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  • Writer's pictureOscar Amos

An Interview with Parker’s 2022-23 Middle School Teacher Appreciation Awardee: Ms Lilley

In the realm of education, the integration of arts holds a profound significance, shaping not only academic growth but also fostering creativity and self-expression in students. From moving to Arizona with an artistic dream, to settling in Hawai’i, fulfilling her 8-year-old self’s plan, Ms. Lilley regularly brings abundant experience and passion to her students. She is armed with many educational accomplishments which include a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre arts education and a minor in music from the University of Arizona, alongside a Master of Arts in educational psychology from George Mason University. Ms. Lilley has generously contributed her artistic wisdom to Parker School's music, theater, and dance program for more than 10 years. In this interview, we explore Ms. Lilley’s background in the arts and the path that led her to our school.

1. Can you tell me about your journey from North Carolina to becoming Parker School’s Middle and Lower School Music, Dance, and Theatre Teacher?

Ms. Lilley: Yeah, I was born in Virginia and moved to North Carolina when I was eight. Then when I was 18, I went to the University of Arizona to study musical theater and the goal was to move to New York City and be a performer. After my freshman year, I wasn't re-accepted into the musical theater program. It crushed me hard and I almost moved back to North Carolina. And then I realized I didn't want to live in New York City, LA, Chicago, or any big city, so being a performer would be really hard in that realm. I decided I wanted to go into teaching theater so I could still do theater for the rest of my life, but have a consistent paycheck. So I stayed and started studying theater education and then I met my husband that next year. My family at that point in time had all moved back to West Virginia. So then I moved too, when I graduated from the University of Arizona, I went to Washington DC, and worked there for five years. I worked at the Kennedy Center and several elementary and middle schools and my husband got an email to potentially come look at a job out here. They flew us out to interview him and they set up an interview for me here. It just so happened that they were hiring for a lower school music teacher and Scott and I got hired both in the same week.

2. What has been your favorite production that you have helped direct?

Ms. Lilley: Oh wow. Okay. I can give a couple. Annie Jr., it was a middle school play production. That was a really, really fun one. It was just a great group of kids and a really solid production.

Oscar: I remember watching that in elementary. We got the snippet during the school day and you guys used a toy dog as opposed to the real dog that you used during the official dates, and we were all disappointed.

Ms. Lilley: I know, it was my dog! It was Hala, which is funny because my other dog, Hondo had done it in DC but he was too old to do it by then. So Annie Jr. was a favorite. Chorus Line was a favorite. Honestly, Newsies though. Newsies was such a fun, big show to work on. So I would say Newsies is my most favorite so far.

3. What inspired you to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater arts education and a minor in music?

Ms. Lilley: You know, I recently found a journal that I wrote in eighth grade and it was an assignment–it's right here behind me. I wrote in it that, “I want to be a performer but I want a steady paycheck, so I'll probably go into education.” And that was Eighth-Grade-Sarah Jane. So I had the same kind of realization after that freshman year. I was sitting in Trafalgar Square studying abroad and I was like, you know, I don't wanna be a performer, I wanna be a teacher.

4. How has your Master of Arts in educational psychology influenced your teaching approach?

Ms. Lilley: So my master's in educational psychology focused on research. I had to take statistics and all the fun math stuff so I could read and understand peer-reviewed educational research. But, my research specifically focused on the effect of education and learning in the arts across the curriculum, so really integrating the arts into regular classrooms as well. My research looked at the effect of [an arts education]  on children's brains, self-efficacy, you know, and overall academic achievement. And not surprisingly, the general consensus is that you do better at all of those things if you have an arts background. They've even done crazy studies where they did the neurological stuff and they've proven scientifically that students who study in the arts have more neural pathways than those that don't. I just taught in third grade a lesson on how whale songs relate to classical music. There's a really weird connection there, but it's really cool. So I try and find different ways to incorporate what the students are learning in their classrooms into what we're doing in the arts.

5. What role do you believe arts education plays in the overall development of students?

Ms. Lilley: Oh yeah. I mean, I kind of answered that a little bit already. I think the arts teach us how to be humans. I think the arts teach us empathy, which is really something I think we're lacking in the world right now. You have to pretend to be somebody that you would never be. I think you learn a lot about humanity through the arts, but I also think you learn a lot about yourself. You learn how far you can stretch yourself and you learn that just because something seems really hard doesn't mean it's impossible. And I think that translates into the classroom as well.

6. What do you enjoy most about teaching, and what keeps you motivated in your career?

Ms. Lilley: I love the relationships that I get to build with my students, and that's one of the things that I love about being at Parker is that I get to teach kids for 10 years, you know? I get to see them grow up and watch them become these phenomenal humans that have, you know, done so much. And the thing that keeps me motivated, I think, is partially because of the kind of job that I have. It's never the same every year. I'm always teaching new songs, or we're building a different set, or we're putting together a different show. So it's kind of the same organizational structure of how you make those things happen, but it's always the new problems and new exciting things that are going on.

7. How do you support students who may be shy or lacking in confidence to participate in the performing arts?

Ms. Lilley: Yeah, that's huge. I start so many of my classes saying, “I'm not in the business of scarring children for life.” And again, like I said, building those relationships with the kids where they'll feel comfortable saying, “I don't feel okay saying this line.” And then we either figure out a way to help them feel comfortable together or we change it. Students know me well enough now and they know that they can trust me, that I'm gonna help them find that space. But I also think there are lots of different places where kids can be in the arts. They can be in the front of the house selling tickets, or they can be in the booth where they don't necessarily have to be in front of everyone and everything.

8. How do you address the challenge of balancing rehearsal time with academic requirements for your students?

Ms. Lilley: I think that Ms. Dugan and I specifically have done a really good job of meticulously planning out our rehearsal times and our rehearsal schedules so that students are only called when they're needed. So they don't have, you know, as much downtime where they're just sitting and doing nothing so that they can know that when they're called we will need them, we will use them, and we'll be effective with our time and their time. But also, letting them work on other things when they do have downtime in rehearsal, especially during tech week when everyone is called, making sure that they're making that a priority as well.

9. If you could put on any production–without budget, participation, or schedule limitations, what would it be?

Wicked. Wicked without even a stop. It's not available for licensing, which is infuriating, but I would do Wicked in a second. I've been waiting for it forever.

Oscar: Did you do some variation of that at some point? I remember watching something where someone was green. 

Ms. Lilley: We did some songs, yeah. So we did a few songs from Wicked in our musical review, but to do the full show, the rights aren't available yet. They're available in Australia though, which is frustrating.

10. Lastly, do you have any advice for anyone who wants to pursue the arts?

Ms. Lilley: Oh, man. Be tenacious and know that you're gonna get a lot more “nos” than “yeses.” Take business classes, especially if you're not going into teaching. If you're going into just straight-up arts–if you're going to be a performer, or an artist, or a singer, take business classes. Learn how to be a business yourself because that's something that I think a lot of artists miss and that's a really important part of their job.

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