Advice for First-Year Teachers: Beyond the Podium—Non-Musical Keys to Career Success

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 15, 2020

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Collegiate training of music educators is almost exclusively devoted to the comprehensive study of music and its instruction, but veteran ensemble directors know that a large percentage of their success is dependent upon extra-musical skills and dispositions. As a newly appointed band or orchestra director, you may be a gifted musician and an effective teacher from bell to bell, but you will have a difficult time being successful if you struggle with the off-podium aspects of your job.

There are many, and a short list of examples might include administrative planning, curriculum design, purchasing, fundraising, program advocacy, maintenance of inventory, repertoire selection, and work with a booster organization. However, every facet of your work will be influenced by your ability to communicate effectively while maintaining professionalism and integrity in your relationships.

Integrity matters. Your relationships with students, colleagues, administrators, and parents are all dependent upon ethical dealings. Be consistently honest, civil, gentle, even-tempered, and respectful in all your interactions. In your written and spoken communication, be direct and truthful, but always afford others the respect they deserve. Treat others as you want to be treated, and don’t say or write anything that you wouldn’t want the entire world to hear or see. Don’t share things that should be confidential.

Keep in mind that your students will take their lead from you, and the culture of your program will be a direct reflection of what you model. It has been said that your integrity (or lack thereof) is revealed in the way you behave when no one is watching. While undoubtedly true, the reality is that there is rarely a time when your life is not subject to observation.

• Understand the importance of collegiality. I believe successful veterans of our profession would be unanimous in advising new teachers that their success is dependent upon building positive relationships with other school employees. Think not just of administrators and fellow teachers, but of coaches, office staff, custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. A few things can go a long way toward maintaining good working relationships.

• Take care of your business. Return calls. Respond to email inquiries. Systematically knock out assigned tasks. Make completion of paperwork a priority. Follow through on commitments. Administrators and others may be indifferent to your musical achievements if you miss deadlines, show up late, or fail to follow prescribed procedures.

• Cooperate with others. Understand that the music program is just one part of the life of your school and do your best to support your colleagues’ work. Share your students, resources, and facilities. When conflicts arise, make compromises that allow “both/and” solutions rather than resulting in winners and losers.

• Be a part of the life of your school. Encourage other teachers and coaches. Go out of your way to say a kind word and ask about their activities. If your schedule allows, attend their plays, concerts, academic fairs, and athletic contests.

• Have regular conversations with your principal, counselors, and office staff that aren’t about your program and your needs. Take a genuine interest in them and their lives outside the school. On those occasions when you do need their assistance, it is likely to be cheerfully given due to the relationships you have built.

• Build relationships with other music teachers. Join your state and district music organizations, and volunteer to assist at their events. Seek out mentors. Collaborate with nearby directors. Foster a cooperative spirit and leave competition to athletic programs.

• Understand the hierarchy of effective communication. As a new teacher, you likely favor texting for the majority of your communication, but text is an inferior format for complex conversations. Emails or written memos allow for complexity, but they don’t convey tone well and don’t allow for conversation in real time. Live conversation over telephone is better, as it provides an opportunity for questions and clarifications, as well as letting you hear the mood of the other party as revealed in their vocal tone. The top of the hierarchy is face-to-face conversation, which allows you to read body language and facial expression.

Each method has its appropriate uses. Text is perfect for the quick delivery of a simple message, and email allows easy distribution of lots of information in a format that is permanently recorded and can be referred back to. However, for much of your professional communication, voice-based methods are far more efficient and effective. Always opt for face-to-face conversations when there is some sort of conflict that needs to be resolved, because proximity encourages civility. Tensions escalate when parties snipe at each other from behind the safety of a keyboard, but in a face-to-face encounter most professional people will hold their tongues and tempers if respectfully approached.

• Appreciate the permanence of all emails and social media posts. Did you type that inflammatory email to your supervisor? Don’t dare hit “send” until you sleep on it. Anything you publish in an email or social media post has the potential to be shared with anyone at any time. Recipients can copy and forward what you have written. Your deleted posts can be preserved as screen shots. Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with everyone in the world reading.

• Appearance counts. Beyond what you say and write, you communicate through your dress. What you wear sends a message about the importance you ascribe to a particular occasion. If you dress up to a highly professional level, your students will likely respond with a more serious attitude. Similarly, a neat and organized rehearsal room communicates a businesslike purpose at a glance and sets the tone for a productive rehearsal.

• Keep your students’ parents informed. Whether you use a handbook, newsletters, email blasts, a website, booster meetings, or some combination of these things, clearly communicate your policies, procedures, performance schedule, etc. Do your best to be open and transparent and be available when parents have concerns and questions. All of your interaction with parents should convey that you are organized, thoughtful, and concerned about the safety and welfare of your students.

• Maintain strict boundaries in student relationships. Many young teachers make mistakes in relating with students who are in some cases are only four years younger than them. All interaction must clearly preserve the adult/minor child relationship and avoid any invitation to blur the line.

Don’t “friend” your students on social media. Never text an individual student. (Instead, use a one-way group text app like Remind). Do not email an individual student unless their parents are copied on the email. At school, don’t ever be alone with another student; keep your office door open. If a private conversation must be held, have an adult colleague in the office with you. Understand that the rules of relating appropriately to students are in force away from school as well. In this area, there is never a time when you are off duty.

Finally, remember again that integrity matters. Unfortunately, some school music directors are occasionally fired. When they are, it is rarely because their musicianship is lacking. Sometimes they are asked to leave because they are disorganized or fail to follow prescribed procedures, but more often than not, they are terminated for inappropriate communication, relationships, or personal behavior. As a new teacher, you must understand that people who work with children are held to a higher standard than the general population. You don’t ever want to jeopardize your ability to enjoy an important and fulfilling vocation by saying, writing, or doing something that would cause a community to doubt your fitness to work with their children.

As you begin your career, consider that all of your communication and relationship building with students, parents, colleagues, and administrators should further the goal of your students’ musical education. Music making is truly your primary mission, but your off-podium tasks must be done well to allow your music making to thrive. Go to work resolved to give your best effort in all aspects of your job and enjoy the rewards that come with facilitating the musical growth of your students. You have my best wishes for a long and successful career. Know that myself and countless veteran teachers and retirees are cheering you on.

Dr. Clifton Taylor has served as associate director of bands at Mississippi State University since 2005, working with concert, athletic, and jazz bands. A veteran teacher, he has taught instrumental music at every level, from the elementary school to the community college, and currently directs a band program for homeschooled students in his community. He is regularly engaged in composing and arranging for concert band, marching band, and other media, and promotes his work through his website As an avocational trombonist, Dr. Taylor performs in symphonic, jazz, and chamber settings. He has been the principal trombonist of the Meridian (MS) Symphony since 2002.

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