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Elliott Hile | “Teachers are in the business of people”

I was the kid who was under the table with a fireman’s helmet on, covering his ears because he didn’t understand what people were saying. I would get frustrated all the time because I didn’t understand multiple syllable words. So in elementary school, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I wouldn’t have learned to adapt without the support of my parents. My mom sought out support for me — she got me a reading specialist, a speech therapist, and special education services in school. I’m incredibly privileged that she not only sought out but had access to give me those things.

Elliott as a litte boy

About a month ago, I asked her, ‘What was it like having a kid with dyslexia?’ And my mom paused. And you know that’s never a good sign when your mom pauses in the conversation — it’s a dramatic pause, right? And she said, ‘Yeah, we didn’t know if you were ever gonna be able to read.’ I was shocked.

So, education has given me everything. I think about how I was privileged to have parents who are educators, who supported me, who paid for all those things. One of the things that drives me is knowing that so many students do not have access to that much support, that there are other kids under the elementary school table covering their ears who won’t get the interventions that they need.

Music is my avenue for helping another kid like me — helping people become the best possible versions of themselves that they can be, no matter what they look like, no matter their deficits, no matter if they are under the table or around it.

I was debating between aerospace engineering and education. My parents actually kind of pushed me away from teaching music, because they were both music teachers and that’s something they had lived experience with. But they said, ‘If that’s something that you want to do, we’ll support you in that.’

I think I came to wanting to teach music through the opportunities and experiences I had in high school. Something that I love about teaching music is that we create a niche for kids. There’s a niche for all the sporty kids: they’re doing cross country, or football. There’s a niche for all the arts kids, or the theater kids. With music, there is something for everyone. And sometimes, music is everything for our kids. Music was my everything, it gave me so many high school leadership opportunities: opportunities to work with other people, people younger than me, and I think that’s where that passion for teaching and helping other people came from.

I think we also all have teachers in our lives who we could say, ‘They changed my life.’ For me, it was my high school band director. What I realized was that he helped us achieve things that we never thought were possible. He helped us grow not only as musicians, but as people first — helping us become the best versions of ourselves. That started with him saying, ‘Let’s not talk about music for ten minutes today, and let’s talk about doing the right thing.’ Taking the time to talk about the morals, values, and concepts that make us into human beings. He was that teacher for me, and one of the people who inspired me to become a teacher.

There’s a moment every day that reinforces my commitment to teaching. Sometimes it has nothing to do with music. Sometimes it’s a heart-to-heart conversation in the office about how a kid’s feeling, English class, and how they’re doing — helping them in their lives outside of my four corners in the music room.

A couple weeks ago, I got a text from a kid who graduated last year. She said, ‘Hey, Mr. Hile. I marched my first college football game last night and it was the best experience of my life. I wanted to thank you for pushing me to be my best in high school and setting me up for success here. I’m really grateful. Thank you!’ And there are long email conversations with kids reaching out with like, ‘Hey, here’s an update on what I’m doing in my life.’ Also emails from kids who are just finding their path, sharing what they’re doing.

There are always kids who hang out in the hallways after school. And I’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m going to Jimmy John’s, do you want anything? Dinner’s on me.’ And they say, ‘Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Hile. Can I give you like five bucks?’ I say, ‘No. Here’s the deal. When you graduate — when you’re a doctor, scientist, business owner, whatever you want to be — you come back, you buy me dinner, and you tell me what you’re doing with your life and how you’re changing the world.’

So it’s investing in kids. Not in terms of money, but literally as people. I’m simply helping them get there through music as a medium. Right? And just seeing that, that kind of circle back when they share what they are doing after they leave… that’s what it’s about.

What we do every day matters. But, because we’re in the business of people, we don’t see the results of who our students become until after they’re long gone. And sometimes we never see them again. So receiving that reminder from them of, ‘Hey, you made a difference in my life’… I think that’s what keeps me coming back.

Music is like what we have in English class. It’s a way for students to communicate what they’re thinking and feeling. In English, they’re analyzing books and giving a speech or writing a paper with their analysis. But that’s simply one medium of communication. And in my class, our music is our book. We analyze it every day in class. We talk about what’s happening. And ultimately what we’re doing individually and as a group is simply communicating and expressing ourselves through music.

There are so many students who struggle in written and oral communication like I did. In music, there’s an opportunity to talk about yourself: to share the things that you’re feeling, and express yourself in a way that is perhaps easier for you, in a way that you’re more connected with. I think music is incredibly important because it gives students another way to express themselves.

It’s really disheartening to hear about arts programs being cut. Sometimes there’s the stereotype of the arts being the ‘creative’ spaces. Well, yes, that’s true, but that’s also saying that you can’t be as creative in math or English, which is not true. That’s a false dichotomy. But, the arts do create opportunities for students to think differently and collaborate in a unique way. And, as music teachers, we have the opportunity to connect with our students for multiple years.

One of the things we talk about in school is that it is so important that kids feel connected to an adult in the building. And since the pandemic, we have seen more of our kids struggle because they do not feel connected. They feel like they don’t belong, that they don’t matter. Our classes create that sense of belonging. We have longevity with our students. It’s not, ‘You have me for one class, and I’ll maybe see you in the hallway the next three years.’ Our classes allow us to cultivate stronger connections with students.

One of the things we talk about with our students is that in music, everybody participates. It’s not like football where there are kids playing on the field and there are kids on the bench. Music is different from a math class, where if you fail a math test, the only person who that affects is you. In music, if somebody next to you is failing, then collectively, we are failing as a team. I think in so many ways, this environment prepares kids to be on a team: whether it’s a team of teachers or working in a company, where everybody plays a pivotal role. It’s about learning that what you do affects the entire team and what we’re trying to build together.

So I think in some ways, when you talk about collaboration, that’s what music is at the core. We’re teaching kids not only to grow their musical skills individually, but that we are developing a musical product together. And that product is something that we all share and we all value together.

Teachers do what we do because we’re in the business of people. The ‘product’ that we work on is helping young people become adults and helping them become successful and do the best that they possibly can in the lives that they want to lead. That’s so much of our ‘why’. But I think a hard part of working with people and students is that nobody’s the same. What we’re being asked to do is constantly changing depending on who the students are in front of us. I think that some people may think, ‘Hey, you’re just teaching the same math lesson every year. That’s so easy, right? Two plus two is four.’ It’s so much more complicated and nuanced than that, because we’re dealing with human beings.

For music teachers, we’re playing different music every year. So everything is changing all the time. We are constantly adapting what we do to meet the needs of the students in front of us. And you know, I think the demands of what we do can be overwhelming.

(A student pokes his head in the door. To the student: “I’m in an interview, bye. Love you so much. Bye.” Door closes. To me: “He’s one of those kids where this is his happy place.”)

Okay. I don’t remember what I was talking about. It’s overwhelming, right? It’s easy to think that we’re doing the same things, but we are constantly adjusting, we are constantly being asked to address new needs of students that we didn’t necessarily know about: students feeling connected, having a sense of belonging. We’re constantly learning about the people that we’re also trying to help become the best humans that they can be.

We’re constantly being asked, ‘Hey, try to include this in your instruction. Let’s include social-emotional learning lessons and incorporate that in your content area.’ We’re being asked to do new things in different ways and take on additional responsibilities. We always feel like we could be doing more for the kids. But, that also can be a source for gaslighting: ‘It’s for the kids!’ Or, ‘It’s about the outcome, not the income.’ So there’s kind of a guilt, or shaming that’s associated if you don’t join the extra committee or do the extra work.

When I think about what people might not know about being a teacher, one of the first things that comes to mind is violence. The threat of violence in schools. A close colleague and I have had several conversations about interactions with students where we question where the student is at: is what’s happening going to put them in a spiral of either self-harm, or even harming others? And that’s a question I never thought I’d have to ask. We’re wondering, ‘Is one of the students who’s going to shoot up a classroom at my school?’ And I think that’s an assumed risk. That’s unfortunately the reality that we’re now living in. That anxiety, that trepidation is real.

There are things that I am constantly questioning, each interaction that I have, which can be detrimental at times. Because you’re overanalyzing — paralysis by analysis. It makes you hyper aware of, ‘Here’s what I said. I need to own the intentions of what I said.’ Own the intention, but also own the impact of what you say. Being aware of how this student might have been impacted differently than that student. How I interacted with the kid who came to my door earlier, right? He would receive some things that I say very differently than another student. So I think it helps you be very conscious of the things that you’re saying. Hyper aware, but not always in a positive way.

More so than ever, I feel the responsibility for what I say and do. In this conversation, we’ve talked about all the positive things, with those students who graduated who reached out because of our positive interactions, but I’m sure there were also some interactions that were not great, right? Where I wasn’t at my best, or they weren’t at their best. It makes you think through everything, especially when students don’t react the way that I expected them to. Bottom line, you never know what a student is bringing to the table.

My colleague Matt talks about how we’re kind of in loco parentis. There’s an awareness that we are the home away from home, we are the parents away from parents. And we can only control what’s in the building and in our classrooms. But, we honestly have very little idea of what kids are experiencing at home. I’ve had students who come in wearing the same clothes every day because they literally don’t own any more clothes. Or they can’t shower because the water was turned off at home. We also have kids who are driving brand new cars to school. We don’t know what their home lives are like, or if they have experienced trauma. We have a whole gamut of students. That’s the world we live in… they are our kids, and they have a lot that they bring to our classes each day.

Students are so impressionable. We are responsible for preparing students for the world outside of our schools, but in a sensitive way. We have to address current events and values that are perhaps politically hot topics. Instead of embracing an opportunity to have open dialogue with our students, we’re shying away from those conversations — because it’s fear-based. We don’t want news cameras to show up and say, ‘This teacher said this….’ We want to avoid that. Any organization would want to avoid that situation.

But, I think we’re doing the students a disservice if we don’t talk about racism, systemic inequity, if we don’t talk within the school about problematic practices that are systemic issues. The problem is that we are trying to navigate those waters with students, and our students are impressionable. Our mission is not to indoctrinate students with our personal agendas. It is the opposite. We want our students to be informed. We want students to analyze, to think critically, and ultimately make decisions and opinions based on accurate information. We can’t do that if we don’t talk about it. Let’s not avoid the hard conversations.

People may wonder why we need to address certain topics at all. It’s because students are asking us questions. What these conversations create, which I think is incredibly important, is awareness. There’s a whole other world outside of our bubble, with people who have different experiences than us, whose life experiences are different from us. So I think these conversations broaden what students are aware of, so that they’re not so quick to form an opinion based on assumptions alone. How can you make an informed decision about an issue without having all the information? Students should be able to ask those questions, right? Because they’re the next generation. They’re going to be ones helping society continue to evolve.

So our students have to be informed, they have to be aware of how other people think, how other people feel, and what other people are experiencing in their lives. And that it’s probably different from what they’re experiencing.

I’m a product of an inequitable system. Schools in Illinois are funded primarily by local taxes and property taxes. This is inherently inequitable because property taxes vary enormously across the state. I’m teaching and living in the suburbs with high property taxes and because of the amount of financial support for schools, I am benefiting from that inequitable system. It is a problem for students and teachers across the state. I think the question then is, how do we change that? How do we go about addressing that problem? I think it’s funding schools, especially in areas with the most need, as well as addressing teacher pay. Providing more funding to underfunded schools will not only support recruiting and retaining teachers, but also provide students with the support they need, so every student has access to that support. And how do you achieve these changes? Building awareness.

It starts with asking questions: what education policies are currently in the works? Where do different people stand on different policies? How do we affect change together? How can I utilize my privilege to support these changes? Because we know education is something that benefits everybody, right? We need to become aware, learn, make informed decisions, get involved, contact legislators. That’s how democracy works. That’s how we make progress, in education, and everywhere else.

I had a conversation with my kids this morning, and I asked, ‘Do you feel like the school system is broken?’

They talked about how in school, it’s like a factory. They talked about how we’re preparing them to go to college, but that’s not everyone’s path. They brought up frustrations with standardized testing, and the purpose of them. One of them literally said, ‘We’re not learning how to think critically about stuff.’

There were a couple students who said, ‘The system is made for certain kids to be successful. It’s made to support certain students, but not every student.’ That made me think about smaller class sizes and having more specialists to support students. Teachers can better support and tailor instruction to students in smaller class sizes. If there are more specialists in the building, whether that’s social-emotional support, whether that’s social workers, whether that’s counselors, academic support — the more successful the students will be.

Even in the class earlier today, I was so surprised by one student saying, ‘Yeah, I don’t always like school, there are some things that just don’t work for me.’ I know what education has given me, I know what it felt like in school knowing I had all these adults who supported me, that I could go to any one of them for help — that I felt that connection. My students should feel that same connection and support in school, even if the ‘things’ that they’re bringing to the table are different from what I brought to the table. We need to be able to address the continuing evolution of students’ needs in schools.

So there’s a student who graduated a couple of years ago, let’s call him Mark. He was an absolutely killer drum set player and played in our jazz ensemble. Awesome, awesome kid. But, school wasn’t really made for him and designed for what he was interested in at the time. He played in a heavy metal band and was playing semi-professionally and touring on weekends and breaks. Last year, I invited a bunch of jazz alumni to come back for a jazz concert and catch up. That was the first time I had seen Mark in a few years – we set up a time to meet and catch up. So we met at this diner, and he was like, ‘You know, I still love playing the drums but I think I’ve finally figured out what I’m passionate about and want to do: PHYSICS.’

That’s one of those moments that keeps me coming back to teaching. Mark is this killer drummer. He’s still got long hair. He has the whole heavy metal look and vibe. This is a kid who went off into the world and didn’t necessarily know what he was going to do. But he rediscovered something he kind of liked in high school, he read a new book about it, and now he’s starting community college. For a kid who felt school didn’t really work for him and what he was passionate about, to see him kind of find his way was really cool. He’s continuing to learn.

I think that’s what teachers want: we want students to be lifelong learners. That’s ultimately the goal, right? We want them to continue to learn and grow.

I have another story for you. I had a student who played tenor sax, let’s call her Ruby. I think I got the job at Lakes during her junior year, but didn’t really connect with her until her senior year. She was a part of a great group of senior music students that year — they were a close-knit group. What you need to know about Ruby is that she was very, very anxious about school and about playing her instrument in front of other people. She would sometimes come into my office with another saxophone student tearful because of her anxiety. Anyway, I can’t remember when she said it, but I remember her making a reference to the Green Day song Basket Case — she said, ‘I’m just a basket case, Mr. Hile, I’m all waterworks today.’

I can remember a moment when I was walking out of the school right around graduation and I found Ruby and her best friend, who also played saxophone, sitting in the parking lot outside their cars. I wandered over and asked what was going on. They said they were talking about life, and invited me to commiserate. I sat down and we chatted about memories from band and high school, their plans for summer and next year. And it was in that conversation that I learned that both of these students really felt connected with me as a teacher as well with other teachers at the school. Ruby will still send me emails like, ‘Hey, Mr. Hile, I’m into baking.’ She’s going to school for that now. It’s been so cool to stay connected with her, and to hear about all the things that she has been doing. It’s funny that she’ll write emails and sign them ‘Your Favorite Basket Case, Ruby.’

I think kids want to have a person. They want to have an adult who cares. And knowing that I was that person for her… that is really cool.

I’m in a policy fellowship with Teach Plus, which has given me the opportunity to collaborate with an incredible group of teachers in championing and developing policies that will support students and teachers in Illinois. Our working group is working on a bill that’s called the Racism-Free Schools Act, which is essentially a policy that will protect and support students and teachers of color from racial harassment and set up procedures for addressing those incidents within schools.

I share that because I think this is an example of a piece of legislation that young people, anybody, can help support. These are the policies that we need to be more aware of, because these are things that impact so many people. I’d like to think that this kind of legislation represents a movement that will lead to more support and protection for students and teachers who identify as LGBTQIAA+, who are neurodiverse — for all different kinds of students and teachers.

Addressing issues in schools through policy is one of the best ways to dismantle these problems — it is one of the best ways to truly support students and teachers.

–Elliott Hile
Music Teacher at Lakes Community High School
Lake Villa, Illinois