5 Keys to Success for the Small School Band Director

Small School Band

I firmly believe that the most rewarding career you can have is as a teacher, especially a band director in a small school. With this career, you can definitely have a lasting impact on your students. Today I’d like to share my five “P”s, five key areas that I believe small school band directors must focus on to be successful and to have this kind of lifelong impact.

1. Be Passionate

You have to love what you do and you have to have a real love for kids. Are you excited every day to get to the band room because you love teaching kids? Kids will see right through you and will know if you care about them or if you just care about how they sound.

In many small rural schools, you will start your band students in the fifth grade (and in some instances the fourth grade). You will be able to influence those students all the way through their senior year. That is eight or nine years that you get to see those young people grow as people and musicians.

You will see the 5th-grader who gets nothing but squeaks out of the clarinet become an all-state musician. You may be asked to attend student weddings (or even stand in for missing parents). I have had the great honor of officiating the wedding ceremonies of ten of my former students. I have even walked two of my former students down the aisle.

You will have a tremendous impact on these students, and your impact can be either positive or negative. That is a serious responsibility, so do your best to make sure that you have a positive impact.

I always tried to attend as many of the students’ other school activities as I could, whether it was a softball game, baseball game, livestock shows, etc. When the students know that you care about them outside the band room they will give you great effort when they are in the band room.

2. Be Professional

First, think about how you dress. There is a real trend in our society to “dress down.” In many small rural schools, teachers represent the largest percentage of the “professional” class. Therefore, I think it is important to dress the part. Many people in a small town will look at you differently if you don’t dress professionally.

Second, don’t try to be a part of their group. Be careful how you respond to text messages and social media where it is easy for comments to be misinterpreted. How do you talk to the students? Always remember that you are the adult so your conversation has to reflect that.

I used to teach high school band first hour. I would always say “good morning,” and have the students say it back to me. For some students, this was the most positive thing they’d heard since the last rehearsal.

Third, how do you talk to and work with other teachers? In a small school, you have to share students for all the activities to be successful. Do you communicate with other teachers what your needs are? Do you let them know what are the best and worst times for them to take students from your class for other activities? If a student is being a problem for you or in another class, can you talk to the other staff members so that you can work together to find a solution?

3. Be Productive

Have a plan for your program. Have an idea, both short term and long term, of what you want your program to achieve. Then go to work, literally. I see some directors, especially younger teachers, who seem to miss a lot of school. Your students can’t learn if you are not there.

Next, be efficient when you are at work. Find ways that students can help with projects such as doing the set-up for rehearsal, passing out or picking up music, helping keep the band room clean, etc. Make sure you have good classroom management so that your rehearsals run effectively. Set high but reasonable goals for your program.

4. Be a People Person

It is so important in a small school to build relationships that will prove beneficial to you as a person and help your program.

How do you treat people?

I always tried to take care of the support staff and secretaries. Treat these people with respect because they can make your life a lot easier. Always ask and never demand.

Make sure you have a good working relationship with the coaches. A lot of small schools are athletics heavy. Can you talk the coaching lingo enough to have a positive working relationship with them? For instance, I worked well with the basketball coach so that when he started scheduling games for the next year, he would always ask me when I wanted my Christmas concert. We would work together to create a schedule that supported both our programs. I also helped the track coach by running the high jump event at the track meets we hosted.

Can you talk to administrators? You need to keep up with current education laws so that you can discuss with them things that will affect your program. Also, keep them informed of problems with students or parents that may be headed to them. They don’t like surprises.

And finally, can you talk to members of the community? Do you understand the culture and the working situations of most of the community members well enough to carry on a conversation with them? Make sure that your band is involved in community events such as marching in the local festival or Christmas parade. Have a group play at the Chamber of Commerce banquet, etc.

5. Be a Promoter

The last of our “P”s is to be a promoter. No one else will promote your band program like you can. Many small communities have a weekly newspaper. They are always looking for articles about the local school events in the paper. This is where coaches often do a better job than band directors. No matter how bad the football team may be, every week there will be a story and pictures from the previous week’s game. Find a way to have articles in the paper about the band. This is a way where social media can be a good thing for your band. Brag about your students on your band website, school website and so on. Keep the community informed of concerts, contests, etc.

Enjoy your job as a small school band director and realize the impact you will have on your students. I can tell you from experience what an honor it is to have students tell me, years later, “Thank you for what you did for me in your class.” Remember the five P’s to help you have successful small school band programs.

Donny Longest recently retired after 33 years of teaching. He is a past-president of the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association (OBA) and was named the OBA Band Director of the Year in 2004. In 2006 he was one of 12 finalists for the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. Mr. Longest was inducted into the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame in 2015.
During his 21 years with the Konawa Band, they received a Superior rating 20 consecutive times at both the OSSAA Regional Marching Contest and the OSSAA District Concert Contest. The Konawa Band received the OSSAA Sweepstakes Award 12 times since 2000 and was an honor group at the Oklahoma Music Educators state conference in 2015.

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