Creative Problem Solving for First-Year Teachers

“Help! This Wasn’t Covered in My Methods Class!”

Creative Problem Solving for First-Year Teachers

By Melissa Berke, Erika Kepler, and Ashley Jurgens


Your diploma is hanging next to your desk, your lesson plans are done . . . even the music for the winter concert has been selected. You are ready to go. And then the phone starts ringing . . . Student A can’t participate in the concert because of religious reasons; Student B needs modified instruction for his disability; the transportation department cannot send a bus during the times you requested; the list goes on and on.

Teaching is a multi-faceted endeavor, and beginning teachers can sometimes be overwhelmed by the tasks that fall outside the realm of planning/teaching lessons and managing the classroom.

samuii iStock Thinkstock
samuii iStock Thinkstock

With the limited time instructors have for methods courses, it is not reasonable to expect that you can be prepared for the infinite number of situations that a music educator will face. “Procedures for non-lesson related tasks can vary from school to school and district to district,” says Dr. Melissa Berke, Coordinator of Music Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “One of the most important things I must do for my students is to instill in them good problem-solving skills and a commitment to professional development. If students know how to mitigate the challenges that they will face, it makes it easier to handle those first few years of teaching.”


Erika’s Story

Erika had always dreamed of teaching elementary music in a large metropolitan district. To her surprise a K-12 vocal placement for her student teaching taught her to appreciate the benefits of teaching in a smaller district and she was elated to find a K-8 position in a small rural district.

“I love the more personal interaction I am able to have with parents and other members of the community,,” says Erika, “but it is somewhat isolated since I am the only elementary general music teacher in the district. I love what I’m doing, but I wish I had someone else in music who understood what I’m going through.”


Ashley’s Story

Ashley began building a private piano studio while she was still in college. While she had a very successful student teaching experience at both elementary and middle school levels, she turned down a full-time job offer.

“I love the one-on-one attention that comes with private teaching,” Ashley said, “and I knew that it would be difficult to simultaneously manage a full-time teaching position and maintain my growing piano studio. For me, choosing substitute teaching allows me to have the best of both worlds.”


Strategies for Thriving in Your First Year

Whether you are choosing a traditional teaching path or a more unconventional career route, there are a few things that will help can you survive the first year.


I always leave rejuvenated and validated about the work I’m doing.”—Erika.


First and foremost: Build a support network. Although Erika does not have any elementary music colleagues in her district, she has her cooperating teacher on speed-dial. “She is always happy to hear what I’m doing and help me trouble-shoot,” says Erika. Connecting with your colleagues from college or your university supervisor can be an easy way to have some support in your first years of teaching. Some districts have formal mentorship programs that match new teachers with experienced teachers in the districts. If you don’t have music colleagues or a formal mentor, talk with other specialists as your challenges may be similar.


Even though I am not in a classroom full-time, I have the one-on-one experience that allows me to help Erika with questions about differentiating lessons.”—Ashley


Beg, Borrow, and Steal!

“Pinterest, music educator blogs, journals, and other teachers give me ideas all the time,” says Ashley. “I love taking an idea from another teacher and modifying it to work for me.” Technology can help new teachers facilitate their professional development in an informal way. Take advantage of what the internet can do to help connect you to other music teachers.


Never Stop Learning.

Both Ashley and Erika have continued to build their advanced knowledge of music education. Ashley has completed Kindermusik training, and Erika has enrolled in a graduate program and finished Kodály I over the summer. Maintain or begin your memberships in professional organizations. Attend workshops that are offered at local universities. New ideas, new people, and new ways of thinking can energize your teaching and provide opportunities for you to connect with others who can help.


I am honored to be invited to these luncheons because it gives me an opportunity to see my former students grow and succeed in the teaching profession.”—Melissa


For Erika and Ashley, their favorite first-year survival skill is the Music Lunch Bunch. The two (and sometimes others from their student teaching cohort) get together for lunch and invite their former university supervisor. There is only one rule—you must bring a teaching idea to share. In a short hour, they visit about successes, challenges, and learn from one another. Best of all, each has two new ideas to take back to the classroom.


About the authors:

Sept 2 - Melissa Berke

Melissa Berke is the Assistant Dean of the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media and Coordinator of Music Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she teaches courses in music education and supervises student teachers. 

Sept 2 - erikakepler

Erika Kepler teaches K-8 vocal general music at Shelby-Rising City Public Schools.

Sept 2 - ashleyjurgens

Ashley Jurgens is a private piano instructor, substitute teacher, and owner of “Crash Bang Boom,” an early childhood music center.


Melissa, Erika, and Ashley will be presenting on this very topic at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this coming October in Nashville, TN! Don’t miss the Hotel Room Block Deadline: September 22!


Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, a wild time at the Give a Note Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today:

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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, September 2, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (