Survival 101

Mike Lawson • Archives • July 6, 2009

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As part of our survival issue, SBO spoke to experienced band directors and music education professionals to get their advice and tips on surviving that exciting and, at times daunting, first year of teaching.

What are the toughest challenges a music educator will face in their first year of teaching?
Heath Wolf
: Narrowing the gap between what they know and what they need to know to be successful as an instrumental music educator. No matter how good your college education is, there will always be areas in which you feel you need improvement, especially in the first years of teaching. Professional networking with successful educators and performers can be a great resource for the myriad of pedagogical problems that confront all teachers, especially those in their first year. Taking private lessons on instruments you feel weak on, attending clinics and master classes, and joining professional organizations can all help narrow the gap.

John Stroube: Most young teachers struggle with classroom control and techniques for channeling the attention and energy of their students. All will be lost unless control is attained and maintained in a positive way. Yet the need to remain positive must not prevent the teacher from sustaining command of the learning process.

Elizabeth Fritz & Leon Kuehner: Establishing credibility with the students, consistency, dealing with students saying, “That is not the way Mr. /Ms. (fill in name) did it.” Establishing discipline and motivation, dealing with paper work and deadlines.

Sandra Jordan: If the program has not been updated in a while, they may need to work with their music or arts supervisor in the district to build support for instruments and supplies such as guitars, other stringed instruments, and related technology. And they’ll quickly realize they need to proactively mobilize and inspire the parents of their students to help keep support going for the program during budgeting times. Without parents as advocates and believers in the program, it will be very difficult for a new music educator to withstand the trend to cut arts programs in tough economic times.

Jeff Phillips: I think the hardest thing for new teachers in general (especially band and orchestra directors) is trying to find that balance of where your job fits with your life. So many times the frustration on starting a new job is overwhelming; combine this with the demands placed on programs at the beginning of the year, whether that’s recruiting in the lower grades or a Friday night marching band show, and younger teachers often get in over their heads too soon. Then they can’t get out of a pattern of staying at school until midnight every day of the week and this leads to early job and career changes. Finding that balance between being a dedicated professional and having a life away from the job is crucial.

Are there new issues facing music educators that you haven’t seen before?
HW: The biggest issue is the increased demand for a student’s time, impairing educators’ abilities to participate in the arts. While this is not a new issue, it has certainly intensified over the past decade. The ever increasing academic requirements placed upon students are forcing kids to choose between studying music and taking an AP class that they have to have in order to be admitted to the college of their choice. Add to that, family, church, sports, and social activities with friends, and you find there is not much time left in the day to devote to practicing an instrument. The only answer is to constantly educate your community about the importance of the performing arts to a balanced society and to produce a product that reflects that importance.

JS Music educators are being held accountable for authentic education to a greater extent than before, partly because new tools and methods of accountability are being developed.

EF & LK: The Iowa Core Standards, more and more combining of instrumental/string/vocal/ general music positions, inclusion of special education requirements.

SJ: Obviously the economic crisis in the United States is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. It’s important for music educators to keep a positive, professional outlook and demeanor as programs face budget trimming and full-on cuts. Don’t wait for the cuts to come to your district start today to build a community coalition of parents, professional musicians and business leaders who can defend students’ right to a complete education that includes music and arts instruction.

JP: The economy is an issue that we’ve faced before, however, the reaction of parents and communities is different. Budget demands are tighter and there may be more people unable to afford instrument payments, trip payments, and class fees. With so many schools across the nation adopting curricular changes such as the American Diploma Project, scheduling and just basic curriculum design from the music teachers is something that we can’t just leave to the guidance department or the administration any longer. Music teachers must take a more aggressive and active role in communicating their ensembles to not only those decision makers, but to students and parents. We have to be our own advocates.

What are the basic, yet essential, tools a teacher should have?
HW: You must have a passion for what you do. Passion is infectious and will draw students to your program as well as get you through the low points that everyone experiences. You must have a strong pedagogical knowledge of all of the instruments you teach. It’s alright to admit that you don’t know something to your students but make sure you figure it out by the next rehearsal. Finally, you must have good communication skills with students, parents, and administrators. You can avoid a lot of headaches by simply picking up the phone or sending an email.

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