Confessions of a Failed Teacher, Part 1

No need to get excited – every teacher fails sometime or somewhere. Teaching is no easy business. There is no formula that will guarantee success; no sure-fire, works-every-time path to fulfillment that someone else will show you; and to make matters worse, the very definition of successful teaching is elusive – even controversial. Failures are a bit less difficult to see.

When Neil Rutland graduated from Tennessee Technological University in 1977 with a bachelor’s of science in music education, he thought he knew everything worth knowing about teaching music. “For the benefit of those who may be in a similar state of mind to what I was in back then,” he says, “I must point out that this is only a bit of irony, inserted to make experienced teachers chuckle at my over-confidence . . . .”

His job, as he saw it, was to make music through the agency of his groups, providing the students and the public with edifying experiences that would lift them from their ignorance and confusion. The bands would become the focal point of the community, and he would send many students to all-state and then on to major symphony orchestras. Young and passionate, he had a vision for his efforts as a band director. His desire for programs had been formed by years of training and dedication to the art. His plan was to pass on what he’d learned and his students would stand on his shoulders the way that he’d stood on the shoulders of those who had taught him. He reasoned that his students would sense his passion and make his cause their cause. Rutland went out into the world to teach fifth- through eighth-grade beginning and intermediate band students with this philosophy.

The result was predictable. A few students did indeed admire his passion and dedication, followed the path that he set out, and became very good musicians. For most of the students, the result was less inspiring. Although the majority of them decided that being in band was, on the whole, better than not being in band, some of them simply dropped out. These students grew tired of his demands, uncompromising attitude, and willingness to berate them for their lack of progress. He told himself that “they simply didn’t have the right stuff and that the band was better off without them.” By year two, he had decided that “band isn’t for everyone” and that he would have to push along, salvaging those students he could and discarding the ones he couldn’t. By year three, there was no year three. Rutland had fallen into a situation where he would never flourish, and it was time to go to graduate school.

Adapted from “Confessions of a Failed Teacher,” The New Mexico Musican – Fall, 2011. Used with permission. Neil Rutland is the Collegiate Vice President for the New Mexico Music Educators Association and Director, Digital Film Making/Instructor of Music at Eastern New Mexico University.

–Becky Spray, Nov. 2, 2011, © National Association for Music Education