‘I teach..I touch the future’…

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Interview of transcript with Janet Smith 

Jo: “Ok, I’m here with Janet Smith, the Director of Orchestra at ISB (International School of Brussels) and I had the great pleasure of teaching both of Janet’s children, ooh a few years ago now…Janet thank you so much for joining me from Brussels today,..

Janet: “My pleasure”

Jo: “It feels like we are in the same room…almost!”

Janet: “Close enough…well closer than before!”

Jo: “Closer than before…we’ve been having a little chat and reconnecting after many years…uh as I mentioned I taught both of Janet’s children and they have gone on to become really bright young sparks as they make emerge into their early careers and post high school studies and are making their way out in the world! Janet and I had a great connection when we worked together in Brussels – we both have a love of music of food, of laughter and lots of other things…it was a very special time in my life and its really been lovely for you to come and join me today….I chose you intentionally as I see you as  someone who has such a passion for all the good things in life and bringing them to all the people that you work with through your vision as a Director of orchestra, as a musician and encouraging music in every student’s life that you touch… So….Janet I have a couple of questions for you…and the first one is why did you choose teaching as a career…how did you get into teaching in the first place?”

Janet: “Before I answer that I have to add on that I don’t just teach orchestra…I teach three and four year olds, so now they call it Preschool and PreK – it used to be called Nursery and PreK…I wanted to be sure and put that in because it is so important to me…Why did I become a teacher, and how…I can actually pinpoint the exact moment it occurred to me to become a teacher. I was, I grew up in Hays, Kansas, so in a University town luckily enough. I was in the eighth grade and I was in the orchestra class at Felton Middle School…My teacher was conducting and I remember watching her and thinking I could do that…..realising I could see myself doing that…and then she was such a wonderful teacher she stretched me by actually asking me to take a piece of music home, an arrangement and I got to rehearse the whole class and I got to conduct it on the concert and she didn’t know that id said to myself I can do that …but she somehow had the wisdom to encourage me by doing that and that was it – I knew I was going to teach after that…simple as that…and it was very lucky that I knew that because of course …”

“once you have a direction it shapes everything that you do…

“I knew I wanted to play violin…I continued and I played piano etc. but knowing that I was going in the direction of education did lend a colour to everything that I did after that and it was very natural.. my mother was actually a teacher, although not of anything specifically she taught us all… that was her mission in life..”

Jo: “I love that , I love that because I can relate in some ways…I didn’t really think about it until fairly recently but I remember vividly teaching my dolls and teddies, having them all lined up… you think that most kids go through that phase but I never really stopped (laughing) I just don’t have the teddies anymore! I love that story…. did you ever keep in touch with that particular teacher that inspired you so much?”

Janet: “Oh yes, oh yes in fact just last summer, summer of 2019 I finally got back and took my kids back to the States and introduced them to a lot of family and was back in my hometown and she was one of the people I looked up…absolutely I borrowed her violin and played for my mother’s funeral in 2010…and so um..yeah.. a huge influence…”

Jo: “That’s so beautiful! I love that! We talked earlier about having a long-standing career in the one place – did you say that you have been at ISB for 24 years now?

Janet: “Yes!”

Jo: “I’m sure there’s been many highs and lows…. are there any particular challenges that stand out and you have overcome and been quite proud of…?

Janet: “I think the amount of administrative work and how it changes…educators know that there is something different every year, some of them are very good changes and some of them need to be changed and sometimes administrators make changes to justify themselves or to justify the amount of money they charge parents for whatever reason, but the longer I teach, the more I detest the paperwork…rarely do I find that it helps inform my teaching…”

I don’t particularly enjoy writing grade cards, but it does provide a chance to sit down and think about each child…

” So I’ve come to accept that it’s a good evil…but I think overcoming the drudgery of that and realising that it is what it is and I can put it to the side…it really used to get to me but now with 24 years, hopefully there’s a little bit more wisdom!! ” (laughing)

Jo: “I could have been a little more gentle… I could have said two decades!”(laughing)

Janet: “Well I was going to say 24 years, yet hmmm I am only 40!!! ….no, I think its compartmentalising those kinds of things that you cannot do anything about, and you don’t fell that loss of control over what you are doing..  you accept it you put it where it is and you do your best to do it efficiently…you decide and figure out how much it needs of your life and your time…and I think I have gotten wiser about that – everything doesn’t have to be done to the nth degree..

Jo: “Yeah…yep! It’s a big one! A big one isn’t it and then you can really get back to… embracing it and then have more time for the things you love.. which is hands on teaching…that’s the whole gig right? That’s what we signed up for!

Janet: “Yeah,,that’s what we signed up for…in fact when I came to ISB I was hired as the head of the music department…there aren’t many jobs as head of orchestra in international schools in Europe, there are many more in Asia in the international school system and then the following year, because I worked my tail off and did so well they added on the theatre, the drama part which makes sense as a whole…but  I got very lucky… I got married and I had a baby and I just said I’m done! I didn’t enjoy the administrative part at all, and it took away from my teaching – it was so clear to me – I was lucky enough to be able to remodel my job description and I never wanted to do any kind of administration..”

Jo: “I hear you! I hear you! Can I take you back a little to the first years of your teaching journey.. if you could think about, I mean you could think about another time if it was more appropriate…when you think back to either yourself or to other teachers that you know in the start of their careers is there any sort of support that you wish you had or you wish you saw other teachers having when they’re first getting started?”

Janet: “There is something now that ISB actually has, and I wished they had had it – it’s a mentor program… I’m not quite sure what they do in it so what I could have benefitted was for somebody being in my classroom and scripting things and looking at how much time I was using in getting going..how much time I’m talking versus how much time the students are playing…how many times I am repeating myself and things like that. They may do things like that in our program – I’m not familiar with it of course being here forever! And in a completely non-judgmental way I see teachers come in that struggle….I don’t know exactly how they are being helped..but as an administrator coming in and sees them struggling…that must be incredibly …pressurised and just scary for them..and I am not sure that is the best for them or the best environment for someone to grow and become more competent ..so it seems to me that someone completely removed in administration, especially if you had someone…even if they weren’t struggling be one of the best investments a school makes…however if you have people coming in and out throughout the years that is very costly…so I can understand if it doesn’t happen…”

Jo: “Yeah it’s a lot to think about isn’t it..”

that move from your qualifications and you’re training as an undergraduate you’re suddenly out there and you’re on and there’s a lot of expectation from the families, the faculty and your administrators as well …

“but it sounds like something amazing and that was one of the things I liked about working in such a progressive environment like ISB – they are open to thinking and researching and trialling to see everything they can do to make it the best start for the students and the teachers….so now we will change the tone a little bit to a bit lighter… I’m sure you have had plenty…but what’s one of your, what would be one of your funniest and most memorable experiences in your teaching career do you think?

Janet:” I don’t necessarily have one specific situation but one that I still laugh about and actually just happened last year.. it was in the youngest class,..in. a nursery class… As teachers do all over, they have a picture of the teacher with what they do underneath and of course the timeline for the day … then here’s a picture of Janet and Miss Smith for music – the teacher had asked me if we could take a picture to put there…I said Ok but for several years you’ve had this very nice picture of me…I don’t understand! She said no, no we’d like to have a picture of you, so she took a picture and I finally got out of her why she wanted this new picture of me…because the kids didn’t recognise me as Miss Smith! We laughed and laughed! So, we got the picture and the next week she had it up, but she had the old picture up, so I said to the kids this is Miss Smith…and they said no its not! But it’s me when I was just a little younger…but that doesn’t look like you at all Miss Smith!

Jo: “Wow!” 

Janet: “Ok maybe it’s not funny but it was a reality check! You know I have to laugh!”

Jo: “Oh no I find that amusing! A couple of weeks ago it was my birthday and my four- and five-year olds were just all day long scratching their heads going…how is it your birthday? You’re a teacher,..you’re an adult…like how do you get a birthday? You haven’t got a mum and a dad…what??? I was just thinking as you told that story it’s like getting slapped in the face with a wet fish! It’s like (when they said to you) that doesn’t look like you! That’s a no filter moment isn’t it?”

Janet: “Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Being at the grocery store close to school.. do you remember the grocery store? You go there and the kids look at you and their eyes just get bigger and bigger – some of their parents don’t know who I am because they don’t see me at pick up…first of all its like Miss Smith! Miss Smith and they run up close to you and the parents are looking at you and they say well….why are you here? You live at the ECC..” (Early Childhood Campus) 


Jo: “So what actually happened with the photo – did you use the ‘older’ photo or the newer one?”

Janet: “Well ok, so this is funny because 2 or 3 years ago I was in her classroom and I noticed she had both! I said are you keeping the old one just to make me feel better? She said no, I just haven’t taken it down! I’m going to ask for it back just so I can remember when I looked like that..” 

Jo: “No I think that’s genius…if you want a career where you are keeping things real…work with children!”

Janet: “No kidding!”

Jo: “That’s part of the joy and one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, because it’s about sharing with other people – we share these elements of what we do… we come back to finding the joy of it all.. it’s been very easy to have been overwhelmed with all things that we find challenging, plus the year we’ve all had…it’s important to draw upon all those nuggets and say what I do is really amazing – I really feel that teaching is not a career, it’s a vocation – I love that! I love that!”

Jo: “Janet, I have one final question for you…and it is…what do you think your best advice is for teachers – you can pick whichever stage of their career you would direct this to…”

Janet: “You know it’s that old adage – keep your eyes on the prize, keep your eye on the goal…and even in these times I think for everyone, it could easily be your most difficult year….and taking pleasure consciously, taking pleasure in those little moments because the rest of the day may be just junk – we’re wearing a mask, it’s sweaty, it’s itchy, we can’t touch children …it’s just so so difficult – they say something – you know I think I laughed harder this year because I appreciate it…part of it is during lockdown I was trying to teach orchestra by Zoom….sighs

Jo: “:Oh geez”

Janet: We were just shaking our heads thinking, did they get anything out of it? there are things you can do…but it’s just not like really teaching and so everyone tries to commiserate….but I say we are in person and you know id don’t care if they ask me to come in and teach at midnight teaching these kids, I’ll do it because these kids  – I get to see these kids in person… I think my answer might have been a little bit different a year ago…there is a saying that my mother put in her armoires,..her little I don’t know what you call it…just something to live by that sums this up perfectly; as I mentioned in the beginning she was a born teacher…and it said…..

“in 100 hundred years it won’t matter what house you lived in, what car you drove or the clothes you wore…but what will matter is the difference you made in the life of a child…I can barely say it and keep my voice from breaking because it’s so meaningful for me…it’s everything …that’s why I teach…..”

“the other saying that I have kept with me even longer…I was in history class in high school in 1986 when the Challenger shuttle exploded….and I just remember so clearly…..Mr Jenkins stopped the class and he announced the explosion…I had been following it because they had the first teacher on board….her name was Christa McAuliffe and she had this saying…and I rarely remember these things, but she said I teach,…I touch the future…. And…..it’s all you need to justify why we should be supporting education…why we should be …why the best people should be teaching….it had more meaning as I got older, it had even more meaning when I became a parent because I realised those teachers were everything in what happened to my kids ….that’s why you were so amazing to us because what my kids got from you, at the age of 3 and 4 years old …I think you started my son on his science trajectory….I really do….and um it’s everything….it really if you don’t know what you are doing right now that will influence later and you know, what you did for my kids maybe this much but it was just at the right time and in the right way… and all those small things add up…if you took any away it would different…and so while we might not be the number one influence, we are …I know it also because

kids come back and they talk to you about – you know kids come back and they want to talk to the teachers they remember and you hear from them that you were an influence – even if you were just trying to get through the day! 

Trying to be standing at the end of the day! It’s a very romanticised version but I think it’s the crux of it…”

Jo: “I love that, I am going to remember that I teach, I touch the future…that’s beautiful… but beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe it…”

Janet: “It perfectly encapsulates everything…”

Jo: “Thank you for saying those wonderful things about me! I’ve told you many times, truly your children were an absolute joy and the (teaching/learning) environment they were in allowed me to grow my wings as a teacher because there was a lot of freedom to explore …I’ve been very fortunate the couple of years that I spent at ISB continued to shape me – so it was the teachers, including yourself around me that helped me become that teacher I was to your children and hopefully the. many others that I taught at the time – so thank you…”

Janet: “When I look back on that time when you were there sometimes, usually the assistant was supposed to come with the music class just because you needed the time to do other things,  but once in a while you would come in and I remember the enjoyment as a teacher how we laughed, we enjoyed…we basically just played music not that we had instruments, but it was play time and it was so easy to do – I had such enjoyment from working with you as a teacher…”

Jo: “Thank you! You know what I remember – I don’t know if you do…but buying CDs was still the way you got music at the time,,,,and to live in a foreign country for the first time, you know I diversified my music taste but certainly at the start you went to the ‘go tos’ and I remember having Norah Jones playing on the CD player…you came in one day when the children were relaxing and you said Norah Jones…are you like the coolest teacher ever with your relaxation music? (laughing) It was clearly an artist we both appreciated but it had a different vibe because sometimes although – sometimes those situations might not be thought about so well..”

“It’s evidence again of when you bring yourself to …your personality to the classroom you don’t know what you’re inspiring in the children or in the other people around you…

“so I don’t know if you remember the Norah Jones conversation but I always do and when I play that I still think of you!”

Janet: “Thank you!..”

Jo: “It’s so funny the things that you remember….good things…. I think it’s also your willingness to open up to learn from other teachers…there’s so much…we become each other’s …certainly in that environment we became each other’s family and your friendships….it was quite normal to socialise with people on the weekends and do things because this was your European family and it was a big faculty ..one of the biggest I have been a part of  so yeah….good memories Janet…thank you so much!”

Janet: “Well it’s been so lovely to talk to you and catch up!”

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