As a middle school teacher many years ago, I remember breaking away from my science teaching. And I am proud I did. It was a middle school, where the classes moved as a whole group. I taught general science and my whole class came dragging in from social studies.
“What’s the matter?” I asked a rather forlorn student Matt, as he entered my classroom.
“We didn’t do very well on the test on Australia,” Matt confessed for his classmates. “But Mr. Church offered an extra credit point to anyone who knows what Australia’s unofficial national anthem is,” he continued.
“That would be Waltzing Matilda,” I suggested off-hand as I returned my attention to sorting my graded quizzes for handout.
As the bell rang, I looked up to find my room empty. Books were on each desk, but there was not a student in the room. I looked out my doorway. It was obvious where they had gone from the commotion coming from Mr. Church’s room down the hall. A few steps more and I could look in his doorway: “Waltzing Matilda; one point for me too!” was the phrase on every students lips as they encircled Mr. Church’s desk. He was busily recording each extra point in his notebook while his next class waited in their seats. I returned to my room knowing my students would be back in half a minute.
They returned in a slightly better mood. Several said “Thank you, Mr. Schrock!” Each was individually grateful for the tip. They hustled to their seats. Several were muttering to each other: “Where can we find the words?”
“What words?” I asked.
“Mr. Church said that anyone who can sing Waltzing Matilda all the way through can get ten extra points!” they lamented. “And we all did pretty bad. We all need the ten points.”
Now they didn’t expect anything like that from me. I was a straight-laced science teacher who is about as far from music teaching as you can get. So, here I was, in front of my class, sitting on the edge of my desk, ready to start today’s lesson on respiration. Not one of my students suspected that there was only one song where I completely knew the words: Waltzing Matilda. I scanned the faces of my 30 students, each expecting to learn about lungs and breathing. I closed my textbook and slide it behind me.
“Okay class, today we will learn to sing Waltzing Matilda–all the way through.”
I can still recall the expressions, first of surprise and then joy, that flashed across every face in that next instant. I am not a music teacher. And I do not suggest I can lead a class in choral singing. But that day we took one whole period to learn it.
Verse by verse I explained the words: “Once a jolly swag man, camped by a billabong....” What is a swag man? What is a billabong?
Waltzing Matilda is a quirky, wonderful song, reflecting Australia’s ex-convict history, the fate of a vagabond, and the burden of lugging a heavy knapsack or “matilda,” through the Outback. I explained the meanings and had them sing each verse that I unfolded, all the way through “down rode the troopers, one, two, three.”
The next day, but one period earlier, I waited in the hallway, outside the door of Mr. Church’s social studies class as the bell rang and my students were seated in his social studies class. And they all gloriously sang together. The whole song. All the way through. And they all got their extra ten points...as Mr. Church would later grumble to me.
But for the rest of that school year, that class and I had a special rapport.
They knew that I really cared about them.
A biology teacher doesn’t just teach biology; a teacher teaches students.
We are in an intellectual journey together.
And no state or national standards or assessments, nor my own daily class plan, should get in the way.