Lift as You Climb

Program Director and EdCo Member, Amy Nystrand recently ‘’sat down” virtually with Edco teacher Nita Smith. Nita is the 5th through 8th grade piano, general music, and choral music teacher at Isaiah T. Creswell Middle School of the Arts. Listening to her 29 years of experience is a reminder of how far beyond just teaching that teaching goes.

Where do you teach, what did you teach, and how did you get into teaching?

I teach at Isaiah T. Creswell Middle School of the Arts. I teach 5th through 8th grade piano, general music, and choral music.  I got started I guess because music has been just another part of who I am, it’s almost like my twin, we are unseparated, it’s my invisible twin, we have the same soul.  I don’t think I would be able to survive without some kind of music in my life.  I grew up with a single mom and her mother, and they were always singing in the house.  I mean my earliest memories are of my grandmother singing in the kitchen while she was cooking. She had an old upright piano in our living room, and I would go in there and just climb up on the stool, and just started banging, and apparently my hands were big for my size, and she said I’m gonna put this baby in some piano lessons, get her started.  And she was talking to my mom, kind of like neither you or your brother continued on with it, so I guess the third time is the charm.  Whatever my grandmother told me to do, I was not the kind of kid that wanted my own independence, I really just admired her so much as the matriarch of our family. So she said, you’re gonna learn to play the piano, and I said ok! That’s where my love of music, that’s the beginning of it. Then I just grew up with all kinds of music in my household, so from gospel, to hymns, to jazz.  I have an amazing jazz collection that my mother left behind when she passed. Jazz, R&B, all of it.  Just took piano lessons along the way, took organ lessons later on in high school. It was a natural fit for me, so by the time I finished 9th grade, and being in the musical there, having a lead role at Rose Park.  My choir director from Rose Park is still living now, we’re friends on Facebook, David Spencer, he’s amazing, he retired from John Overton High School.  Then I went to Hillsboro, and I was in the choir and musicals there.  In a pop group called A Song for You, I learned about Jim Croce, Roberta Flack, and all these wonderful artists, the Carpenters, I just fell in love, over and over, throughout my life with music.  I don’t know that I thought I would be a good singer, for a living, I thought I would be a good actress, because I always loved to act, but when I went to the University of Tennessee, I just majored in music education, because I thought, what a better way to express my love for music than to share my enthusiasm with students, the same way that it was done towards me in middle school, high school, and so I decided to major in music. This is the beginning of my 29th year in metro. 

How do you hope your students describe you?

Ms. Smith is fun loving, she loves what she does, she means business. I think that’s what I’m known for already.  I’m also very, I just, I want them to be the best that they can be, they know that already, and not only do I want them to get the note right, or try to read music, or try to sing their scale, I think they know that I want them to try to achieve in life.  I’m always encouraging them beyond the notes on the page, to hone their craft. I’m not trying to make them be a musician or a person who’s going to go on to be another music teacher, I mean I would be happy if that were the case, but I want them to be supporters of music, so that when they become adults they see the importance of their children being involved in the arts. I want them to use their arts as a way for a platform for them to speak about whatever it is in society that they want to champion, or cause, to use their arts.  I’ve given them a lot of examples of celebrities and musicians who have literally used their arts platform, and their already large base, to convince society about human issues that we need to deal with.  I’ve often told them to use your voice, you should do something that as you move on in life, you should be doing something that you reach back and help others. There was a woman by the name of Mary McLeod Bethune, and during post-Civil War and Reconstruction, she founded a school down in Daytona Beach, FL, for newly freed slaves, girls, and it went on later to become Bethune-Cookman, but one of her mantras was to lift as you climb.  I think that’s amazing.  I think she had that vision back then.  I often tell them it’s ok to be a celebrity.  You see people on your television, that’s not your reality.  You have your own path that you have to blaze.  I hope that you use whatever gifts you have to make the world a better place.  What have you done to plant a seed in someone’s heart where they will have hope for the future.  You can do that right here in Nashville, in our little corner here at IT Creswell in North Nashville, you can make a difference and I’ve told them that.  I think they’ll remember that about me as well.

Can you tell me how it works at IT Creswell?  

IT Creswell is a school where we really feel like the arts fuel the academics and the academics fuel the arts. When the students come they can major in an art and minor in an art.  Some of our main ensambles though meet simultaneously, so if you wanted to be in band and choir, what I tried to do was have an after school choir.  I do have where if you don’t get to have it as your class, the curriculum choir, then you can come after school and be a part of my choir on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  That’s some of the best singers throughout the entire school, because if it’s an arts school then you need to have the idea that I might need to be able to do more than one thing.  We do have some students who really do want to go on to Broadway and to be superstars.  So I’ve told them, you can’t have tunnel vision. You gotta be able to dance, act, read a script, go out and do a dance routine.  You need to choose one that’s going to be your main art, but you also need to have an open mind, because if this is something you really want to do then you need to be good in multiple areas.  We have visual art, we have dance, our strings teacher retired, but I’m pretty sure they’re gonna bring that back.  We have guitar, we have band, we have choir, piano, theater, drama. They can choose a main art, and then they can have one that’s their minor.  In choir we’ll do an annual spring, fall, winter concert.  We also do what we call an Arts Fusion, where we combine another art discipline with one.  One year we did an art showcase with a piano recital.  Sometimes I’ll get together with the band director and we will do a joint concert that maybe has a theme.  We kind of work together throughout all of those arts domains.  Then we come together as an entire faculty when we do stuff like Family Steam Night, and we kind of do some ideas centered around that where we bring the family in and the family gets a wrist bracelet and they go through all these different stations to experience what their students experience through the day.  

What keeps you going on tough days, either pre-pandemic or what keeps you going through all this craziness?

One of the things that keeps me going is that I’m glad I’m still alive, and I have a wonderful family, I have a husband and two grown daughters, and I know that I can reach out to them at any point for encouragement.  Now that they’re adults they seem to be giving me advice a lot of the time.  Of course music.  Then sometimes when I just come outside here in my backyard, and just sit on the back porch, just kind of walk around or whatever.  You know the music that you hear now, the birds singing in the trees, or water running in a brook, if I go to walk in a nearby golf course, or walking trail. Just getting outside, because the four walls of your house will begin to close in on you during this pandemic, so you do have to get out and get away from it all and push back, push everything away, and know that tomorrow is another day. I try to do too much in one day, and I have to do a lot of self-talk and say you can only do so much in one day, you’re not superwoman, you’re human.  I try to talk to myself and know that it’s gonna be ok. I really believe it’s gonna be ok. 

The Educators’ Cooperative is a non-profit organization that provides a professional learning community for K-12 teachers. Created for teachers by teachers in 2016, EdCo provides professional development and support for educators to collaborate across sectors, disciplines, and career stages. EdCo aims to revolutionize teacher development and leadership by focusing on the essential agency, autonomy, and common ground all teachers share. EdCo is based in Nashville, Tennessee with a reach far beyond that physical location and potential for replication in communities throughout the nation. When educators collaborate, the future of education is greater than the sum of its parts.   Please visit educatorscooperative.com for more information and to sign up for our newsletter.

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