Preparing to Teach Music in Today's Schools – Introduction


by Russell L. Robinson

Teaching has been called the noblest of professions. Music education, along with teaching in the other arts, is one of the few professions that teaches artistic expression and feeling in a group setting. The idea of entering such a noble and artistic profession may cause the aspiring music teacher to ask, “Will I be prepared? How will I find a job in today’s market?” or “What will I do that first year in my classroom?” The purpose of this Best of MEJ  is to give insights, ideas, and practical guidelines to assist beginning music teachers in answering these questions.

College courses do well in preparing music education students in areas of music history, theory, applied music, curriculum, discipline techniques, and more. Acquiring the first teaching position and maintaining employment in the school system, however, are often directly dependent on the quality of learning in the student-teaching experience, how well one prepares and presents him- or herself for interviews, and how well the teacher organizes, plans, and carries out the duties of that critical and pivotal first year of teaching. Preparing to Teach Music in Today’s Schools is organized into those three areas: I. Student Teaching, II. The Job Search, and III. First-Year Teaching.

The student-teaching experience is the first opportunity that students have to apply what they have learned in their methods and conducting courses, lectures, and discussions to the “real world.” This is the first time that they encounter real students, with all of their myriad individual differences, on a continuing basis and attempt to transfer to a real classroom the learning situations that have been covered in their college preparation regarding classroom management and subject matter delivery.

Although the student-teaching experience may have a “honeymoon” effect because the student teacher and the students are constantly in the presence of the cooperating classroom teacher, it is important for student teachers to establish their own identity in the manner in which they respond to the students. Student teachers should observe their cooperating teachers, they should actually teach (for a majority of the placement), and they should be evaluated and have feedback regularly from their cooperating teachers and college supervisors. The cooperating teacher does little good for the student teacher if he or she routinely leaves the classroom while the student teacher is teaching. The cooperating teacher is the student’s “teacher away from home”-his or her mentor-and the student teacher should not be regarded merely as a substitute or assistant.

Other practical field experiences should be encouraged prior to and during the student-teaching semester or year. Future teachers should be encouraged to seek every opportunity to teach, conduct, and coach students. Church choir directing, working with community theater productions, coaching instrumental and vocal ensembles in the schools-all of these experiences give prospective music teachers preprofessional teaching experience that will be a valuable resource when they begin full-time teaching.

Once one earns the baccalaureate degree or is anticipating graduating with a music education degree, the next step is to actually get the desired job. Those entering the profession must make themselves as aware as possible of all areas related to getting that job, from the careful preparation of the job application letter, the application, letters of reference, and the resume to the dynamics of the job interview. Just as the balance of style and substance often predicts one’s success in a profession, this balance is needed in the presentation of one’s self and one’s supporting materials for employment. Often while emphasizing the subject matter (what) of teaching, teacher education programs may not emphasize how to get the job. How does one write a letter of application? To whom is the letter written-to the principal, the supervisor of music, the personnel division? How long should the letter or resume be? Whom do you choose for your letters of reference? How long or short should the resume be? What should or should not be included? What should one wear to the job interview? What communication skills should be employed while in the job interview? Where should one apply?

The following are some suggestions for getting that first teaching job (and the second, third, fourth, and so on):

1. Make all of your presentations neat and orderly. Make sure that the letter and resume are free of grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. Dress neatly for your interview, but do not overdress. Look like the job you want.

2. Be yourself. When you read the resume to yourself, it should sound like you. When in the interview, answer questions honestly. The worst thing that could happen would be for the employers to think they hired one individual and end up having someone totally different. Let them know who you are and what you have to offer. No one is qualified to teach everything in music effectively from K-12; however, don’t just limit yourself to one area: “I only want to teach junior high choral music in this county.” If you do, you may be waiting a long time for your first teaching job.

The third and final category to be included in this Best of MEJ contains articles related to the first year of teaching. I often tell my students that their last year of college is their first year of teaching. That first year is the first step of your career and will greatly affect the direction that you will follow in terms of organizational skills, classroom style, discipline techniques and follow-through, performance standards, and more. Although many states have beginning teacher programs and mentoring programs for first-year teachers, there will never be the opportunity for constant peer review and evaluation that was available in student teaching. The results of both the correct actions and the mistakes will soon be apparent. As you analyze on a daily basis what went right, what went wrong, and why, the first year of teaching will be challenging and exciting.

Another reality about the first year of teaching is that often you will be the only music teacher in the school. No longer are you surrounded by your college professors-your resources in music history, music theory, and music education. You are the resource: you are music to your school. If the members of the school community like you, they usually like music; if they don’t like you, the opposite is true. Again, be honest with yourself and with your students in that first year (and every year). Be as prepared and organized for every class as possible, and if you find there is a question, fingering, vocal technique, or Italian term that you don’t know, admit it and take that advantage to learn with your students. Students in today’s world respond positively to well-prepared, honest, and dedicated teaching. Students will also respond better to your honesty than if you bluff your way through. The days of the dictatorial style of teaching are over. Students don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. Getting them to want to learn music through your preparation and delivery of musical content will largely determine the success of your first year of teaching.

This series of MEJ articles will be a valuable resource for music education students, music education courses, music education college faculties, and music educators in all phases of their career. The questions and insights presented by the contributing authors offer every music teacher opportunities for growth in this noble and artistic