Stepping Back to See the Bigger Picture

“It’s all about the bigger and broader picture.” This is Isabella Gaviglia’s life philosophy, one that was shaped and solidified through her experience at Teachers College (TC). An alumna from the Music and Music Education Master of Arts Program and currently pursuing her Master of Education in Music and Music Education, Isabella’s journey began in her homeland of Brazil, continued in Southern Europe where she grew up, and carried on in Florida where she completed her undergraduate studies in music at University of Miami and later won Rookie Teacher of the Year Award. Now Isabella’s professional and life philosophies are gaining even more traction as she pursues her Ed.M. at TC and works as a music educator.

“I’m a first-generation immigrant, Latina woman, and the first person in my entire father’s lineage to go to college; the world is not necessarily going to listen to me, although I come with a loud voice and a big attitude. Teachers College was able to affirm the beliefs and philosophies I have personally, broadening them and challenging some of them in a good way, and then giving me the agency to continue to go forward on a sometimes uncomfortable or unpopular path in my field.”

Before landing at TC, Isabella began her undergraduate studies as a psychology major but soon realized that music was where she really wanted to be. “I’ve always wanted to work with people, and I’ve always been very introspective and analytical of the world, so I looked at psychology as a way to help people. I quickly realized that that’s not the demographic I wanted to work with; I wanted to work with the same concepts, but on the flip side, not trying to provide a remedy, but trying to catch it before.” Isabella began thinking about going into education and ended up switching her major to music. She thought, “I had been in the arts growing up, so since the arts were what helped me through a lot of trauma, I could go into music education and help others. We all have that moment with teachers, that one moment when we feel truly seen and heard. Even one experience like that can make an immense difference for the rest of someone’s life. If I can just be that teacher for one student, it’d be worth it.”

During her final advising session during her undergraduate studies in 2011, Isabella’s advisor suggested that she go to Teachers College for graduate school. Initially, Isabella simply dismissed this advice, but later, when she was considering graduate school, she kept coming back to TC. “I jumped through a bunch of hurdles and got myself here.”

TC has solidified in Isabella the centrality of the bigger picture, as well as the importance of the process over the importance of the product in music and learning. She reflects on her coursework so far at TC, musing, “We were pushed far outside our comfort zones often in our music education classes. As musicians, as students, and as individuals, a lot of people’s identities were challenged, including my own. This was especially true in classes like Randall Allsup’s. We were asked to compose, to improvise, and to perform on instruments not familiar to us, in styles not familiar to us, and with people not familiar to us. Those moments are so demanding of you as a person that they really challenge you to face who you are in a way that is so much bigger than the moment itself. That idea has lasted with me for a long time. Professor Randall Allsup challenges creativity and problem solving in the classroom, pushing our boundaries as musicians in a way. This allowed me to make more mistakes than I ever thought I could. Making so many ‘mistakes’ allowed me to learn the cliché that those are not mistakes; this is the process. And the process is far more important than the product. Usually music schools are much more focused on the product, and TC is not in any way primarily focused on the product more than the process. I can take that into my classrooms every single day . That attitude translates in my teaching and my personality, and I see it in my students. I see them taking risks because of the notion that we don’t really make mistakes in the classroom, that it’s okay to take a risk, and that every time you take a risk, it’s a muscle that you’re developing. You’re learning to not be afraid of the things that you were afraid of.”

A look inside Isabella’s classroom will reveal some of the most important lessons she’s internalized from her time at TC. “Critical theory is at the backbone of everything I do now because it’s just so embedded in what we do at TC. I can’t ignore the lack of diversity in the repertoire. I can’t ignore the lack of diversity in administration. Whether it’s in gender or people of color or people with disabilities, I can’t ignore it. I have to make sure my curriculum is representative of the culture of my students.” Isabella has found that not everyone outside TC has the same priorities or values, causing her to fight harder to spread her vision. “I find that as a TC graduate, you become this ambassador, you have to be the warrior that goes forward. If YOU don’t fight it, if you’re not the one speaking out, if you’re not the one changing curriculum, nobody will. And if we don’t, the world is not going to change.”

For Isabella, it’s about much more than the technicality and details of an elementary school play. “It’s not to just learning how to read music or just to doing this play. It’s about their social emotional development, it’s about practicing democracy, it’s about practicing being a citizen and being a kind person to each other.” It’s about the bigger picture and the call to be the change that is needed in the educational world. Isabella summarizes this as she comments, “I feel that I have a certain responsibility to be the bringer of change, and if I don’t, nobody will. And that’s how TC has changed me as an educator. It didn’t necessarily give me hands on tools for classroom management, and I’m very grateful for that. It gave me a much broader, bigger picture. It’s about creating equity in our classrooms. It’s about bringing equity and representation to our students, who are not children; they’re people, and we just happen to catch them at this very beautiful delicate moment of their lives. They’re going to grow up and I want them to have a sense of ownership of their identity, pride in who they are, and not feel marginalized. If we can’t do that in our classrooms, then what’s the point.”