"Trust the young, and give them the mandate to lead."
We hear a lot about kids teaching kids in El Sistema, and I was beginning to think that we were romanticizing the idea a bit. Like, “Oh! Look at that 14 year old working with the beginner 6 year old! How lovely! It's peer learning at its finest!”
I wasn't so sure. It seemed great for some reasons (empowering student leaders, saving money), but it also seemed more like a solution to get around there just not being enough professional musicians and teachers, and less like a strategy to empower young leaders. I kept thinking, "how are the teenagers supported in their musical and social development? Who's continuing to take care of them?"
I'm beginning to think that these questions are inconsequential, or at least partially so.
All of the teachers I speak with, professional and student, tell me more or less the same thing. The older students receive free music instruction, and therefore it is their duty to give back through teaching. They don't question it; teaching is just part of life in the same way that learning is. How are they kept engaged and supported? Many of them get to travel to other cities, like Caracas, for intensive lessons twice a month with master teachers. They also feel a sense of ownership in developing and guiding group classes and individual lessons.
After teaching (group) lessons to 3 horn players at the Antonio Estévez nucleo in Calabozo, I came the next day to find the oldest -- a 15 year old -- giving a lesson to a beginner (who is 7). The 7 year old was insolent. He stubbornly refused to continue to try to play lower notes. What I noticed most (besides the child's attitude) was the 15-year old's patience. He just get working with the boy, finding new ways to keep the learning moving forward. At one stage, I asked the boy why he chose the horn. He looked at me (still with a sour face) and said, "Because I love the horn! I like the sound." And so he and the 15-year old kept working away.
I still wonder in which ways the teenagers are receiving mentor-ship by adults, and if there could be more and better ways for some of these kids to continue to be as supported as their younger cohorts. But I'm understanding something else that more seasoned educators will already know: that embedding student leadership opportunities into all learning experiences is very powerful. These kids feel really proud to be in this program, and they carry with them a deep sense of responsibility for passing on their knowledge to the younger kids.
Here's another account: on our first day visiting this same nucleo, I started chatting with a lovely woman, a young clarinet teacher in her 20s. She told me a little about her work, and offered this:
"I came through this program, as did all of my friends. I went on to study accounting in university in another city, but I came back here because I had to, for the children and for the music. I have my own business - a clothing store - where I work during the first part of every weekday, and then afterward I come to teach here. It's exhausting, but I do it because I need to. The reason we do this is for the love of music. We feel drawn to this to give to children what we were given."
At first I thought this might have been planted fodder to feed to a visiting Sistema Fellow, but then it occurred to me that she might not know why 10 people from the US were at her nucleo and who on earth we were. It turns out she hadn't a clue; her explaining why she teaches came entirely from the heart.
It seems what she, and others, are telling us is that the question isn't "how do teenagers and young adult teachers continue to receive mentorship and support?" but rather, "how can we teenagers and young adults better help our younger peers who need it most?"