We currently live in a crazy time for teachers. If you’re just starting out, your undergraduate methods classes and student teaching experience can’t begin to prepare you for all that is about to happen. If you’re in your first or second year of teaching, you might be feeling overwhelmed. I’d like to share some practical thoughts and strategies to help you get through the tough times and help you understand the tremendous positive impact you can make on the lives of children through music.
First, the Statistics
- 13% of the nation’s 3.4 million teachers move schools or leave the profession after one year
- Between 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within five years
- 9.5 % of new teachers leave before the end of their first year
- Turnover in teaching is 4% higher than in other professions
Source: Dr. Richard Ingersoll, University of Pennsylvania, The Atlantic, October 18, 2013
Support and Training
A recent survey found a correlation between the level of support and training provided to new teachers and their likelihood of leaving the teaching profession after the first year. Most districts cannot afford to provide new teachers with an official mentor to guide you through your first year.
Some of you may end up teaching in an isolated area of your state where you are the entire music department for your district. College methods courses do not have the time to prepare you for everything you’ll encounter and cannot provide this type of support after you begin teaching. So what kinds of things can you do to prepare yourself to have a sane, successful teaching career in music and not become another statistic?
Let’s start at the very beginning of your professional journey and review your actual teaching space. Where are you going to be? Will you be mobile or have your own room? If so, here are just a few things to consider:
- What kind of traffic patterns and seating arrangements will be best for behavior management and learning?
- Does your room need to serve multiple purposes?
- What kind of seating will you use? Chairs, risers, carpet squares?
- Is it a space that students would be proud to enter? Is it neat and organized?
- Does it need to be painted? Do you need better storage?
You will also want to consider safety by reviewing exits, traffic patterns, and routines.
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So, far, you’ve been working without actual children in the room. You might think you are set to go. This is where the insanity comes in. Now that your classroom is set, it is time to sit down and decide what types of procedures you want to implement into your classroom to engage your students and manage their behavior. What are your expectations as to how you want them to behave, rehearse, and take care of materials and equipment?
Consider the age of your students; the younger they are, the more you will need to break down the steps.
The Who, What, Where, When and Why of Procedures
The Who consists of anyone in the room. Procedures are not just for your students, but for you as well. For students, it gives them a sense of safety and routine. So many children in our classrooms today have either dealt with or are dealing with trauma and other situations where they don’t feel safe. Routine and procedures provide that sense of safety. For you, it sets up good habits in terms of dealing with the logistics of teaching.
What kinds of procedures should you be considering? Anything the students are expected to do in the classroom should have a procedure. This includes how they enter and leave your room, how they handle materials, equipment and instruments, where to put things away, where the tissues and sanitizer are and when they may use it, bathroom procedures – the list goes on and on.
In my general music class, I have set up a few procedures based on experience as well. With Boomwhackers, I inform my students that they are not lightsabers, baseball bats, guns, canes – you get the picture – and give them procedures as to how to handle them correctly. Another procedure I had to create was when dealing with children doing circle dances in my room. When walking towards the center of the circle, they are to take small steps and not slam into each other on purpose in the middle. Live and learn.
Where is anywhere you have responsibility for students. Whether it’s in your classroom, in the hallway, in the bathrooms or lunchroom or at recess, procedures are vital. Some of these procedures will be decided by the school community of teachers and administration in order to be consistent throughout the building.
When is all the time, every day, everywhere, from the moment students walk in until the moment they leave. As they get used to consistent procedures, the hope is that they will begin to just do these things out of habit and you won’t have to continue to remind them. It pays to practice procedures for as long as it takes to get to this point.
Why are procedures important? Again, it provides safety and routine for our students to allow them independence within parameters. So many of these procedures lead to life skills, how to be safe, responsible and respectful. Procedures also save your sanity.
Behavior management requires its own set of procedures so that students understand that if they don’t follow the classroom/school procedures and are not being safe, responsible or respectful, that there may have to be consequences for their actions. Transitions between activities or classes are the toughest part because it’s a short time where they can let loose a little bit. It’s also a time to teach them that it’s ok to let loose IF they can get back into the routine once the transition is over.
Here are some guidelines that have worked well for me:
- Be kind but firm and ALWAYS consistent. Students, especially younger students need that consistency and boundaries to feel safe and to know what to expect.
- Always be aware of what is going on in the room – everywhere! Never turn your back on the class.
- Always be prepared for class – never wing it. A well-planned lesson will keep most behavior issues from happening and keep students engaged in learning.
Finally, as a warning: kids can smell fear. Remember, you are the adult. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s not a life-threatening emergency. Unless it is.
The truth about lesson planning is that it takes time. Understand that and make time for it. Great teaching requires a thorough, well thought out, sequential lesson plan. Take time to assess where your students are and then set goals as to where you would like them to go. When they achieve the goal, set another goal. Always be assessing where your students are. Progress is the goal!
What do you expect your students to be able to know and do? Which activities will get them to their goal? What music do you select or help them to select that will drive them towards progress? How do you KNOW when they’ve achieved the goal?
Teaching is an art form, just like music. You need to work on it as much as the music. It is the vehicle that will allow your students to feel and experience the passion. You might be the greatest musician in the world, but if you can’t get your students excited about the music, it’s a waste.
Finally, decide when and where you think will be best for you to spend time in lesson planning. You will never have enough planning time during the school day to get everything you need finished. Make it personal. Are you a morning or evening kind of person? Do you prefer to work at school or at home?
Final Basic Survival Tips
- Keep up with paperwork. The majority of your time will be spent doing administrative work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of colleagues and administration if you need help. It’s no secret that you’re new to this.
- Keep your principal informed. Contact them anytime there is an issue or potential issue with a student or parent. Keep them updated in terms of what your students are doing, field trips you want to take, transportation to contests, everything you do!
- Document everything. This includes email and phone conversations with parents, behavior management strategies with students, students who are struggling academically, and more. These breadcrumbs will come in handy later when you are asked to have perfect recollection of something that happened months ago. Don’t assume you can remember every little detail.
- The secretary and custodian run the school. ‘Nuff said. Get to know them.
- Get to know the rest of the faculty. Don’t isolate. Be a part of the school community and see what they do. They will never be interested in what you do if you’re not interested in what they do.
- Be careful with social media. If in doubt, don’t write it, don’t push send. Never friends students and even be careful friending parents and colleagues.
- Find a mentor or two or three. Write down three names of people you could call right now if you needed something.
- Be yourself! Don’t give into the stereotype of what you think a teacher must look and act like. As long as you are professional, be yourself. The students will see right through you if you don’t.
- Just say no. Balance is difficult as a music educator and occasionally you need to say no when someone asks you to do something. Consider family, social life and alone time. Burnout is the number one reason teachers leave the profession.
So why do we do this?
Music is the place where all students – especially those who don’t feel they are accepted – can find their place. Music challenges people to do things they never thought they could. It creates a family of friends that can be a part of their lives for years to come. It is a place where kids can create, be themselves, not always worrying about right and wrong.
It’s a place where students leave you notes that say things like:
- “I don’t know what I would do if you were not my music teacher!”
- “You are the best teacher ever!”
- “Thank you for music!”
- “Music is great!”
- “Music is the best special ever!”
- “You inspire me so much. Thank you. I love music.”
- “I wish we could have choir every day!”
- “I’m good at this!”
The difference you will make in the lives of these children is immeasurable. For me, that’s enough. And if you can survive your first five years of teaching, it will be for you too, I promise.