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Changing the System with Aaron Jackson

Hello again everyone! I’m Kailani, and this is the Kai Report 🙂

Meet Aaron: Music producer and piano professor at Oclef!

This past month, I got to interview Aaron Jackson, another one of our wonderful S1 Professors here at Oclef. During middle school, his family moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, where he found piano and immediately fell in love. He studied Piano Performance at University of North Carolina at Greensboro up until his 4th year final semester, when he switched to a Music B.A. 

We talked about his experience as a music educator, and his thoughts on the current state of our education system.

Check out our conversation here:

Kai: So did you have any plans for going into music education – what was the situation?

Aaron: Honestly, education was not the end goal whatsoever. I know when you go into any teaching field, you need a certification. I didn’t go to school for education, so I took classes while I taught K-12 for a little bit. But it was interesting because as soon as I was offered a position to teach, I just dove in. It came very naturally to me, and people tell me I’m good at teaching. I’m just not a huge fan of it, so I’m still trying to get used to it.

Kai: Ahh, so given that question, what was your teaching experience like before joining Oclef? Was it bad… Was it good?

Aaron: I mean it was good overall, but the number one thing that bugged me was it wasn’t stable. After college, I was a private piano instructor. I’d go from house to house instructing students one-on-one… It was a good 45 minutes-1 hour. We got a lot of stuff done, but at the same time we didn’t. You see them once a week, so you don’t know what they do the other 6-7 days.  Apart from that, the money was good but it also wasn’t stable. You kind of had to find whatever was around. That’s when I ended up teaching K-12. I was offered a position for elementary music, and it was a lot of fun. But I knew I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I was blessed and happy to be in music full-time, but I was still missing something. I wasn’t sure what that was just yet.

An Approximate Breakdown of Students in K-12

Transitioning to K-12

Aaron: In K-12, there are three main sectors. There are public schools, where the state fully funds you. Charter school is like a mixture of both public and private. Private schools aren’t through the state at all, its support is mainly through donations and the students’ tuition. I actually taught at public schools for about 2 years, and then transferred to a charter school. I taught for about half a semester to a year. But yeah, that’s kind of the difference between K-12 public, charter, and private.

Kai: As a teacher, can you sum up your experience, or the perspective of other teachers you knew?

Aaron: To really sum it up in three words: It’s A Lot! One thing I feel people really look into when they find a career, especially in teaching, is the title. They see you’re a teacher, a lawyer, a construction worker, or whatever it may be – but they don’t realize all the intricate details that go into it. When you go into teaching, you want to do just that, teach. But you may have to cover other teachers, lots of covering for other people… You have to do your lesson plans, there’s lots of disciplining issues, teachers just couldn’t get much done because of this… it’s just a lot honestly. I mentioned instability earlier, and at this point, I realized the school system itself was really unstable.

Kai: With that experience in mind, but pre-Oclef, what would’ve been your ideal teaching situation?

Aaron: Classes needed to be a lot smaller than what they are. I remember teaching elementary, I had anywhere from 18-25 students in one class. It was a lot! I don’t even know if it would meet regulation honestly haha. Every class was a good hour long, and it was fun, but imagine a bunch of little kids just running around. You can’t focus on one, so I’d tell myself, “We need smaller classes.” No more than 5 or 6 students in a class, that way you can focus on every single one of them, the quality instruction is there, and you can really see their growth. With a larger class, it’s nearly impossible.

Kai: How do you think that affected the students? Like you said, classroom sizes are huge, there’s a lot of understaffing, and there aren’t a lot of resources for everyone. It’s like you have to fend for yourself. So how do you think it impacted students? Do you think as of now, K-12 is a good system of education?

Visualizing the Curve: The decline in K-12

Aaron: I want to say it’s like an exponential curve but in the opposite direction, and that’s not good. It’s starting to go down very quickly. I do think they were impacted positively through teaching and administration, but I’m still trying to pinpoint where everything went wrong. I’m starting to see the decline, and I think COVID kind of just sped that up. 


From there, I spoke a little bit about my experiences with COVID as a high school student. My school community was frantic about adapting the system because of COVID, you know. How are we going to change the system to make it better for students during these times? I felt it revealed a lot about how disorganized and unprepared schools were – though to be fair, these were/are “unprecedented times!” But even then, there were so many limitations as a teacher, in-person included. During COVID, it seemed like it only just got worse.

These were two of the major limitations of teaching (pre-COVID) that Aaron had faced:

1. The quality of instruction didn’t allow for you to focus on students.

“Quality in the sense that the students weren’t mentally there as much as they should’ve been… Core classes really drained students, so when they went to P.E., art, and music, it’s like an escape zone for students. In a sense it is, but we still needed to get stuff done.”

2. The work-life balance was terrible.

“I’d like to think when people join any career field, they want to develop themselves as a human, as an individual… Teachers and administrators couldn’t really take time to sit down after work and say, `How can I improve my teaching style,’ or, ‘What can I do to help me develop as a person?’ They were so focused on making sure their class was run the way it should’ve been.”

Growing up, I would always hear teachers say school was their life, and of course as a student you laugh it off and don’t think twice about it. After Aaron explained it, it took me a second to absorb how unsettling that reality was. You realize while the system poses lots of disadvantages for its students, teachers are behind-the-scenes, bearing the brunt of K-12’s problems too.


The Search for a Solution 🔍

Kai: So, with all of the problems we’re seeing in the K-12 system, what would you ultimately change?

Aaron: I’ve been coming up with different models to put into practice. I’m developing a model known as ETS, and I haven’t really talked to anyone about it so this is my first time, telling you! Kind of cool haha. It’s called “Every Thing Shorter” or “Every Thing Smaller.” Like I mentioned before, class size capacity needs to be a lot smaller so quality of instruction can be present. I feel like the school days should even be shorter. Kids are in school 8-9 hours a day, and how many minutes do you think are spent on quality instruction, with them actually learning something? So ETS is based on the classroom sizes, and the school day in general, and even the class time. ETS is really trying to condense everything, and get to that quality instruction, so that’s one thing I would do! 

I asked how he envisioned ETS being implemented: maybe starting with early education, or would it be tested in all grades? He walked me through why high school would be the best place to begin.

Click to read Alfred N. Whitehead’s essay defining inert ideas

Aaron: High school is really the time to focus on quality instruction. There’s a concept known as inert ideas, the idea that the information you retain in school has nothing to do with anything. They’re just random facts  we don’t need, and they’re filling up our minds. We could be filling up our minds with things more essential to school or life, like success, careers, finance… These inert ideas need to be minimized greatly. The older you get, the more quality instruction needs to really be there for topics like those. I’d probably start with a charter or private high school, watch that succeed, and then go from there.

Kai: Awesome! Like I said, I was in high school not too long ago, so it’s really interesting thinking about this. Even now, I’m seeing how schools function as we slowly emerge out of COVID, it’s pretty much exactly the same. There’s not really a solution yet, so I think your model is really profound! As a student, I would’ve admired it a lot.


From an Exponential Decline, to Exponential Growth 📈

We transitioned to talking about how Aaron made the move to Oclef amid the pandemic. He was teaching high school and even thought about teaching college students. But with the extra degrees needed to do so, he started to feel like education maybe just wasn’t for him, mainly in the public school setting. He began searching for remote teaching jobs. 

Aaron: It was so basic haha, I typed in, “remote music,” I was just done! I didn’t even care what it was, I needed something remote, and anything music-related because I love music. I found Oclef and I was like, “Eh ok, another teaching job, let’s hope it’s different.” But after reading the articles and learning it was 15 minutes, I was like, “Woah, this is pretty cool!” You have to have quality instruction, it’s only 15 minutes so the kid has to stay focused. Class is over by the time they start losing their train of thought, so it was perfect! The fact that it was a short 1:1 every day was very crucial. 

Kai: Going more in-depth about your thoughts on Oclef, you know it’s very different from the traditional forms of teaching. How functional did you see that being?

Aaron: I think it was very cutting-edge knowing our company was only open for about 5 years and they were doing so well. It was what I was looking for. Like I mentioned, we’re in school all day, but how many minutes throughout that day are we really getting stuff done? I didn’t think it’d be as short as 15 minutes haha, but for music, that happens to work, so let’s do that!

Kai: So teaching overall, has it changed for you since you started? Have you maybe adopted a new mindset, or thought about teaching a little differently?

There was a slight learning curve with moving from K-12 to Oclef. He needed to adapt to the shorter classes and younger kids after teaching high school students for an hour at a time. “It took some adjusting mentality, but I’m good now haha!” I asked if there were any comparisons with Oclef’s model and its impact on students, versus the K-12 students.

Aaron: The biggest thing I love with teaching is you get to see the students’ growth. To see them not being able to find Middle C, to them now being able to play a quick little sonata or a whole page of music – I just love seeing the progress. That’s the number one reason why I’m here… For me, I teach because it sparks creation. I teach them something, they know how to take that themselves, and they can create something based off of what I taught them.


🃏 Oclef, The Jack of All Trades

Kai: Besides just teaching, are there any opportunities where you’ve had the chance to explore your own growth, and spark your own creation at Oclef?

Aaron: I really like Oclef because it’s not just about doing the basics for other people. Here, as a human development company, we can dive deeper into what we want to do. Since I like producing and arranging music, I get to do that! I’m also diving into things that I didn’t think I’d be diving into. When I got hired I thought it would be 70% teaching and 30% creative projects. But when I got here, there was so much!… I leave jobs because I get bored, it’s like, “Can I see myself doing this for 10 more years?” But here, we’re constantly developing the company. I don’t think Oclef will ever stop growing because there’s so much we can do with it. We’re like a jack of all trades, and I love that because I’ll never get bored here. I’m doing what I love, the possibilities are endless.

He’s right, the list is endless… but here are just a few of the main projects Aaron is working on, along with producing and arranging for Diaghilev!

1. ApianoJ, his YouTube Channel

“Even before coming, I’d post little instrumental, lo-fi type things, and it’s really cool! So I incorporated that into Oclef!”

Click to watch one his most recent instrumentals 🙂

In the words of ApianoJ, “I found my niche 😎” 🎹

2. An Upcoming Podcast on Restructuring K-12

“I want to focus mainly on teachers or ex-teachers, and apart from the podcast, I know we all teach here and we’re all from different parts of the world. I get to ask other friends and coworkers here who they know who can help me. There’s a lot of networking, and you’re not limited to one space. You have the whole world because everyone knows everyone.” That’s the beauty of working remotely!

3. Oclef’s Path Projects

Click the link to see a Path Project done by one of Oclef’s students!

“I have a pitch together, and I’m actually reaching out to schools and telling them that Oclef has a product that really focuses on the individual. We want the student to grow both academically and professionally. We take all of that and condense it into something that they want to work on, and they can use it as a resume-builder or for career opportunities, like networking. The list of what they want to do is endless. It’s like a senior project on steroids! We can do almost anything, and you can see that growth and progress in people. It boosts their confidence in themselves and their talents. You’d be surprised what you can do with your talents, and we can advertise that.”


To wrap up the interview, I asked Aaron about self-fulfillment. With the problems he outlined earlier in our talk, I felt like it was a good way to address whether or not his time so far at Oclef has been the level of enrichment he’s been wanting. 

Kai: Do you see yourself continuing to do all of what you’re doing here in the next 10 years, like you said?

Aaron: I’ve been looking for a career that I can really see myself long-term in. I had no idea what that was, and I never thought I’d find it to be honest. I had faith, and I just kept hoping and hoping. But honestly, I can see myself at Oclef for like 20 years plus.

Kai: Aw, that’s amazing. I’m so glad that you’re getting something out of this. You feel like you’re not only giving back to others, but you’re giving back to yourself as well.
Aaron: I don’t really consider it “work” a lot, I know that sounds kind of weird. But I always wanted a job where you could go in and feel happy, your “dream job.” So if you’re WATCHING, it’s possible! Keep digging, don’t lose hope. Just keep digging, you’ll find it 🙂


Thanks for reading everyone, it was really inspiring listening to Aaron’s story. If you’d like to watch the full interview, click here! ⬅️ That’s a wrap for today’s Kai Report, stay tuned for the next feature!

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