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A photo of three students, singing and dancing to one of the songs that Mrs. Shadid taught them for Mode, Mean, Median, and Range.

The Best Teacher

Think about your favorite teacher.  What was it about them that you loved? Was it their teaching style, the way they cared about you as a person, or the way they made you feel?  What did that teacher do in your class that made it so memorable?

What if I told you that the best teacher is not a person?  In my experience, whether we are a classroom teacher, a parent, youth worker, Godparent – you name it –  we can all be better teachers if we get some help from the best teacher, music. Yes, that’s right. The best teacher is not a person, it’s a thing.

Whether you are musically inclined or not, we can easily use music to help kids (and adults) learn. Why teach with music? Here are three simple reasons.  

  1. Music is memorable.
  2. Music is effective.
  3. Music is enjoyable.

Do you remember a song you learned as a kid in school?  How many of us learned our alphabet by singing our ABC’s? What about Schoolhouse Rock’s, “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” My older brother and I fondly remember learning the quadratic formula in high school to the tune of Gilligan’s Island: “The opposite of b, plus or minus the square root, of b squared minus 4 ac, all divided by 2a!” (Try singing it with the melody and tell me that it’s not catchy.)

Simply put, music is memorable. We can actually recall songs for decades because music stores in our long term memory (the Alpha and Theta brain wave states).  This is a fact. To this day, I have students who come up to me years after I have taught them and they will tell me, “I still remember your songs!”  They may not remember the lessons, but they remember the songs. Even Alzheimer’s patients have benefited from music therapy because musical memories are often preserved and undamaged by Alzheimer’s disease.  

Music is effective because it provides us with a natural and rhythmic way to learn.  Many studies show there is a very strong connection between literacy and music.  Music is a universal language to every culture of the world; parents all over the world sing to their babies.  The human body is more than 70% water and is a perfect conductor of vibration. For this reason, music has an energizing effect on the body. A tired student will perk up (and wake up) when they are singing and moving in the classroom. Music reduces mental fatigue, and it calms tensions.  Music used for teaching effectively meets the needs of various types of learners: auditory, kinesthetic, visual (printed lyrics or pictures to support the learning of the song), and social learners. In my opinion, it is the most impactful of all the learning modalities.

Music is memorable, effective, and most of all it is enjoyable

Let’s not forget that the process of learning, though it can be rigorous and difficult, can also be very much enjoyable.  To be clear, I do not advocate that it is the teacher’s job to entertain the class, but by all means, it is okay to have fun teaching and learning.  There are many ways to do that, and one way is through song. Music brings JOY into the classroom! Kids of all ages enjoy singing, but we tend to use songs for teaching primarily in the lower grades starting with Pre-K (where almost everything is taught through song), and continuing with Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd, 3rd, and perhaps 5th grade.  But then, often, the further we move along in school, the less music we hear in the classroom.  It is as if we think music is ‘just for the little kids.’ On the contrary, one of my favorite instructors was my high school Spanish teacher who regularly used songs to teach us Spanish.  We loved it! I can still recall all the South American countries and capitals because of a song she repeatedly played for us. Recently, I had three of my 6th grade math students beg to sing for the class and share with us the dance moves they made up to our “Mode, Median, Mean, and Range” song.  They had practiced during their recess/lunch hour and giddily performed for us at the end of class. They have embraced the music and are excited about learning math.  Music works!

The Church, in her wisdom, has been using music to teach for over 2,000 years.  Listen to the rich hymns of the Orthodox Church, cycle after cycle, feast after feast, “again and again,” and gradually you have a vast knowledge of the Church’s teachings.  You have memorized prayers and theology through song, and the teachings have been planted in your heart. The words and prayers have become your own.

So, what if music is not your thing?  What if you are tone deaf? Do you just give up on using music to teach?  No way! With the conveniences of modern day technology, anyone can access a vast library of educational songs online.  YouTube is loaded with educational songs you can play in your car, your home, or your classroom. Even if you cannot carry a tune, you can still get help from the best teacher. It’s as easy as pressing “play.”