There is no more critical year in the tenure of a music teacher than the first year. He or she may be following a disastrous educational situation or an outstanding teacher and program. How well the first-year teacher plans, organizes, fosters, and maintains rapport with the students and the faculty, establishes discipline, chooses music, and establishes performance standards will affect the success of the teacher.
In the student-teaching situation, the student teacher had benefited (or not benefited) from the cooperating teacher’s established procedures. In the first year of teaching music, the teacher finally has the chance to make his or her own way and see the results of his or her successes and mistakes. For the first time, the students are the teacher’s own. Each of the following articles gives the first-year teacher insights and scenarios that will assist in planning for success.
Manny Brand arms the prospective music teacher with commonsense ideas that may also be of interest to the college music supervisor. In building on these, he gives brief personal scenarios and seven tips for first-year teaching.
The Challenge of the 1st Year
by Manny Brand
The music teacher’s side of the podium or desk is quite different from the student’s side, and a shock often awaits beginning teachers when they discover that being a teacher includes continual demands, instructional decisions, and unexpected responsibilities. This can be especially true for the beginning general music teacher, who typically has not been involved in a general music program when attending junior and senior high school.
In some ways student teaching will prepare the first-year music teacher for solving these problems. Student teaching, however, is an unrealistic and protective environment. A concerned public school sponsor teacher and interested school faculty provide the necessary support for the student teacher. Unfortunately, this kind of assistance usually does not exist during the first school year.
Furthermore, many student teachers believe that their first year will be as successful as was their student teaching; however, the kind of school situation first-year music teachers encounter is rarely used for student placement. The student-teaching experience may even be deceiving because the student teacher is often protected from teaching problems. Even if the student teacher is faced with a difficult student or a problem class, the sponsor teacher is usually in the back of the room to assist. While the student teacher was provided with a support system, was helped in organizing classes and teaching, and was protected from difficult situations, the first-year music teacher will not be provided this assistance.
Another difficulty many first-year music teachers encounter is teaching in an area of music education in which they are not prepared. Although colleges and universities may try to prepare their students for teaching music in a comprehensive K-12 music education program, most music education majors see themselves as a band director, general music teacher, or choral director. They also expect to teach at a particular level (elementary, junior high, senior high). Much to their surprise, first-year teachers often find themselves in a content area of music education in which they have had limited experience during student teaching. Consequently some who teach music courses lack the requisite training, interest, and skills. For example, a graduating music education major may count on finding a senior high school band position. After all, his student teaching was at this level in which he feels most comfortable, but he may find himself in a junior high school teaching both general and instrumental music.
This gap between his assignment during his first year of teaching and what the prospective music teacher wants and is prepared to teach creates a difficulty of adjustment; he or she is initially unprepared for the assignment. This situation can be particularly problematic for the beginning educator who is teaching chorus or general music with limited piano accompanying skills or for the voice major required to teach instrumental music during the first year. Adjusting to one’s first year can be difficult enough without the added insecurities brought about by inadequacies in teaching skills.
Some first-year teachers encounter difficulty due to their expectations of what a school should be. They may view all schools as alike. Of course, schools and their music programs can differ radically, even those located within the same school district. The first-year teacher often expects an assignment similar to student teaching or to the kind of school attended as a public school student. The first-year teacher is continually saddled with a set of expectations. For instance, the first-year teacher not only expects the students to act in certain ways but looks forward to working in good music facilities with high quality instruments and equipment. Public school facilities, instruments, and equipment rarely meet these expectations. In essence, the first-year teacher steps into the job with sets of standards, expectations, and images that can be striking at odds with what confronts him or her.
A middle-class or upper-middle-class school, like the one the first-year teacher may have attended or student taught in, is much different from the “least wanted teaching positions” in which they typically work. Such schools may have inferior equipment, more difficult students, and less administrative support-positions more experienced teachers have worked their way out of. The first-year music teacher must cope with the typical adjustments of first-year teaching while attempting to succeed in a school where adjusting is not likely to come easily.
Experienced music teachers-whether in public school, college, or administrative positions-should help the first-year teacher deal with these difficulties and obtain a more satisfactory initial teaching experience. The following suggestions are geared toward preparing and affecting positively the first-year teacher’s experience.
Present student-teaching placement patterns should be reexamined in light of the specific needs of the first-year teacher. The music teacher with the best performing groups may not make the best sponsor. Student teaching should provide an inspiring experience for the student teacher. However, we have a concomitant obligation to find student-teaching placements that provide a realistic preparation for the first year of teaching.
Student-teaching experiences should provide encounters with more than one level and content area of music education. A student-teaching experience that is unidimensional, for example, limited to junior high school band, will not prepare the student teacher for the diverse demands placed on first-year music teachers.
Pre-student-teaching observational experiences should reflect the social, cultural, and economic diversity of American public schools. Observations of rural, urban, and suburban school music programs are essential.
Colleges and Colleagues
In addition to observing veteran teachers, serving as assistants to first-year music teachers can provide a realistic glimpse of that unique experience. Faculty members who work with student teachers can provide important support for their graduates who take jobs in the area. The college, school system, or local professional organizations should invite groups of first-year teachers to meet with senior music education majors throughout the academic year, because this process can partially serve as an orientation to first-year teaching.
Undergraduate training, methods classes, and observational experiences should reflect the kinds of diverse assignments first-year teachers generally obtain. Greater emphasis on the development of imagination and flexibil
ity will be of more help than knowing the standard operating procedures. Colleges must prepare teachers to adjust rapidly and think quickly. We are only misleading the music education major if his training reflects a narrow preparation in only one area or level of music education.
Help During the First Year
The formation of a “faculty sponsor” for each first-year teacher is especially important. The faculty sponsor is usually an experienced music teacher who helps the first-year teacher during this difficult period of professional adjustment. This assistance and support allows the beginning music teacher to turn to a mentor when questions or difficulties arise. The faculty sponsor can help the newly graduated music teacher in everything from practical responsibilities of ordering music, classroom management, and concert scheduling to the overall adjustment to the demands and realities of teaching.
Traditionally, the school music supervisor has tried to fulfill this role. The first-year music teacher is more apt to rely on the faculty sponsor for guidance than an administrator who will eventually evaluate the beginning teacher. An “ever-present help” in the building is better than an itinerant administrator. As experienced teachers, we can readily recall the numerous mistakes we made as beginners that might have been averted if we had access to a supportive faculty sponsor. The first year of teaching can be a trying, difficult experience. Only through a greater understanding of these factors can we hope to effect an improvement in music education. The beginning music teacher does embody the hope and future of our profession. The care and effort we take in helping these teachers can only result in better music educators.
What happens after you are hired? Jerry Kupchynsky offers six ways that will not only help you keep your job, but also assist you building a successful music program.
How to Survive in a New Teaching Position
by Jerry Kupchynsky
Let us assume that you, a fresh college graduate, have secured a desirable public school teaching position. Can you afford to complacently rest on your laurels, knowing that whimsical fortune has finally smiled on you, and assume that your trial is over? Only those who still believe in fairy tales would succumb to such a fallacy. As an adult and as a professional, you must realize that your “baptism by fire” is yet to begin. Securing a job is an accomplishment, but surviving in it is an art that requires much effort and dedication.
Learn “the lay of the land.” Any young teacher in a new school should take the time and trouble to become thoroughly familiar with his surroundings. Even though a formal orientation of new personnel is a standard procedure in nearly all school districts, there is a host of vital information that cannot be readily disseminated. Take time to learn the chain of command in your new school and the perimeters of your responsibilities. It is important to immediately pinpoint all the constraints and latitudes of your new position. Get acquainted with your colleagues, as they can be instrumental in helping you acclimate to the new situation. Be especially cordial with the school secretaries, as they are an important link in the chain of your professional alliance.
Above all, do not neglect the custodial staff. The uniqueness of any music job makes reliance upon the support personnel more pronounced, which in turn necessitates gaining their good will and cooperation. Usually it is sufficient to show the custodians that you consider them your equals and appreciate their service. Bear in mind that a great deal of time and red tape can be saved through their cooperation; not having them on your team can make your life miserable.
Establish good relations with your superiors. Getting thoroughly ac-quainted with your immediate supervisor is vital to your survival. Take time to become familiar with his or her background, ideas, and philosophy as well as with what procedures you are expected to follow. Find out in what ways and how often you will be evaluated, as well as what criteria will be used. Will you be left alone to work independently, or are you expected to consult often with your supervisor? Hard work, loyalty, and dedication will usually be enough to earn support and respect. Make it clear that you are willing to go the “extra mile” to benefit your program. Ambiguity and overlapping in the hierarchy of public school administration are frequent. Common sense and diplomacy will help you navigate through the maze. It should also keep you from being caught in the midst of an administrative power struggle.
Meet your students. Let them know that they are important and that you are proud to be their teacher. Tell them what to expect and give them a brief outline of your plans and hopes for the future. Be sure to include something enjoyable and exciting that will stimulate the students’ effort and serve as an immediate and tangible goal. Usually an opportunity for public performance, a concert tour, or participation in a state festival will fit the bill. Immediately establish proper discipline and rapport. Spot the potential leaders and assign them certain responsibilities. In the case of a performing group, elect officers as soon as possible. Communicate your good will and your students will reciprocate.
Use teaching techniques and methods with which you are familiar. Stick with the methods you know best. If you are a qualified Suzuki teacher, by all means use the approach; if your training is basically traditional, however, you would be wise to resist those who may pressure you into using newer techniques with which you are not familiar. An incident in which a supervisor of music (not a string major) insisted that his traditionally trained string teacher use the Suzuki approach with sixth-grade beginners is still vivid in my memory. It is not the method but the teacher who makes a program successful. More structured school districts usually adopt a certain series to be used by all students. If you are not familiar with the books you are expected to use, some time and effort can easily remedy the situation. If you desire to change the series currently in use, make sure you go through the proper channels. Under no circumstances should you attempt to do this unilaterally.
Get acquainted with the community. It behooves you as a new teacher to know the economic, ethnic, and religious complexion of your school’s community, as it could have a bearing on your success or failure. It is obvious that the economy is directly responsible not only for your own salary, but also for your school budget, the quality of the equipment, and private lessons for your students. Ethnic and religious characteristics of the community are much more intricate and require a considerable amount of sophistication to understand. The old maxim “while in Rome, do as the Romans do” is in this case very much in order. It is wise to know and observe local mores. Respect the “sacred cows” of your new community and avoid its taboos.
Though it is common to pay lip service to an individual’s right to privacy, be aware that not only your performance as a teacher but also your behavior as a private citizen will be observed.
Keep any controversial opinions to yourself and watch your language in general. Ethnic jokes are offensive. Be judicious about any actions that may be inconsistent with the local standards of propriety. Excessive fraternization with students of either sex can arouse ugly suspicions. It is prudent to have your actions governed by the awareness that local vigilantes may not be far away.
Beware of local politics. Even though every professional should join his teacher union, a high degree of activism is not advisable. The militancy of teachers, in addition to being regrettable and often unnecessary, can also attach to a new teacher an undesirable stigma that may be difficult to discard.
As an en
lightened citizen, you will probably choose to vote in elections, but be leery of campaigning, especially when the issues are emotional and controversial. In organizations such as the Parent Teacher Association or Music Boosters Association it is preferable to serve primarily as an adviser. Remember that as long as you are employed in a particular school district, it is wise to support, at least officially, your superiors. Agitating parents against your school administration is extremely dangerous and seldom is of any lasting value.
This is only a partial list of important considerations that confront a new teacher. Though not all will apply to you personally, studying them should prove helpful. No pretense is being made to offer you easy solutions or a quick formula for success. You are the most important factor in the equation of your future. In the final analysis, your success in the teaching profession is in your own hands.
Ernest L. Johnson and Monica Dale Johnson specifically address the first year in a new choral program, but their many helpful suggestions can be extended to prospective instrumental teachers and elementary general music teachers.
Launching a Choral Program: Planning + Effort = A Year of Success
by Ernest L. Johnson and Monica Dale Johnson
The choir director who is able to enter a school where there is a program already intact, complete with full enrollments and students eager to sing, is fortunate. But if you have interviewed for choral music positions, you have probably heard some variation of these job descriptions:
We had a strong choral program in this school years ago, but we had to make cuts in the curriculum, and now we’re interested in putting choir back into the schedule. We’re looking for someone to rebuild the choral program.
Our choral director has been with us for thirty years and is now retiring. During the last couple of years, he hasn’t put in the effort he used to, and the program has declined. We need someone to revitalize the choirs and increase student participation.
Because of all the other courses offered in our school, the choir has a lot of competition. Over the past few years, the number of students in choir has been dropping. We need someone to breathe new life into our program.
If you have accepted the challenge of becoming a “choir builder” (or if your established program needs reviving), here is a one-year plan that can help you increase enrollments, boost morale, and get your choir off to a sound start.
Meet your students. Even before the school year begins, it is a good idea to make contact with some of your students. Get the names and telephone numbers of a few students from your principal and set up a meeting, or a party if funds are available for refreshments. (If there is already a choir council, its members are the students you should contact.) Get to know these students, find out about their previous choral experiences, and exchange ideas for the coming year.
Since students talk to each other both inside and outside school, they are your program’s best advertising. The earlier you can get the word out that it will be a terrific year for the choir, the more students you will attract. If you publicize your program before the academic year begins, interested students can sign up on the first day of school instead of missing deadlines for schedule changes.
Meet the band director. Discuss with him or her all upcoming joint performances, trips, and other activities; also find out whether the school’s schedule allows students to participate in both band and choir. If so, the band will be a good place to recruit prospective choir members. If not, see whether there are band students who might be interested in after-school choral ensembles; these students are usually good sight-readers.
Meet the drama director. Find out which students have sung in musicals in past years, and make it a point to meet them. Even if it is not officially part of your job, offer to get involved with theater productions. The drama director will probably be glad to have your help, and you will have a chance to approach students who sing well but are not yet enrolled in choir.
Meet the custodians and secretaries. Friendly, close, working relationships with the school staff can be a tremendous advantage to you throughout the year, and poor relationships can hinder you greatly. In a good working relationship, the secretary (although overburdened with other responsibilities) will type your publicity notices, prepare and send purchase orders, and photocopy letters to parents. Supportive custodians will help prepare the stage for concerts, give access to facilities for rehearsals, and set up risers. Recognize that you and these staff members share the same employer, and do not treat them as though you are their superior. At those last hectic moments before a concert, you will be relieved to know that the programs are in order and that a custodian is available and willing to help you find that extra extension cord or microphone.
Meet other faculty members. Discuss your developing program at faculty meetings and elicit support from other teachers. Get other faculty members involved by collaborating on interdisciplinary projects. For example, the history teacher might be interested in a survey of Civil War songs to accompany class research projects; an English class studying Shakespeare would enjoy your choir’s performance of madrigals (and your singers would learn more about Shakespeare). You might choose a song in French or Spanish and enlist the help of the foreign language faculty to teach the chorus correct pronunciation in exchange for performing the song for students in language classes. You might even want to organize a faculty and staff choir.
You might discover that your school eliminated its choral library along with its chorus, or perhaps you inherited a closet stocked with dusty, old arrangements of standard songs from the 1930s. Even if you have a well-organized library of advanced, serious choral literature, at the beginning of the school year you probably do not have students who are either eager or able to sing it. Your goal for the first part of the year is to get the students excited about singing well in choir. You can introduce more challenging literature gradually.
You do not have to sacrifice quality. But you need to select music that is appropriate to your students’ current level of development, not appropriate for the level you want them to attain in another year or two. In the beginning, your students will sound better, gain more satisfaction, and learn more by singing a simple, light song suited to their abilities than they would by struggling their way through Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. Here are some suggestions for choosing the music to use with a new and inexperienced choir:
l. Canons and rounds make enjoyable, musical warm-ups, and they are particularly valuable for students who are new to part singing. They can be an excellent way to introduce foreign languages, or they can be sung on various vowel sounds or syllables.
2. There are many contemporary compositions, written specifically for high school chorus, that are worth including in your repertoire. Consider using music by John Rutter, Kirby Shaw, Carl Strommen, Roger Emerson, and Ed Lojeski.
3. Try using good arrangements of Broadway tunes for variety and enjoyment.
4. Folk songs are often good choices for high school choirs, and many are available in new editions. Possibilities include The Water Is Wide, Danny Boy, and Turtle Dove, as well as settings of folk songs by Zoltân Kodâly, Bla Bartâk, John Rutter, Aaron Copland, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
5. Avoid arrangements of pop tunes for your choirs. They are apt to get your students on the wrong road vocally and may affect your students’ expectations. Thes
e compositions are best reserved for show choirs or vocal jazz ensembles.
In your first meeting with your choir, your main purpose is to generate enthusiasm. Refrain from giving long speeches; just introduce yourself and start the students singing. Begin with a round or warm-up composition that takes only about five minutes. Then go on to a work you know well and that will be successful, perhaps one that you have taught before or that you learned in college. Make sure it is appropriate to the age and ability level of your singers.
If possible, use the middle of the first class period to take attendance, rather than delaying music activities by doing it at the beginning. Assign a reliable student to take roll for you as soon as possible.
During the first week, have the students elect a choir council. Peer leadership can be instrumental in maintaining group unity, morale, and discipline. Once the council is chosen, meet with these students, share your goals and expectations with them, and allow them to determine ground rules for the choir.
Although it is important to try to rehearse all of your ensembles during school hours, in this first year consider putting in some extra time before and after school to establish select ensembles. If these ensembles are successful, you can ask the administration to make room for them in the following year’s formal curriculum. Small groups might include a doo-wop group (an a cappella group that sings 1950s songs, usually with close-harmonized nonsense syllables to back up a soloist), a barbershop quartet, a vocal jazz ensemble, or a madrigal group. The effort will be worthwhile because of the variety these groups will add to your program. Try to schedule sectional rehearsals during the lunch hour or during students’ free periods. It will take some juggling, but it can be done as long as you don’t forget to schedule lunch for yourself!
You have laid your foundation: You have put up posters and made announcements over the public address system. But nothing will boost morale or gain a reputation like a good first performance.
As soon as possible, have the choir sing a short performance (even fifteen minutes) of music for an audience. The lunch period is a good time for this, because you can keep the performance during school hours and also have an opportunity to perform for other students and attract them to the choir. You will find a large audience of prospective choristers in the school cafeteria. Your group could also perform for a parent-teachers meeting or the opening or closing of a school assembly. You might consider using your small ensembles in these performances as well. If the students decide they would like to do it, you might arrange to have them perform in a local shopping mall.
Use music that will be attractive to students in the choir as well as to the audience, but keep the quality high. The songs should be upbeat-this is not the time for the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem.
Invite the school photography club, school and local newspapers, and yearbook staff to photograph and report on all performances; try to get some pictures of a rehearsal. Posted around your choir room, these will do far more to encourage your singers than any posters you could buy. If your school holds a parents’ night, display these photographs prominently to give the community and administrators a glimpse of your choirs at work.
By mid-fall, you will be off to a good start and ready to begin preparations for your first formal performance. This will probably be the first time most parents and administrators hear your groups, so it is crucial to your new program that this concert be a success. By following your plan carefully-working effectively with the school staff, selecting appropriate music, providing early performance experience, and developing a rapport with your singers-you will ensure that outcome.
By the beginning of the second term, your students will probably be ready for a challenge. This is the time to focus on more advanced repertoire.
Introduce more challenging music one composition at a time. Be prepared for your singers to balk at first. Contact other choir directors in your area who have established programs, and take your groups to hear them sing. Exposure to outstanding choirs singing challenging music can go a long way toward motivating your students.
Make every effort to establish a reciprocal exchange arrangement with another choral conductor in a neighboring district or another state. Rehearsing and performing with an established group is a tremendous learning experience and morale-booster for both your choirs and for you.
If your sister group is in a nearby town, the exchange relationship can consist of day trips. For longer travel, you will need to set up housing on both ends in students’ homes, and you will need to raise money. Raise funds in ways that will bring the students closer together, and get involved yourself. You might try original singing telegrams, benefit concerts, or a cabaret night with candlelight, fruit and cheese, and vocal entertainment.
Make contact with a conductor from a college, university, military, or professional chorus. Select someone you admire, and invite him or her to bring an ensemble to your school for a clinic with your choir. Plan a two- to three-hour session during which the visiting and host choirs sing for each other followed by a working rehearsal combining both groups under the visiting conductor’s direction. Your students will gain exposure to new choral literature, an inspiring example of excellent singing, a critique by an authority in the choral field, and the invaluable experience of singing with a professional chorus.
When junior high students are selecting their courses for the next year, you should recruit younger choir members. Meet with middle school choirs and music classes, and tell them about the things your groups have been doing all year and the plans you have for the fall. If possible, take a group of your singers along to perform for the younger students.
The spring concert will include the compositions your group has prepared for the exchange concerts: both your “weightier” literature and some light music. The spring concert will often be sometime in May, leaving you with a month left at the end of the school year. End the year as late as possible by preparing a final, thematic show. Use music that your students can learn quickly and keep the program short-an hour or less. Instead of ending the year in a slump, you will leave your students excited about an enjoyable and fast-paced performance.
Be creative in coming up with ideas for thematic shows, relying on musical styles with which you are familiar and topics that interest you and your singers. Some program themes that have proved successful for our choirs include “Broadway’s Best,” “Renaissance Festival,” “American Kaleidoscope” (a survey of American popular music by decade, 1900-80), “Created Equal” (tracing the changing roles of women through song), and “New York Medley” (featuring slides and songs about the city).
Let your students shine by using their individual talents as much as possible. For example, have students in your choir who are also studying dance provide simple choreography for one or two selections at your concerts. Give your best singers solo opportunities. Have some students write a narration to unify the show. Collaborate with the band, art, and drama instructors: They, too, might welcome a year-end project. A successful show in June helps students look forward to choir in September.
It’s Up to You
During your first year of choir building, you need to establish both good rehearsal discipline and a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere. You must enforce rules without turning students off, particularly in afterschool rehearsals for which students volunteer their time. You are likely to encounter a mixture of attitudes in your gro
up. See to it that serious students have a good time, and demand greater discipline from students who are using rehearsals for socializing.
It is important that ear training, sight singing, vocal and choral techniques, and fostering of musicianship be part of every rehearsal. It is easy to get caught up in rehearsing music and preparing for performances, but you must make sure that your rehearsals are well planned and that students are learning more than correct notes. Building an effective program involves building the musical abilities of your singers.
In the final analysis, a choir program reflects the efforts of its director. Remember that the energy required to build an excellent program surpasses that needed to maintain it. The energy and commitment you put into your teaching and public relations efforts will be matched by the growth and dedication of your singers.
The hardest part is getting started. Albert Hunt writes about the initial planning and contact the instrumental music teachers have with their students and colleagues. The information he gives is beneficial to all beginning teachers.
Advice for New Instrumental Music Teachers
by Albert Hunt
Congratulations! You are beginning your first year as an instrumental music teacher. You are ready to combine two arts: the art of making music and the art of teaching. You have worked hard in college to master your instrument and have developed a working knowledge of the other instruments of the band and orchestra. If you are not a pianist, you have suffered through class piano so that you can decipher strange scores. You have learned the craft and art of conducting.
You have observed many music teachers on the job and have student taught with the guidance of an experienced professional. All of these accomplishments are valuable, and the knowledge that you have attained is eminently useful, but now you are on your own. It is time to find your own teaching style. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Meeting Your Colleagues
The principal is often responsible for the atmosphere of the school. Arrange a “get acquainted” meeting that will allow you to grasp his or her perspective of the role of music in your school. Phrases like “I just want the students to have fun” and “We take pride in the quality of music here at the John Smith School” will tell you much about the situation you are entering. As the year evolves, you will probably be meeting again with the principal to arrange such events as concerts and field trips. It is wise to consult with teachers involved in any plan before you meet with the principal. The principal will appreciate your presentation of a flexible, well-organized plan.
The other teachers in your school are a valuable resource. They are sympathetic to the needs of a first-year teacher; they have been there themselves. Take time to visit the faculty lounge and establish some personal and professional relationships. One hint to remember in establishing these relationships is that many teachers are avid music lovers or like to talk about the musical lives of relatives who “are musical.”
Many teachers will be glad to “show you the ropes.” Listen to them and ask questions. You will be enlightened by their insights concerning the students, school policies, and the morale of your fellow teachers. Teachers in general are dedicated, friendly, and inherently helpful people. As the year develops, let them know that you are interested in their concerns for the students and the total educational picture of the school and not just the music program. If you establish a personal rapport, you will find some sympathetic ears later in the year when you ask for a few extra minutes with their students to prepare for the winter or spring concert.
If possible, speak to the former teacher and try to get a sense of the musical and educational atmosphere you are inheriting. You may get some valuable pointers. Avoid, however, being influenced by the prejudices and frustrations of the former teacher so that you can meet your students and colleagues with an open mind.
Two of the most important staff members at your school are the custodian and the secretary (not necessarily in that order). Get to know them on a first-name basis: These are people who can get things done for you. When they have not done their jobs perfectly, be patient and smile. Thank them for their effort. Avoid going “over their heads” with minor complaints. Your expressions of appreciation will pay dividends when you ask the custodian to clean the auditorium in a hurry for the school concert or when you need to depend on the secretary’s knowledge of just whom you should call to cut through red tape. The secretary could help you get the music you ordered before the end of the year; there are many other situations in which these essential staff members can help or hurt you.
The degree of institutional commitment to a quality music program is often stated in terms of school time and budget allotted to music. Within the framework of those allotments and with the help of your colleagues, you can find opportunities for students to perform and develop an understanding of music.
Meeting Your Students
The first days of the school calendar are the most important because you and the students are forming impressions of each other that will determine the atmosphere of the entire year. The event of meeting your students can be thought of as a sort of performance, and, as with your own musical performances, preparation will make you comfortable.
Take the time to learn the names of ensemble members, classed by instrument and past music experience, before you meet them (a preview of last year’s concert programs will help). Greet the students as they enter the class and guide them to assigned seats. The cardinal rule of discipline is that it is easier to relax discipline than to tighten discipline. Let the students know what you expect. It is important to begin your year with firm discipline that is reasonable within the norms of your school. Although you want to be friendly, you do not want to be the students’ friend: You are the authority in your class.
Be yourself. Students will immediately sense if you are affecting a stern manner that you do not really feel or that you are not prepared to enforce. The best way to establish control is to let the students know immediately that you are there for the business of teaching music. You do this by your actions. Remind individuals of your standards of behavior the first time they deviate from them. If there is a history of behavioral problems in the ensemble from previous years, post a few basic rules of etiquette and warming-up procedures on the chalkboard or bulletin board. Statements such as “play only your instrument,” “raise your hand and receive permission before talking,” and “get your instrument and go to your assigned seat to warm up” may help set the tone for your class. You can smile, enjoy teaching, and listen to feedback from the ensemble while maintaining a sense of purpose in the group. A sense of humor is a valuable asset, but you may want to be somewhat serious at first. I like to explain that the fun in music comes through achievement and that achievement comes from consistent work over a long period.
Have a variety of strategies planned for the first day so you can deal with a different size, instrumentation, or experience level in the ensemble than you expected. Give the students long- and short-term performance goals, letting them know about a few performances that are on the horizon. They are there to play music, so play music. Minimize talking: If the students are experienced musicians, begin with some quick warmups for tone and technique. Have them sight-read a variety of literature so you can decide what level of music will be within their capabilities but still present some challenges. Be prepared to have them read only portions of compositions if they prove to be too easy or too
difficult for the group. Listen carefully to determine what deficiencies and strengths, in the group and in individuals, you will be addressing immediately. Do not be surprised if the students have forgotten the fundamentals of music over summer vacation: You may have to remind them of key signatures or tempo and phrase markings.
After the first class, evaluate your performance as a teacher and plan for the next class. What worked? Was there a kind of ambience in the classroom that was conducive to your musical goals? What music will you work on tomorrow? Is there an outstanding student you can feature in a particular selection? Are there individuals who were consistently behaving in a distracting manner? If the answer to this last question is affirmative, you may wish to meet those students outside of class so that you can teach them that such behavior is not acceptable.
As the year progresses, you will begin to find your unique classroom style. Be ready to explain anything. You will find many light moments when a laugh is the appropriate tool to help you make a point about music. Another important tool is your instrument: Keep it handy so that you can demonstrate passages from scores and musical techniques for students and so they can see that you are a player as well as a teacher. Staying in shape on your instrument will also keep you in touch with the learning process.
Another way to stay fresh and progress in developing your teaching style is to take advantage of the “professional days” that are offered in most school districts to observe other teachers in similar settings. Try to have your rehearsals evaluated by an experienced teacher whom you respect.
If the former teacher in your position was well liked, remember that you cannot be a clone. No one can replicate the atmosphere created by another unique educator, so you should be yourself with the students. You were hired for the job you can do and will want to be judged for the job you do. When you hear, “But Mr. Smith did it that way,” be patient and explain that although you respect Mr. Smith’s work, your system is different. Your confidence in your teaching and acceptance of “Mr. Smith’s” value will make students more comfortable with the change.
Keeping Your Balance
Finally, all teachers face some trying moments. There are days when assemblies are scheduled at the last moment during your class, days when half your students leave instruments at home, and days when the students are disturbed by other school activities or a coming vacation. At times like these, the only answer is to be patient. You are a professional, and all professionals go through some “down” moments. It may help to remember some of your successes in music; I always find solace in the practice room. You can also try talking to other music professionals or former college professors about your frustrations. They have been in your situation and can sympathize.
Remember, you were hired because the experts thought you were the best for the job. With the backing of your colleagues and the growing confidence of the students in your developing teaching style, you can show the experts that they were right: You are the best person for the job of music educator.
Many times the first year of teaching can be a shock to music teachers who are expecting an extension of the student-teaching experience. Gary C. Mortenson describes real-world scenarios that are generally encountered in the first year of teaching.
by Gary C. Mortenson
Throughout their academic careers, students learn to follow instructions, complete assignments, and fulfill expectations. When students become teachers, however, they realize that being “in charge” brings with it a new set of responsibilities. Erin Martin, a University of Massachusetts student, wrote a column in the October 1990 issue of U.-The National College Newspaper titled “Real World 101: A Needed Course.” In the article, Martin observed that students could use help in many areas not traditionally included in an undergraduate curriculum, including such practical topics as job placement, financial planning, raising a family, and stress management. Martin concluded that “Life would be much easier if we could learn to handle real-world problems before we have to face them on our own.”1
Recently I presented a series of hypothetical situations to a class of undergraduate music education majors. The scenarios dealt with “real-world” issues related specifically to the realm of music education. The goal of the exercise was to get the students to think about some of the circumstances that they might be required to deal with at some point in their teaching careers. Most of these exercises in judgment fell into one of three categories: teacher-student relationships, teacher-parent relationships, and handling criticism and stress. Emphasis was placed on the belief that there were no “right” or “wrong” answers to the questions. Students were encouraged to elaborate on how they would react to a given situation by defending their decision-making process with certain values or beliefs that helped them arrive at a course of action.The result was an animated exchange of ideas that stimulated critical thinking. This activity helps educators think through the handling of real-life situations or problems. In addition, it can give younger teachers a head start in formulating ways of addressing broader issues.
In this article, I will discuss the significance of the three categories mentioned and present some of the questions that deal with hypothetical-but realistic-problems. No attempt is made to answer questions because the intent here is to stimulate thought, not influence it. You can arrive at your own solutions based on your background, values, and instincts.
Teachers can help their students discover untapped potential and guide their development not only in academic areas, but as human beings. This is no easy task: many students suffer from low self-esteem, and the educator’s job can be frustrating. With some students, there seems to be little possibility of success. With experience, we learn that patience and support can bring positive results. Sometimes these results occur in students’ lives many years after a teacher lays the foundation for a more positive outlook.
A new job naturally brings many challenges and requires a certain degree of flexibility. The simple fact that you are a new “cog in the wheel” virtually guarantees close scrutiny of your attitudes, decisions, and problem-solving abilities. One area that proves difficult for many inexperienced teachers is establishing the relationships that can and cannot exist between the teacher and student. Teachers are expected to maintain a professional demeanor that separates them from students, when often they are closer in age and attitude to the high school students they are teaching than to their older colleagues. A young teacher attracts a certain amount of attention. Students will often engage in “testing” to observe how an inexperienced teacher will handle such areas as discipline, problem solving, organization, and consistent application of rules. Students are capable of forcing young educators to examine very closely how they will handle attempts at personal friendship. If teachers get too close to students, they run the risk of losing control of their classes and invite criticism from their superiors. If they are too authoritative and restrictive, they can seem to be cold, aloof, and unconcerned.
Young, unmarried educators run the risk of attracting additional speculation from older students. It is quite possible that at some point a student will be attracted to a teacher and look for encouragement to “pursue matters further.” This situation can have disastrous results for a career and needs to be carefully handled in a mature, firm fashion. Several questions dealing with various
issues related to teacher-student relationships follow:
- An eighth-grade student comes to you about a low grade. He has displayed a general disinterest in the class and has occasionally been a discipline problem. His attitude may stem from the fact that he is bored with his last year at the junior high and feels his talents would be better served at the high school level. How do you talk to this individual?
- You are on tour with your top high school choir. It is after curfew, and all your students should be in their rooms observing rules about noise levels. As you walk down the hall, loud, boisterous sounds emanate from a room. After checking the room assignment roster you discover the room is occupied by your students. Upon your knocking, the door is opened to reveal a party complete with smoking and alcohol. Many of the students involved are section leaders. How do you handle the situation? What could you have done to prevent it from happening?
- A student member of your fifth-grade general music class is extremely unpopular. This individual bears the brunt of every cruel joke and is ridiculed by other students on a continual basis. In some ways this person’s actions and clumsiness seem to encourage abusive treatment. It is almost as if the student has decided that if she can’t be popular in the usual sense, then she will be popular in an unusual way. How do you help raise the self-esteem of this student? Once you begin to help the student, how do you deal with the other students’ attitudes toward this person?
- You are a young, unmarried high school teacher. One of your attractive students has been very friendly to you. The student is “going steady” with someone, so you misinterpret these friendly actions as amiable attempts at small talk. One evening there is a knock on your door and the student asks to come into your apartment to talk. What do you do?
The overwhelming majority of contact between parents and educators is positive in nature. Parents are generally concerned about their child’s education and want to see the child improve and prosper. Music educators, in particular, often work closely with parents in booster organizations, coordinating them when they serve as chaperons on trips and interacting with them after concerts, sporting events, and contests. Communicating effectively with parents is critical in soliciting their support.
Well-meaning parents can sometimes differ with directors about methods and goals toward arriving at a desired end. Occasionally circumstances arise that require tact and extra communication skills; these qualities help teachers with issues involving ego, values, pride, and personal taste. Parents who donate time and effort in chaperoning trips or helping with fund-raising may believe that they have the right to set policy or influence decision making. Sometimes, this advice can be helpful. At other times, however, overzealous parents can, with the best of intentions, create problems for a director or program. Such situations can require a balancing act on the part of the music director, who must maintain authority over the programs without losing valuable support from the students’ parents.
Students are strongly influenced by their home environments. If there are serious problems, it is likely that they will be reflected in the student. Broken families, financial distress, substance abuse by a parent, child abuse, health-related traumas, and death of a family member are all situations that will have a pronounced effect on a student’s ability to function at school. Other situations, not as obvious as those just mentioned, can also influence the enthusiasm a student shows for a particular subject in school. Parents can sometimes transfer their wishes and expectations onto the shoulders of their offspring with little regard for the children’s aspirations and preferences. This can lead to tension in the children, who may believe that many decisions in their lives are being made for them.
Teachers are not always aware of these situations but must be sensitive to them when they arise. Here are some typical problems educators face in dealing with parents of their students:
- An active parent in your booster organization is causing dissent. This individual works very hard, but comes across to other parents as dictatorial. Several parents have expressed their desire to help with fund-raising, but hesitate to become involved because of the bossy nature of this “strong-willed” individual. You appreciate this person’s work ethic, but are concerned about the effects this controversy is having upon the rest of your support group. What do you do?
- A single parent that you have come to know has a daughter who displays a growing interest in your eighth-grade girls’ choir and is showing real signs of improvement. Musical development as well as social interaction is hindered, however, by an insecurity that you are fairly certain stems from the girl’s home environment. The parent has a complete lack of faith in her own future because of a failed marriage, economic problems, and a fatalistic outlook on life. These insecurities are being inadvertently passed on to the daughter. To help the student, you need to find assistance for the parent. How can you deal with these issues so that the low self-esteem of the parent will not guarantee failure for the daughter as she enters her high school years?
- An area family is prominent on the local cultural scene. Family members have displayed talent in various musical capacities and it has become a tradition for them to excel in the arts. You have their youngest son in your seventh-grade band, and after observing that he lacks the enthusiasm you have grown to expect from this family, you ask him if there is anything wrong. You discover that this particular student does not share the same musical desire that existed in his brothers and sisters. He feels pressured to continue and confides to you that he resents having to suppress his interests in other areas in order to continue his family’s tradition of music participation. He asks you to talk with his parents and help them come to an understanding of how he feels. How do you address this student’s concerns to his parents?
- You have just completed the fund-raising required for the purchase of new uniforms. Your monetary goal was largely met through the efforts of one generous parent who had a lot of connections and who helped you solicit the support of many of the merchants in town. Just as you are about to place the order, this parent asks you to consider changing the style of the uniform to be purchased. The donor’s ideas clash with yours regarding the basic design of the uniform. You do not want to seem ungrateful for the help and support received by this person’s efforts, but you believe that your selection will serve the group better. The benefactor has further complicated the situation by getting several of the major donors to back his or her wishes. What can you do to keep this important decision in your control? How could this situation have been avoided?
Criticism and Stress
Being criticized is never easy, but it is unavoidable in the teaching field. When faced with the fact that, at some point, someone will disagree with your efforts, goals, or decisions, you will need to think in advance about how you might respond. Many people see criticism as a threat-something to be put down or defended against-but not all critical observations are intended to be threatening. Many comments are based on a desire to guide educators toward a more effective teaching style. Occasionally, however, comments can seem unfounded or even cruel. Students, parents, and colleagues may misunderstand or disagree with your efforts. Unfortunately, negative statements may eventually come back to a teacher through secondhand sources where they may be inflated and sound considerably more serious than they were originally meant.
We all enjoy and are encouraged by
praise; we want to hear that we are doing a good job and that our efforts are appreciated. Few of us are secure enough in our abilities and background to weather critical comments without a ray of self-doubt creeping into our consciousness. How a teacher reacts to the negative comments of students, parents, or administrators will be observed by all concerned. If these inevitable situations are handled calmly and maturely, it will shed positive light on the educator.
When a criticism is put forth, it initiates a process of self-evaluation that may or may not result in a change of behavior, policy, or attitude, or in further training to make up for a deficiency in one’s background. Teachers who handle criticism by displaying anger, insecurity, insensitivity, or apathy set themselves up for a downward spiral that can end in frustration, alienation, and eventual termination.
Teachers lead challenging lives that often involve excessive stress. Burnout is a documented risk in the profession: few educators successfully avoid it for an entire career. Recognizing the symptoms and causes of stress is the first step in effectively dealing with it. People who are dedicated to their careers tend to think of themselves, on some level, as irreplaceable. They find it hard to imagine their program or school surviving without them. This often drives them to work even harder and strive for greater success. In the end, these “workaholics” can make stress an all-too-real phenomenon in their lives. Most people have safety mechanisms that let them know when it is time to slow down and relax. If we ignore these signals our ability to manage stress begins to break down and our effectiveness as teachers is in jeopardy. Educators who are able to periodically step back and put their jobs into perspective make possible an extended teaching career that is more secure, stable, and healthy.
Handling the Critics
Here are some examples of situations that address aspects of criticism of the music educator:
- As you are standing in the hall, you overhear a conversation going on around the corner. You recognize one of the voices as a talented senior in your top performing ensemble (an all-state musician who receives superior ratings in contests, is punctual, shows interest in class, and so forth). This student is talking to another in an extremely negative way about your abilities as a teacher. The student insists that your class is boring, that you do not challenge the better students, and that someone else should be brought in to do a better job. How do you react to this information? How do you evaluate the possible truth versus untruth of this student’s accusations? How do you interact with this student after hearing these critical comments?
- A small group of students, as seventh graders, sought you out for help in a number of areas including audition preparation, help with solos for contests, finding private instructors, and recommending recordings to help them assimilate style. As eighth graders, they became your first-chair players. You are happy to have them frequent the music room and enjoy spending time with them. You view these students as the core of support that solidifies your program. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that a few of your more outspoken students interpret the attention that you give these students as favoritism on your part. They create dissension by claiming that you have “pets,” and that you are not as interested in seeing others succeed. How do you deal with the attitude of the dissenting students? Should you examine your treatment of those considered “favored”?
- Your first job is one in which you replaced a popular elementary school teacher who moved to the middle school. This teacher was loved and respected by everyone. There is occasional resentment about some of the ways you handle the program. On several occasions, students have made statements like “That’s not the way Mr. James did it.” What can you do to establish yourself as the new teacher in town without causing further tension or negative comparison?
- You are beginning a junior high school position and have been told by your administrator that your predecessor was released because she could not control the class. Rules were not enforced, the program had slipped in quality and numbers, and morale was low. The classroom situation is a mess, files are disorganized, music folders are missing or incomplete, school-owned instruments are neglected, and it is obvious that you have your work cut out for you. What can you do over the summer before the school year starts to restore discipline, morale, and confidence? What can you do about the physical appearance of the music room and equipment? Are there any positive aspects in taking over a situation such as this?
- You have been putting in a tremendous amount of time getting organized for the year’s activities. The late hours, lack of sleep, and constant worry about deadlines are causing you to be irritable towards your family, friends, and colleagues. The harder you work, the more inefficient you seem to become. You know that these are classic symptoms of burnout, but you have always been able to work your way through the demands of your job. What can you do to improve the quality of your life during difficult times such as these? What help can you find to make sure you recover from stress before it becomes a threat to your health, your job effectiveness, and your family environment?
The general implications of the scenarios presented in this article probably become issues in the course of every teaching career. Some may appear with greater frequency than others, but they are all worthy of discussion. Most of the specific situations cited could be adapted to a variety of teaching areas and age-groups.
Music educators have the capacity to make a profound difference in the lives of those around them. Decisions do not always come easily. Effective teachers have the capacity to analyze a problem, arrive at a course of action, and then observe the results of that solution. If the result is positive, it may form the basis for similar decisions in the future. If the outcome is negative, a review of the circumstances and actions taken may be in order.
Teaching requires the ability to manage a variety of challenging situations. It is as complex and changeable as the society we live in. In college, future teachers assimilate a great deal of information that prepares them to share knowledge with their students. No one, however, can teach all of the skills needed to make complex decisions on all possible future real-life circumstances. These must ultimately be arrived at on an individual basis according to one’s own instincts and conscience. By giving more thought to how the problems and issues that confront students, parents, and colleagues will affect us, however, we can better equip ourselves to respond in an intelligent way to these challenges.
1. Erin Martin, “Real World 101: A Needed Course.” U.-The National College Newspaper (October 1990): 14.