myself teaching concert band grades 6-12, high school chorus, guitar class, directing music for both the high school and middle school musical, directing pep band, jazz band, an a cappella group, and trying to do all of the stuff that comes along with being a teacher. Can’t you just hear the Simon and Garfunkel song “The 59th Street Bridge Song?” “Slow down, you move to fast…Gotta make the moment last….” Needless to say, I was not “feelin’ groovy!” Staffing cuts in our department prior to my arrival had eventually led to an unsustainable system with holes in our course offerings and a ½ time position in our band program that we feared was going to become a revolving door (not helpful when trying to build a program). Over the course of 4 years and in collaboration with the district music staff, administration, and school board we were able to shuffle the staff around in a way that better served the needs of our students, schools, and us as music teachers. It wasn’t easy and I even resigned and got rehired along the way but it was worth it in order to provide a higher quality, more consistent music education to our student population.

Look into your crystal ball: what advice would you give to teachers?

David’s students performing at Point Lookout for the arts and economic impact Maine Arts Commission luncheon

Be patient and don’t spread yourself too thin, set limits. In our efforts to provide high quality arts education we can sometimes fall into the trap of trying to do everything at once. In my case, I see a new lesson or concept and want to try it out right away but without considering the artistic process of preparation, incubation, illumination, and implementation. It usually is more like instant implementation that leads to serious inflammation! Be patient, sit with the lesson or concept for a while, let it incubate, so that you can enter deeply into it not just scratch the surface. You have plenty of time to do it.

Arts educators do amazing work and are often give less time to do it. That being said I know that I am guilty of spreading myself so thin that I get to a point where I feel overwhelmed by it all, crushed under the pressure (again, can’t you hear the chorus of “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie….”Pressure, pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man ask for”). I say yes to this and yes to that and by the end I am doing way too much at once and can’t really do a great job at anything. We have to learn to set limits. We don’t set limits because we aren’t willing to be helpful, we set limits because we want to be able to be helpful. Think about the oxygen mask emergency training given on airplanes (yep, here it is again!).  In order to be able to help others you have to put on your mask first. You won’t do any good passed out on the floor.

Be yourself and listen. You have a core, a center to who YOU are. Am I saying not to look to others as role models and guides?  Absolutely not, but I am saying to follow your inner voice and to be corny and quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Always, period! You can learn a new concept but learn how to put it in your own words, use your own voice. People crave authenticity, they can smell phony a mile away. Don’t forget to listen to those older and younger than you, you might learn something. Age doesn’t always mean more wisdom, sometimes the greatest learning you can do is by listening to your students. Trust me, they love to know that they taught the teacher something new and what a lesson that is for them to learn!

Imagine you are 94 years old. You’re looking back. Do you have any regrets?

I regret the way I approached my first year of teaching. I was trying so hard to be like my mentor and try things in a way that wasn’t true to myself and I ended up doing some damage to my program that took a couple of years to fix and rebuild. I forgot to take the advice I would now give to new teachers, be yourself and listen. I wanted to build a program the same way other people did and not listen to the advice of those around me. That being said, if we truly believe that education is lifelong and is about growth then we must also learn to apply that to ourselves as educators and be insistent, persistent, and consistent in that belief. I desire and try to be flexible in all things but to me it is important to always be a learner, that is non-negotiable!

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