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SBO Roundtable: Survival Guide – Clearing Early-Career Hurdles

Mike Lawson • Archives • July 26, 2011

As in any occupation, long-term success in the career of music education hinges upon surviving through the first several years on the job. And in this particular field, gutting out the first few years can be particularly challenging: studies indicate that as many as 50 percent of young music educators never make it past year five before abandoning the profession. While most fledgling band and orchestra directors are comfortable enough with music from the outset, the trial-by-fire of program management – including elements like fundraising, equipment maintenance, advocacy, recruitment, and the politics of working with administrators, colleagues, and parent groups – often contains many unforeseen challenges.

There are many ways one might approach this subject, but who better to shed light on the tribulations of young music educators than those who have successfully – and recently – made it over that hump? With that in mind, SBO recently contacted four such educators, who vary in experience between 7 and thirteen years in the classroom, to talk about the challenges they faced early in their careers and how they have managed to become acclimated and attain success.

What are the biggest challenges you faced in your first few years teaching? How did you overcome or get past those challenges?

DuWayne Dale: The biggest challenge for me was overcoming utopian expectations of what being in the classroom and being a band director would be like. My undergraduate preparation was outstanding, but the realities of daily classroom discipline, lesson planning, financial management, and public relations were overwhelming at first.

I was lucky to have had veteran music teachers around me on whom I could rely. I sought their advice, watched them in the classroom, and asked for help when needed. I attended professional development sessions whenever possible and applied those experiences to what I felt were my own shortcomings.

Misty Prochazka: Challenges I faced included getting the room organized, finding resources in the files, figuring out what performances were expected, and convincing the students to “buy” into my vision and teaching style. And then there were the non-music-related administrative duties, budget, transportation forms, and so on. Unfortunately the best way to overcome those challenges are to give it time, to trust in yourself and the process, make adjustments as necessary, and build relationships with the students and staff.

Andy Walters: I would say two things. The first would be selecting music that truly fit the ensemble, yet was also of high quality. For this challenge, I relied heavily on colleagues to help. Veteran teachers are more than willing to lend a hand in this profession, both with this and any other challenge I have faced. Picking up the phone, typing an email, or even scheduling a visit to watch a veteran teach or twist an ear for advice was one of the best things I could have done.

The second was relating to parents, who were sometimes twice my age, while the kids were only four years younger at times. I always tried to be prepared and over-prepared for my communications with them, face to face, or in any way. If you show you are competent, and more importantly, care for their kids, over time parents of any age or education will respect you.

Brian Grant: Looking back over my 10 years in this profession, I found that the two greatest challenges faced have been raising funds and student motivation. The manner in which I overcame each of these challenges is the same: I found a colleague who has proven to be successful in the area in which I was struggling and asked that individual for advice. Music education, at least in my corner of the country, has very few competitive overtones. I have never been turned down for advice or assistance by one of my colleagues, nor have I ever denied anyone my advice or assistance when asked.

What’s the number one unexpected area you felt unprepared for when you began teaching?

DD: Little instruction was provided during my undergraduate degree directed toward handling program finances. Setting budgets for the year, managing a booster organization, and following school financial procedures all posed significant challenges for me initially. I learned quickly that a good band director is also part accountant, politician, counselor, event planner, recruiter, human resources manager, and general handyman!

MP: The students had been at the school longer than I had, so figuring out the dynamics of the school and the students’ personalities while also trying to stay one step ahead.

AW: All of the budget and office managerial aspects of teaching: filling out forms, getting things done in a timely way for purchases, administrator communication, and managing a budget. This is all overwhelming, but part of our job. I still struggle with this today, but have learned from past mistakes.

BG: This question is easy: finances. I remember my first year of teaching, being “raked over the coals” by our principal because I ran the band account into negative territory. I had no idea how much was in the account to start with, or that a band account even existed. I just kept writing purchase orders and he just kept signing them. My advice to any upcoming music educator is this: upon being appointed to your first job, ask the principal how money is distributed and what the procedures are for spending funds allocated to your program.

Do you think the situation you encountered is similar to what young music educators faced in previous generations, or has the educational system changed in the past few years?

DD: It seems clear that education today is evolving at an ever-increasing rate. New educators will experience a variety of issues that were not so prevalent a decade or two ago. The push for technology integration and the capability of technology to transform the classroom has grown exponentially since I began teaching. New reforms always seem a year away and the increase in advanced placement, distance learning, and other situations that provide students with an alternative to the tradition high school experience will likely have a greater impact on how music education functions within the high school curriculum in the future. Students are drawn in so many different directions today. New educators will have to find (or fight for) their place in the school curriculum and develop strategies for recruiting that will appeal to today’s students.

MP: My impression is that students have more responsibility, fewer authority figures, and less structure at home these days.

AW: I think things have changed. You are expected to walk into teaching situations with more duties, and be a “jack of all trades.” A lot of new teacher jobs are those that are K-12 everything, making it a challenge for many to stay in the profession due to overwhelming duties and circumstances. I also believe that more and more parents do not understand what it is that we really do. There is no “band” section in the newspaper, on the web, or on TV, so it’s hard for many to understand what it is that we do as musicians.

BG: Well, the situation I mentioned above occurred due to a lack of communication. My principal assumed I knew how things worked from a financial standpoint and I assumed he would stop signing purchase orders when the money ran out. To answer the question, I do believe music educators faced similar situations. The difference today is the level of accountability held to the educational system in general. It may not have been as big a deal 20 years ago to run an account in the red, but with today’s technology our district knows to the penny how much is spent, when it is spent, and on what it was spent.

What advice do you have for teachers just entering the classroom about managing all of the non-music-related elements that are now a part of being a music educator?

DD: Be organized. Familiarity with spreadsheet software like MS Excel or MS Access can help, but there are other resources that are outstanding. If it can be budgeted for, purchase Charms Office Assistant (charmsoffice.com). It has allowed me to organize my library, inventory, student data, finances, fundraisers, parent volunteer info, and so much more in one location. It creates email distribution lists and one-call phone services automatically from student data and allows students to manage their personal information.

MP: Do not be afraid to ask questions. Be friendly with your principal, secretary, and custodian. It may seem like brown nosing, but it isn’t – it is okay to recognize and appreciate those who can make your life much easier.

AW: Seek the advice of your fellow teachers – find at least one in your district or building to whom you can really relate and use as a sounding board. Touch paperwork only once. Make sure the deadlines you meet first, are those that affect student success. If you are able to, delegate some tasks to trusted student leaders or perhaps an adult volunteer. Often, it is the teacher who never asks for help who ends up being the most frustrated.

BG: One of the root causes of frustration for me as a band director is having to be two people at once; a teacher and a band director. The teacher is accountable for curriculum, assessment, attendance, discipline, and more. The band director is accountable for thousands of dollars of equipment, equipment repair, booster club, purchase orders, bus requests, copyright permission, and so on. My advice for juggling these tasks is to stay organized and utilize the assistance of student leaders and parents. In my situation, there is no assistant band director. I have developed a strong student leadership program that gives certain students the opportunity to help run the band. I also use band parents who are willing to help with tasks that should not befall a student. There is an incredible book available by Scott Rush through GIA Publications entitled Habits of a Successful Band Director. That is a must read for every young music educator. This book addresses managing all of the non-music related elements that are now such a critical part of being a music educator.

Do you have any advice for older teachers (or for the professional associations and networks) as far as assisting young teachers past the difficult first few years?

DD: Veteran teachers can be a lifeline for new educators. I would encourage any veteran teacher to let new teachers know that they can come to you for help or advice. It’s also important not to hover over them and give unsolicited suggestions unless you’ve been placed in a mentorship role and their supervision is one of your responsibilities. Knowing you are there to help if needed may be all that is required to support their success.

MP: Share – resources, songs that work, positive feedback, and support.

AW: Thank you for your leadership and your help with younger teachers. Continue to offer help sessions at conventions, and make personal contacts with younger teachers. If you see something horribly wrong with a performance or literature selection at contest, please reach out and speak to us. Ignorance is bliss – unless it means we are unaware of an obvious lack of something that is hurting kids (because we, as young teachers, might not know any better).

BG: I would like for every state or district to have a mentoring program that would pair successful, experienced music educators with those just starting out. To music educators in areas that do not have a mentoring program, make it a habit to pick up the phone and call a colleague. Younger music educators should self-advocate. Don’t wait for someone to contact you, be proactive. Older music educators should make it a point to contact younger colleagues not only to offer assistance, but to see if there are any fresh, relevant ideas the younger educator might be willing to share. Most of the ideas I implement regularly, and with great success, have come from my colleagues.

Additional thoughts on surviving as a young band director today?

DD: Make time for yourself. You will often find that you are the first at school in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. When other teachers are discussing trips to the beach in July, you’ll be planning band camp. When you do go home, leave your work behind. Be as organized and effective as you can with your time at work so that you can make time for your family and friends.

MP: I think that the old saying “don’t smile till Christmas” is way off base. Students want a teacher who is fair and consistent. Students are much more willing to respond to you if they know you and know you care about them and are trying your best to build a successful program. I have seen too many music teachers befriend students to try and please them and get them to “work” for them – students want a teacher first, not a friend. The classroom is like a family: students need to have fun in order for them to choose to be in your class; however, they need to know the rules and that working hard is the only path to success. I try to instill in my students that there is a time to work and a time to play. By giving students boundaries, you are able to give them more responsibility and choices in the classroom. In turn, they will respect you and trust that you will make decisions based on their best interests.

AW: Get out of your box and network. The best part of this profession is the people – and those willing to help. With advice from others and an understanding soundboard, you can overcome any situation that you are involved in.

BG: Conduct an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. Once you have identified your weaknesses, surround yourself with people who are very good at those aspects of being a music educator and learn all you can from them. We have all said “If I could go back and do that again, knowing then what I know now…” While that is not possible, the closest you can get to that is to talk to someone who has been there already and ask what they might have done differently.


DuWayne Dale

Daviess County High School

Owensboro, Ky.

DuWayne Dale is the band director at Daviess County High School in Owensboro, KY. The 2011-2012 school year will be his thirteenth year teaching band. He also taught high school orchestra for seven years.

Misty Prochazka

Gering Junior High School

Gering, Neb.

Misty Prochazka has been a music educator in public schools for seven years. A recipient of the Nebraska State Bandmasters “Jack Snider Young Band Director Award,” she has taught band, choir, elementary band, jazz band, coached the color guard and marching band. Her goals in Music Education include providing her students with a comprehensive understanding of music vocabulary, the esthetic elements and the fundamentals of playing an instrument as well as, to instill a love and enjoyment of music and creating music by providing successful performance opportunities and experiences that will allow her students to experience the intrinsic rewards found in the power of making music.

Andy Walters

Lewis Central High School

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Andy Walters began as director of Bands at Lewis Central High School in 2006. Previously, he served as director of Bands at Papillion-La Vista High School, in Papillion, NE from 2003 to 2006, and Ralston High School and Ralston Middle School from 2001 to 2003. Mr. Walters is currently the Past-President for the Southwest Iowa Bandmasters Association. He has also served as the Class AA Representative for the Nebraska State Bandmasters Association, the Executive Board for the Nebraska Wind Symphony and is an Executive Board Member for the Papillion Area Concert Band. Mr. Walters has presented sessions at the Nebraska Music Educators Association Fall Conference and the Nebraska State Bandmasters Association Summer Convention.

Brian Grant

Blue ridge High School

Greer, S.C.

Brian T. Grant is the director of Bands at Blue Ridge High School in Greer, South Carolina and has served as a band director in Greenville County for the past 10 years. Mr. Grant is also a National Board Certified Teacher. Under Mr. Grant’s direction, his bands have won three Marching Band State Championships and six Regional Winter Ensemble Championships. The Blue Ridge High School Wind Ensemble consistently receives Superior Ratings at the annual SCBDA Concert Festival. In 2009, Mr. Grant was awarded the Outstanding Young Music Educator Award by SCMEA. He is a member of Phi Beta Mu, MENC, SCMEA and SCBDA.

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