Jeff Mayo: ‘This is me giving you permission to explore your students’ dreams’

Jeff is a fifth-year music teacher at Matchbook Learning at Wendell Phillips School 63, where he also helps lead elementary social-emotional learning.

As told to Shaina Cavazos

Music transformed my life. In high school I was in an honors ensemble in Ohio, and a group from Minnesota came out and performed for us. I remember sitting in that moment, feeling just this overwhelming sense of, “I need to do that and make things like that performance happen.” I was in band, choir and theatre during high school, and then once I got to college, you had to decide what instrument to study. I didn’t grow up very affluent, and my parents did a lot to make it possible for me to be in band and to have awesome performance experiences. That’s one of the reasons I studied singing — it doesn’t cost money. I’d classify it as the most intimate form of human communication. There’s something very personal about singing and sharing your voice. In a choir performance, you also don’t need anything except yourself.

I taught high school for two years, and I realized that my kids didn’t have everything that they should have had. I wanted to change that. I’m a very firm believer in “be the change you wish to see in the world,” so I found a job with Matchbook Learning at Wendell Phillips to be that change in elementary.

Teaching became this way to take all of these different things that I love about the world and put them into full use. If I think about a side project idea, I’m going to explore it, and I do whatever I can for my students to explore theirs as well. If they have a question in class about why something is done a certain way, let’s explore it right now. Grab an iPad and look up the answer, and once you have that, report back to the class. ADHD causes thoughts to bounce around in my head, but it helps me encourage my students to explore whatever thoughts pop into their heads, too.

Recently I was challenged to do something with Blanco Brown’s The Git Up, and I designed a unit around it. But one student in particular didn’t like learning the dance. I remember going home that night, and I just kept wrestling with it. Teachers know this really well – it was midnight, and I had this idea pop into my head. Drumming. My kids love drumming. So at midnight I just wrote a drumming part that could go along with it. And I remember presenting it, and the kids were really into it. It made the project blow up into this bigger thing, and that student ended up being the one featured in the video we made.

If a kid says, “This thing isn’t useful, how will it help me in life?” It’s not my job to be defensive. It’s my job to provide an opportunity so they can see how it can. That’s the challenge.

As younger teachers, we have this vision of the classroom, and we can make plans, but we are living in a world that is always evolving. There’s always something new out there, and music teachers especially can harness that. What do my students already know, what are they already good at? How can I teach them new things, and how can we explore new things together?

Have a plan for what skills and concepts you’re going to teach, but explore those passions that your students introduce you to. This is me giving you permission to explore your students’ dreams.

We’re featuring each of the 11 Office of Education Innovation 2020 Teacher of the Year finalists. Look for new features throughout the summer and fall.