Why teachers need to keep going even when it's hard

Why Teachers Need to Keep Going Even When It’s Hard

In 1992, thirty-seven-year-old Vedran Smailovic was principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. Because of the fighting, Sarajevo was being called “the capital of hell.” On May 27, a long line waited in front of one of the last bakeries in town. Parents wanted to buy bread to feed their families. A mortar landed among them, exploding and killing twenty-two people in line.

Something inside Vedran Smailovic's heart broke.

The carnage lay in the street outside his window. Instead of white bread for the masses to eat with their red meat, there were white bones and bloody masses of red flesh scattered everywhere.

It scarred his mind. His naivety evaporated. War was in his neighborhood. What could he do about it?

As he stayed up that night sobbing, his anguished mind struggled to rescue his soul from the pit of despair.  How could he make a difference in a living hell?  What could he do? Smailovic did the only thing he could.  The only thing he knew.

The next day, he donned black.  Not the black of mourning, but the formal black of a musician of a prestigious opera company.  Twenty-four hours after the massacre, at 4 p.m., Smailovic settled his stool beside the still smoking crater.

And he began to play.

Smailovic plays in the partially destroyed National Library in 1992. (Source: Wikipedia)

Smailovic plays in the partially destroyed National Library in 1992. (Source: Wikipedia)

Excellence Amidst Tragedy.

He continued to play every day for two years. He played through the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air.

The citizens in the capital of hell received a heavenly emissary every day.  They heard music that reminded them of the good, beautiful things of life. The lilting music singing that there was hope that again peace would return.

His powerful testimony brought even more attention to the horrors around him.  This is quoted from a news report.

“Asked by a journalist whether he was not crazy doing what he was doing, Smailovic replied: “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo!”

He played on.

After twenty-two days, he moved his chair.  He played in other neighborhoods with freshly charred craters and fragments of humanity where souls had recently departed this earth.  He played in graveyards amidst the newly buried where muffled mourners shuffled in the street looking for bread. Snipers poised to shoot those who attended funerals where he played. Smailovic played on.

He played until December 1993.

He had played to hold out hope to those who would listen.  He became the personal embodiment of hope for peace in Bosnia.  He dispensed hope in his music; he became hope to his people.

The next year, in 1994 famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a newly composed piece by English composer David Wilde at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England.  The piece entitled “The Cellist of Sarajevo” haunted those who were there. Pianist Paul Sullivan described it this way in Everyday Greatness:

“When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings.  No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time.  It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.

Finally, Ma looked out across the audience and stretched out his hand, beckoning someone to the stage.  An indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realized who it was…

Smailovic rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet him.  They flung their arms around each other … everyone in the hall erupted into a chaotic, emotional frenzy…

We were all stripped down to our starkest, deepest humanity at encountering this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death, and ruin, defying them all.”

Sketchnote about "Why Teachers Need to Keep Going Even When It's Hard" by Sylvia Duckworth

Sketchnote about “Why Teachers Need to Keep Going Even When It's Hard” by Sylvia Duckworth

My heart is quiet.

It is as if the strings inside my vocal chords that make that dissonant sound – the sound of whining – those chords are broken. Snapped in two by the understanding that far worse things are happening in the world than my struggles to make ends meet and to put 26 hours into a 24-hour day.

And the vocal chords that share hope and goodness, and knowledge are stronger. I feel compelled. I must impart knowledge, but I must also teach things to prevent more carnage in future breadlines. I must play my music. I will lend my voice. I will pull up my chair to empower my students to add their voice to the things that echo for the good in this world.

You see, right now, our schoolyards are pretty tough places.  I don’t care where you work; parents are stressed out.  And when parents are stressed out, they send stressed toddlers, tykes and teens in through our doors.

And  teachers are stressed too!  Administrators!  Curriculum directors!  Librarians!  Tightening budgets mean we have to do more with less.  And we love our students, which means we have a decision. We have a choice.

We can see the carnage and problems outside our window –  and we can have a pity party and say we are in the midst of the capital of hell.  And we can do nothing.

Or, we can take a bit of humility and perspective from a cellist who really has been to hell. Realize that we have a choice as we retreat into our homes at night and lock our doors and contemplate what we shall do on the morrow.  Surely our problems are far less. Most of our problems aren't hell. They are hard. Sometimes they are hell. But not always.

We can’t do a lot.  Some of us can blog.  Others can speak or sing.  Lots of us can teach, encourage, and help others. But there's one thing we can all do.

We can teach.

For, you see, a good teacher is like music in the life of a student.  Every educator is music in someone's life. Our little words and actions are notes in the symphony of our school. The more of us who unite to play sweet music, the more we can be heard. United we are a symphony. But alone, we can still play sweet music.

So many times, life is not what we want it to be.  But we examine ourselves, see what we can do and then we do what we can with all we have.

For, by playing our music – sometimes we become the only symbol of hope that others will hear.

[callout]Adapted and updated from Cellist of the Schoolyard written in 2006, coolcatteacher.com – https://www.coolcatteacher.com/the-cellist-of-the-schoolyard/


The Cellist of Sarajevo. Live Positive.

Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Life Paul Sullivan.  “The Cellist of Sarajevo”[/callout]

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Elen October 13, 2015 - 7:05 am

thank you, Vicki

Paul Walker October 13, 2015 - 7:53 am

Ms. Davis,

Wow, what a great post! This post is very inspirational, motivating, and provides great perspective!. Indeed this a not a great time for those in the educational sector, with the combination of legislative directives, shrinking budgets, and hard to please parents, but we must press on. We press on because we know that in the midst of all this stuff we can’t control there will be something positive that is created as a result of us continuing to fight through it all.

Thanks again for such an uplifting post.


Vicki Davis October 13, 2015 - 4:46 pm

Thank you for your comment! I’m glad it is inspiring.

Norah Colvin October 14, 2015 - 7:03 am

What an amazing and inspirational story. Thank you for sharing. It has put what we often consider to be the battlegrounds of the classroom or schoolyard into perspective. What a heroic man Smailovic is! That teachers may offer students a glimmer of hope for the future is what makes it all worthwhile. Yes, teachers: teach!

Colline October 18, 2015 - 7:22 am


Vicki Davis October 18, 2015 - 8:59 pm

Thank you!

Ruth October 20, 2015 - 5:40 pm

Oh my. Oh my my. This evening I logged on to take a break from a very rough school day before I begin my “second shift” of planning and marking. I was feeling discouraged and tired. Now I am sitting here with tears running down my face. I’m not an artist anywhere, much less in the classroom, but you’ve given me just a wee bit of hope that I can get up in the morning and do it all again, that the way my life’s energy is spent is worthwhile. Thank you.

Vicki Davis October 20, 2015 - 8:07 pm

Keep going Ruth! Your words make my 5 am writing sessions worthwhile!

Kristen October 23, 2015 - 8:17 pm

This was exactly what I needed ti read after a really rough couple of weeks in the classroom. Thank you:)

Vicki Davis October 24, 2015 - 7:23 am

I am glad it was helpful, Kristen. Teaching is so important. Keep making the music you were born to play!

Vicki Davis October 24, 2015 - 10:28 am

Keep plugging Kristen! Your students need you!

Sunni Hart November 12, 2015 - 8:41 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this. It is difficult to remember that there are others out there who are going through so much worse than you are and have come out stronger. As teachers we sometimes get stuck in our classroom and do not look beyond our four walls. As a math coach in my building I am trying to help teachers put things into perspective and not get overwhelmed with the demands of education. My goal is to be sure that teachers do not feel alone in their personal hell of paperwork, test scores, and underexposed students. Since I am a voice from the outside of their four walls I hope to bring a fresh perspective and a rejuvenated spirit to their lives. Thank you again for sharing this.

Vicki Davis November 13, 2015 - 5:23 am

Keep on doing that Sunni! Please!!

Jennifer November 14, 2015 - 4:08 pm

The sentiment of this story is lovely, but the facts are wrong. The story about 22 days and 22 people is from a fictitious novel that the real cellist was very angry about it being written. He felt his name and his story were stolen.

Vicki Davis November 14, 2015 - 4:25 pm

Jennifer this was quoted from the reader’s digest book. So if you are going to dispute the facts then you will need to give me a source of your own besides your statement. I found at least 3 sources to verify this and nothing like what you are saying. Please clarify with links or books. Thank you for your concern for accuracy- I want to be accurate so links will help me do that.

Vicki Davis November 14, 2015 - 4:38 pm

I see now that you put your link into your name (I could not see this on my phone) and it looks like there was certainly a dispute. So, he didn’t play at 4pm every day but he did play for 2 years. IT is difficult as you don’t really see where this was corrected or where Smailovic’s side of the story is said. It looks to me from reading your source and several others that indeed Smailovic did play although he played for 2 years. I can take out the 4 pm information but it certainly looks like the rest of the information is accurate. This was taken from several sources and it is a beautiful story even if the rights to the story between Galloway and Smailovic are in dispute. It is certainly sad that these two have not harnessed the power of Smailovic’s story. It is inspiring what Smailovic did and I think we should continue to play our beautiful music in our schoolyards. Thanks for the clarification, I’ll see what else I can turn up. If you have specific points of this article that you think need to change (since you seem to be more well read on this than I am) email me the specifics at vicki at coolcatteacher dot com. Thank you for commenting.

Vicki Davis November 14, 2015 - 4:48 pm

OK. Last note for today. I’ve removed the 22 day note as it was 2 years. I don’t really see any other items that I can tell are in dispute. Certainly, the Yo You Ma concert was verified in other sources. I’m sorry that such a seemingly fine man has this trauma in his life. His story still moves me greatly. Your comments are always welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer November 14, 2015 - 8:44 pm

Thanks Vicky. I actually don’t know more than you. I was inspired by the post and went to research it further which was when I found the way that the novel and the actual cellist’s stories had become merged. I meant no disrespect and was just alerting you to the issue so you could fix it. Thank you for the article. I have now forwarded it to my staff. Term 4 in Australia is hard work! A reminder that we are symphony was just the ticket.

Vicki Davis November 15, 2015 - 7:44 am

Thanks Jennifer!! I appreciate you alerting me as this is a piece in a book I am working on and it needs to be right. I am also sorry that my first reply may have come off harsh— I am a bit tired this weekend but that blog post is resonating right now and if I am writing, I must model good ethical behavior and make sure everything I write here is as accurate as possible. Thanks for caring enough to let me know!

Jody November 16, 2015 - 6:41 am

Thank you, Vicki! As I ready for the day, I keep dreading the piles of essays I must grade, the eventual interruptions I will have to my carefully laid plans, and all the chaos that will surely ensue today. I have tears streaming down my face after reading your article; you have inspired me to keep inspiring my amazing students. I will let go of the things I cannot control, and today I will teach. Thank you for this wonderful dose of perspective.

Vicki Davis November 17, 2015 - 6:33 am

Wow, Jody. Thank you for taking the time to encourage me back. What you’ve said is the REASON I write. It is the reason I have kept going these almost 10 years. Your amazing students NEED YOU. And when we look at the stuff we lose site of the precious ones. Thanks for commenting and I hope and pray you’ll have a wonderful day today!

Thuy May 31, 2016 - 9:24 pm

Thank you so much, Vicki for your this inspiring post. It helps me realized that I’m blessed and that I need to carry on with my calling, and serve those who are willing to learn.

Vicki Davis June 1, 2016 - 8:19 am

Keep on going, Thuy! You can do it!


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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere