How do you make your classroom an inviting and welcoming space for all students?

Five Music Educators Respond

This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of Teaching Music.

Kristina Weimer headshotKristina R. (Krissie) Weimer (she/her)
Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Education
University of Northern Colorado in Greeley
Member of the Music Educators Journal Editorial Board
Member of the Teaching Music Advisory Committee

As a K–12 teacher, I had two policies to help make my classroom an inviting and welcoming space for all students. The first policy was aimed at breaking down the hierarchical teacher/student structure. I avoided using the term rules in the classroom. We had expectations, but I always started with myself. I had a written list of what students could expect from me.

This list included my own preparation for each class period, having an appropriate lesson plan, and all necessary materials (scores, pencil, instruments for modeling, etc.) to successfully guide them. It also included preparing a welcoming space for them in the classroom—an organized, neat, clean space where they could sit comfortably, ample room to store their instruments and folders safely, and a place to find daily outcomes and our class activities clearly stated. Students could expect me to give them my full attention when they were speaking to me, for me to listen, and to value them as individual humans and musicians. I then simply ask that they do the same for me and their peers so we could have successful learning experiences each day. I also asked that we all hold ourselves and each other accountable for following through with these expectations, me included.

The second policy was an “all y’all” policy for joining the ensemble, including elimination of chair placements in middle school band. Even if students didn’t initially join in fifth grade but wanted to join later, I would work with them before or after school to get them as caught up with the ensemble as possible. I could modify parts so they could participate as a member of the ensemble and perform repertoire at their current level. As we had no chair placements within the ensemble, I moved them around frequently—not only within sections, but in different arrangements to provide opportunities for them to hear and experience different places in the ensemble. This enriched our sense of community and collaboration and enhanced students’ abilities to assess and analyze their performance.

Now, as a music teacher educator, I aim to remove the teacher/student hierarchy in the same way I did in the K–12 classroom. I state in each syllabus that I hold myself accountable for providing a positive, active, and engaging classroom environment, for clearly communicating, being fair, giving relevant and appropriate assignments, and meaningful feedback in a timely manner. I also include an equity and inclusion statement, adapted each semester from a statement provided in a university-wide sample syllabus. It states that while we all have different beliefs, abilities, and experiences, everyone is a valued member of the class. Open discussion is encouraged, and everyone is free to share their thoughts and ideas without judgment. We will embrace uniqueness, value dignity and individuality, and positively support one another’s growth and development as future music educators. If students feel excluded or uncomfortable in any way, they can tell me openly, and I will listen and make changes as needed.

Troy Williams headshotTroy Williams
Director of Bands
Wilton High School
Wilton, Connecticut
Assistant Director
The Saints Brigade Drum & Bugle CORPS.
Port Chester, New York

I have a policy that states all students grades 9–12 can audition for all solos, run for positions on the band leadership team, audition for the pit for spring musicals, and give their input on band decisions. My policy also states that we are one big family, and everyone has a voice.

When I was hired to be the band director at my high school, I noticed that only seniors were officers, they were the only ones who were allowed to play in the spring musicals, they were the first chairs in class, and their inputs were the only ones that were taken into consideration. I noticed that students in grades 9–11 didn’t speak up, didn’t get involved in leadership positions and band activities, and were just waiting their turn until their senior year. My goal was to make sure everyone had a voice.

To help all students feel welcomed and valued, I created a Band Leadership Team filled with students from grades 9 through 12 to get all perspectives. When we have our Band Leadership Team meetings and bring up topics like recruitment and retention, we hear ideas from students who have been in the program for four years and from students who just entered.

These changes have turned my band into one big family. We welcome new students each year, whether they are freshman or upperclassmen, and we acknowledge their voices and encourage their new perspectives.

Brendan Michels headshotBrendan Michels
Music Teacher and Graduate of Pennsylvania State University
State College, Pennsylvania

“All students will be respectful of their peers, the teacher, and all parts of the classroom” has become the guiding focus of my classroom environment. While this can sound straightforward, in practice it can be rather difficult. To establish a basic understanding of respect for everyone and everything within the classroom, active discussion with students in a before-during-and-throughout process must constantly evolve and can have no true end destination.

At the beginning of each semester, students and I establish a baseline of classroom expectations in how students will engage with each other and with the classroom materials. We talk about how a particular policy might look in action, and then I often have students model this level of expectation for each other. In some teaching environments, I’ve found it helpful to frame my classroom expectations alongside the existing and already familiar school-wide incentive programs instead of immediately writing my own. If there is a school or district acronym that already spells out student expectations, we will simply discuss how that acronym (e.g., PRIDE, PAWS) translates into our learning environment in the music classroom. When policies or expectations are challenged, I immediately address student and classroom gaps in understanding, without theatrics, and then return to the focus of the lesson. Reminders and discussions of classroom procedures are ongoing, concise, and consistent.

I try to anticipate and recognize the unseen needs of the students by giving them space to share. When students are completing an assignment, I often leave an open-ended question at the very end where they can share anything else that they think I should know as their teacher. I specifically use this approach with ongoing assignments rather than just a single Google form posted on a class page or a jar in the classroom because I’ve found students forget about using this resource. Most of the time, these open-share questions are either left blank or a funny joke is shared. A few times, however, students have shared important information about themselves that they would not have shared out loud. These small, often-overlooked things have helped me connect with more students and allowed for those students to feel seen and heard.

When students have challenging questions or comments, I address what is okay or not okay about what they said and then discuss it before returning to the lesson. Established policies and procedures help redirect tough (and even mean) interactions, but ultimately, the ongoing discussions about these expectations set the tone for how students treat each other, treat the classroom materials, and even how they treat themselves as emerging musicians.

James Hutchins headshotJames Hutchins
Director of Orchestras
Queen Creek High School
Queen Creek, Arizona

I use the concert dress code to help students feel welcomed and included. When I began my tenure at my current school, the students were required to wear the traditional black orchestra dresses for female students and tuxedos for the male students. A female student who felt uncomfortable for multiple reasons requested not to wear the dress. I gave her a different option and extended the same courtesy to the rest of the students.

I still care about whether my students look professional and appropriate on stage, but I allow them to choose what they wear from the following: the traditional tuxedo, the standard orchestra dress, or a middle ground of black long-sleeved button up shirt (blouse or dress shirt), black dress slacks, black socks, and black dress shoes. This practice has made my students feel more comfortable with themselves, allowing them to perform better. I also have systems and procedures in place should a student try to make a poor choice in their attire, from altering to disrespecting another student’s identity.

When students are uncomfortable, they perform less securely. At times, their anxiety can cause pre- and post-concert vomit and tears, or even worse—they quit. Imagine leaving the orchestra program because of concert attire. I believe these small changes can ultimately help our students be successful as they eliminate an unnecessary barrier.

Sara Nietupski headshotSarah Nietupski
Grade 7–12 instrumental Music Educator
Michigan Center High School
Michigan Center, Michigan

I hold a leadership training night for our marching band leaders before the school year begins. Drum majors, section leaders, and other positions gather for a meal in the band room, and I facilitate growth-based training and reflection activities. Inspired by Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code, we discuss the idea of belonging cues: intentional signals that notify someone that they are wanted in our group, a concept that includes how to help establish a safe connection. We outline ideas that we are proud of from the previous year, items we want to improve and how, what we could do when the mid-camp or mid-season slump happens, and then follow with procedures and preparations for our Rookie Night with the freshmen the next day.

Before we leave, we create locker signs for the freshmen to welcome them, choose theme days for band camp, narrow down band games, and decorate the sidewalk for the freshmen to see when they arrive. The next day, the leadership gets to implement the training by teaching the newcomers how to march, answer questions before their first band camp, and help them begin drill; they know that their attitude sets the tone for our season. Overall, this structure and guidance across the band has drastically improved attendance, productivity, and happiness at band camp because these two major groups of people feel comfortable going into camp.

How can this be applied to the daily classroom? A little bit of structure can go a long way, beginning with intentional planning. Clear expectations and practiced procedures rooted in belonging cues set up a welcoming atmosphere for everyone. Every day, students know how to enter the class, how much time they have before we begin class, and the exact materials they’ll need, along with me greeting them at the door. Though this might seem like a given, it can be overlooked and therefore contribute to uncontrolled chaos, resulting in students feeling uncomfortable with the environment. Structure creates consistency, reliability, and an environment students know they can trust.

Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

November 21, 2023

Category

  • Classroom Management
  • Culture
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA)
  • Ensembles

Copyright

November 21, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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