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Teacher Spotlight: Katharine Finlayson


Tell us about your job. What does a typical day look like?

I am a primary music specialist teacher based at the ACT Instrumental Music Program. I work in four public schools each week, teaching music lessons in partnership with classroom teachers in each school.

Many schools do not have access to a music specialist teacher and my role is to support classroom teachers to develop their skills in music education.

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to share the lessons and I love getting to know so many fabulous primary teachers, students and support staff in ACT public schools.

In addition to my work in schools I have the privilege of organising and conducting the ACT Primary Concert Choir and the ACT Senior Concert Choir.

I am deeply committed to making the choirs the very best they can be as the choristers deserve a true extension experience and ongoing musical challenge.

A choir is a wonderful musical entity and I am proud that we have two large and successful choirs at the IMP alongside the amazing concert bands and other ensembles. The IMP is an incredible place to work.

Every school has a different structure, but I am so lucky to be made to feel very welcome in all my schools. I work with over 1000 children and 40 teachers every two weeks and I work hard to remember as many names as I can.

As this is not a release program the classroom teachers, relief teachers and learning assistants all attend the lessons and I often have a range of other visitors in my classes.  
Each afternoon I drive to the IMP Program office and attend meetings, prepare music or conduct choir rehearsals. For a large part of the year I am also busy with extra rehearsals and preparations for Step Into the Limelight, the ACT Directorate’s Gala showcase.

What’s the best part of your job?

Engaging with a wide range of wonderful children and teachers as we sing, move, play instruments, read and write music and share the special bond that comes with group music making.

I have five fabulous principals, but I work most closely with Naida Blackley, Principal of the IMP and the person who directly supports every aspect of my role. I feel very privileged to have Naida’s support and I love working with the instrumental music teachers at the IMP.

It’s a close knit and hardworking team whose members undertake a vast amount of school based and after-hours work giving ACT Directorate students amazing opportunities in music.

What drew you to teaching initially? What inspired you to become a teacher?

I spent my childhood singing, dancing and talking too much. Not much has changed! Although I could have worked towards a career in music performance, I felt like teaching was a natural fit for me.

I was lucky to go to school in Queensland in the late 60’s and 70’s when music education was first being recognised as a universal right for all children. My cohort were offered the first roll out of free instrumental music lessons in government schools.

My family has always been motivating and inspiring too. My father was a professional trumpet player and my mother drove me to endless music and dance lessons.

What motivates you in your career?

I know the power of music education and I witness it every day. Schools which have weekly or daily music education for all students have better learning outcomes in language acquisition, literacy, mathematics and reasoning as well as happier, more engaged students who work together well, have better self-esteem and socialize positively.

Music education supports deep thought, cultural connection, language, imagination, analysis, fun and engagement. I have been teaching music for nearly 35 years and it is more needed now than ever before.

Do you have any exciting goals or projects you are working towards?

I am the president of a music education professional association, Kodaly ACT. The Kodaly philosophy of music education is recognised and implemented across the world. In 2020 the ACT Branch will be hosting the National Kodaly Conference and I am working alongside the conference convenor to bring this huge event to our city. We are expecting between 200 and 300 participants, including many overseas delegates and presenters. Among other duties I am coordinating the visiting choirs who will perform throughout the four days and nights of the conference. We hope to see many of our Canberra colleagues at this special event!

I am also busy coordinating our regular Kodaly music education workshops and events, several of which are being delivered by interstate guest presenters. Teachers are happy to attend inspiring music workshops where they can undertake quality professional learning which is accredited with TQI.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Be prepared! Over my teaching career I can honestly say I have almost never faced a class without a clear plan for what we will be doing. In a music lesson this can be up to eight activities in 30 minutes! As I now work across such many classes and schools, I also need to keep a very careful record of what we actually did in each lesson so I can be well prepared when I return the next week!

What is something about your work people may not realise?

People may not realise how many aspects there are to my role. My school colleagues don’t always know about my work with the choirs and events at the IMP, unless they are participating in Step Into the Limelight or Singfest. Parents and colleagues who see my work with the choirs often assume that that is what I do all week. Colleagues who come into contact with me through my role as Vocal Director of Step Into the Limelight assume I am I the office all week completing the work that goes into that role. It’s all quite a busy juggle and I do a lot of work at home in the evenings and on the weekends just to keep up, like all teachers do! I love every aspect of the work however and I feel privileged to have the opportunities that I have been given.

What is the most important lesson you have learnt throughout your career?

I think it is important to be flexible and positive whenever you possibly can. There is never a ‘normal’ school day and I try to be helpful to my colleagues if classes are combined, timetables changed at the last minute etc.

Everyone in schools works hard and everyone is trying to support their students to get the most out of every day. Teaching is not an easy job and we all need to support each other through all sorts of up and down days in schools.

What makes working and teaching in Canberra public schools great?

I think Canberra public school teachers are a very committed and engaged group of professionals. They are hardworking, dedicated, forgiving, resilient human beings who show great respect and care for the children in their care.

Some of our students are not able to access opportunities beyond what is offered in their school and that makes our work so important and so rewarding. Every day I see teachers going above and beyond to help children grow in their understanding of interpersonal relationships, to thrive in their learning and to generally become happy, well-adjusted people.

As a music specialist I have the advantage of seeing this development unfold over several years and I hope I am adding new ways of learning, joy and artistic fulfillment to these children’s lives throughout their journey too. I absolutely love the connection we all feel when we are singing well together!