Reply To: Retention ideas?

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Retention in a small rural school can be very challenging! I’m in my 9th year teaching 5-8 band in an upstate NY district of about 850. I started with 34 6th-8th graders and only 8 5th graders, and now I have at least 20 students in each grade (40 in the 4th grade!) It took about 5 years, but this year we actually had to split my middle school band into 2 groups because they wouldn’t all fit in my room! Here is how we did it:

1) You NEED an administration that is willing to do what is necessary to give the program a chance at success. As soon as I had that, we were able to create a schedule that allowed the kids to be in band without it seeming punitive (e.g. missing recess or a study hall). You also need that support for lessons if you have a pullout system like I do. You should never have to say ‘If you take band, then you can’t do _____.’

2) Never stop recruiting. I will start kids in any grade as long as they are willing to put the work in to catch up. Pop into the cafeteria and see who your band kids are sitting with. Positive peer pressure is very effective! It doesn’t always work out, but that’s the reason I have a bassoon player this year.

3) Give students ownership of the program. We elect representatives from each grade to help make decisions about any trips or events. It makes them feel like they have a stake in what happens. The only trip we take is to play the National Anthem at a minor league hockey game and hour away, but it’s a big deal to them. I know some kids join just for that, but that’s not why they stay! Find little ways to keeping them involved in decisions. I allow students to vote for a pop song we play on the spring concert. They get so excited about it that they end up researching and listening to just as much band music on JW Pepper as I do.

4) Make the music room a safe place, especially in middle school. So many of my students are just looking for a place where they belong and where it’s okay to make mistakes. Try to provide that environment for every student (and for yourself!), and they will be drawn into the program. Be kind and consistent in your expectations.

5) Be excited about what you do and that energy will create a thriving program. Learning should be fun, regardless of the subject matter, and I think music teachers have it easier here than some others. I expect that my students will have fun in my class while they are working hard to improve, because I am having fun while I’m working hard to teach them. It is rare that I have a rehearsal that doesn’t involve laughing.

I could go on all day about this, but it’s one part hard work, one part cooperation and some luck sprinkled in for good measure. And it takes time. The work I’ve done in the younger grades is just now starting to trickle into the high school.

I hope this helps and you have a giant program in a few years!