Circles of Mentorship: Surround Yourself with Excellence

SBO Staff • ChoralCommentaryNovember 2008 • November 18, 2008

Surround yourself with excellence” is not a new or trendy phrase, but it should be recalled when considering mentoring. Teachers need to surround themselves with excellent mentors and not just one, but many different advisors who offer different types of experiences, backgrounds, and, most importantly, years of tenure. In his dissertation, Phenomenological Investigations of the Lifeworlds of Experienced High School Band Directors, Dr. John Lamkin states that, “The knowledge teachers have acquired while teaching is rich and useful, and those who seek to understand teaching eventually must turn to teachers themselves.”

Undergraduate and graduate schools cover much of the essential topics related to music, and maybe even something about pedagogical techniques and lesson plans, but being a teacher is an ongoing learning experience. In other “on-the-job” training employment, there are shift supervisors, managers, and experienced employees who correct and oversee a new hire’s every move. However, because teaching is considered a “profession,” other teachers, department chairs, and administrators empower novice educators as true professionals, often presuming they possess the knowledge and training to perform the job effectively and efficiently. This assumption can create a huge gap between what new teachers are expecting to accomplish and their experienced realities.

Many new music educators are not fortunate enough to start out as a full-time assistant or associate director, where they might have the chance to work with a master music teacher who can provide the support, adjustments, justifications, prevention, and care, similar to the relationship an intern or resident has with an experienced doctor, or that of a young lawyer and the senior partners at a law firm.

Because of this void of oversight, a new music teacher should not have only one mentor within a building or district, but should seek to make connections with colleagues from each of the three different circles of mentoring (see figure 1), groups which have been amassed based on the years of teaching experience and relative benefits they can give to young teachers.

Figure 1

Circle 1: Teachers with 1-3 years of experience
New music teachers should seek out other beginning teachers. If there aren’t many other young music teachers in a district, teachers in other content areas who have only one-to-three years of experience can still be valuable resources. New teachers have a lot of energy and high expectations, but may not have a full grasp of the responsibilities and duties of the job.

During the first years of teaching, with whom do we associate? It always amazes me that when people walk into a health club, they find themselves saying “hi” or talking to people close to their own age. The smokers outside of work, regardless of age, always have this immediate bond to start small talk and converse freely. When people walk their dog down the street, they often immediately start a conversation with other dog walkers. Things we have in common fulfill different emotional needs and psychological behaviors. Similarly, new teachers need to surround themselves frequently with teachers who have a similar amount of experience.

The first years of teaching present many frustrations, anxieties, and failures. By nature of university training through private lessons and high-level performances new music teachers have extremely high expectations. These young professionals may have the knowledge and experience to design and execute a great lesson plan, but that’s just a small part of the job. Areas novice educators might not be prepared for include creating a budget, obtaining funds from a district, other fundraising, resolving class scheduling conflicts, recruiting, collecting uniform measurements, ordering performance apparel, speaking and writing to administrators or parents, and completing the vast amounts of paperwork. Unfortunately, many of these teaching duties become obstacles toward reaching musical goals and expectations.

When the realities and daily outcomes do not meet expectations, the job becomes tedious and stressful a formula for burnout. Teachers who have more experience may or may not remember these frustrations, and experienced teachers may offer an encouraging “it will pass,” or “yeah, I remember that,” or “concentrate on your sophomores that is where your future program lies.” Yet, the reality is that new teachers need to talk to others who are experiencing similar frustrations.

Meeting with a group of other new teachers once a week at a happy hour, a lunch every other week, or at some predetermined point on a weekend can provide the emotional and therapeutic release needed to diffuse the stressors that are experienced in a new job and career (see figure 2).

Figure 2

Circle 2: Teachers with 6-12 years of experience
Teachers who fall into circle two will have similar experiences as described above, only within their own category. One key distinction is that by this point, the need to meet with such frequency has usually diminished. Most teachers in this category have already made contacts, so they usually find it easier to connect with peer professionals and colleagues. However, it is important for teachers in circle two to continue to interact with those in circle one so that they can maintain an awareness of new trends in teaching, technology, and education in general.

Educators in both circles two and three have survived the period of initial hardship and may have even accomplished or perfected something. Teachers who have one to three years of experience need to search for teachers in circle three to inquire how they survived, present them with detailed and specific questions, and seek direct answers so they can also succeed. It is crucial not to overlook the importance of diffusing the emotional frustration, concerns and anxieties with peers in circle one prior to seeking out teachers in circle two.

Teachers with six-to-12 years of experience are able to answer many specific questions pertaining to their field. They realize what activities and job duties are both urgent and important, and can guide newer teachers away from activities that are less productive or critical. Moreover, experienced teachers can present possible solutions and problem-solving ideas, helping less experienced teachers find solutions that work for them. Teachers in circle two are able to examine their self-expectations and goals, and provide new teachers with realistic outcomes. This narrowing of the gap between expectations and reality, in addition to avoiding social and professional isolation from their peers (circle 1), can prevent burning out and, ultimately, might keep stressed-out teachers from fleeing the field of music education altogether.

Circle 3 – Teachers with 15 or more years of experience
Teachers with 15 or more years of experience will seek out similarly tenured teachers to prevent social and professional isolation and diffuse any emotional concerns or anxieties that are important to other very experienced teachers. These concerns might include working with new supervisors or principals, saving for retirement, paying for their children’s college, and keeping material fresh. These teachers may also have some questions related to newer technology or the latest pedagogical techniques. Curiously, these last questions can often best be answered by the newly minted teachers in circle one.

For a less experienced teacher, observing a mentor from circle three can be a privilege and an honor. These are the teachers who can provide valuable models to be emulated by, for example, watching them conduct or analyzing how they choose literature to perform and study with their own ensembles. Other models that young educators can follow can be gleaned by attending professional performances, reading inspirational textbooks, listening to musical resources, taking private conducting lessons, or playing and practicing a principal or secondary instrument. These experiences can inspire us not only to survive the first three years of teaching, but also encourage us to reach expand our level of expertise. The most experienced music educators have developed and refined their own techniques and philosophies and, while their individual methods may not work for everyone, they can provide younger teachers with insight into how to improve their own technique. Younger teachers may figure out for themselves how to become effective educators, or they may ask teachers in circle two, but it is the teachers in circle 3 that can provide a glimpse of an educator’s destination.

Immersing ourselves within this circle of musical teaching mentors enables all teachers to develop a direction and goal and allows us the opportunity to pay back and pay forward these experiences to the next generation of teachers. This is evident at state or regional Music Educators Associations, the Midwest Clinic, and ACDA conferences. There, one can find many varied topics, and we usually flock to the ones that interest us the most or that we feel we need the most. If we inventoried what we went to, whom we saw, and whom we spent time with at these conferences, our time and purpose would most likely parallel the three circles of mentorship we should seek to maintain throughout the year. By surrounding ourselves with sufficient number of beginning, veteran, and master teachers, we give ourselves and each other the opportunity to achieve excellence.

Lamkin, II, John R. “Beyond the Podium: A Phenomenological Investigation of the Lifeworlds of Experienced High School Band Directors” Ph.D. diss., 19, 178 (2003): University of Maryland

Covey, S R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY, 1989

Figure 3Christopher Kosmaceski is in his fourth year as music department chairman at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, MD. Prior to teaching at Walter Johnson High School, he was associate music director at Walt Whitman High School and choral director at Kingsview Middle School. He currently teaches Wind Ensemble, Honors Jazz Ensemble, Symphonic Orchestra, 9th-Grade Concert Band, and AP Music Theory.

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