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Colonel’s Book Club – Edition 9: The Total Teacher

Thomas Palmatier • February 2022InService • February 23, 2022

The curse of the ninth is a superstition connected with the history of classical music. It is the belief that a ninth symphony is destined to be a composer’s last; that the composer will be fated to die while or after writing it, or before completing a tenth. Well, this is my ninth edition of Colonel’s Book Club and it will be my last, hopefully not because of my death, but for another reason I’ll get to later.

This edition will introduce you to The Total Teacher, by Danny Steele. The book was recommended by a great music educator and composer in Alabama, Jon Bubbett (more about him later, too) who said Steele had at one time been his school principal and was the best one he’d ever had. As usual in this column, items in italics are direct quotes from the book.

Just as a medical degree does not make an effective doctor, a teaching certificate does not make an effective teacher. And yet, too often we send a newly minted music teacher into a classroom without much of a support network. Steele discusses there is both an art and a science to teaching and both take time to develop.

As it turns out, the first essential step in effective classroom management…. Is actually liking the students in your room. The usual tools to classroom management are not nearly as effective as having the right relationships with students. Students are much more responsive to teachers who genuinely like them. 

We never win an argument with a student. As soon as it starts, we have lost. If their peers are watching, they cannot afford to give in. We would like to win the argument, but they have to win the argument. When I read this, it hit me like a mallet in the forehead. How many times have I allowed myself to get into a “debate” with a student and wondered why it always ended badly?  Be the adult in the room!

I have never had an affinity for lesson plans. As a new teacher…. I sort of took pride in my ability to wing it…. As I matured as a teacher, I found that I spent more and more time in planning. Another lightning bolt!  I used to be dismissive of lesson plans and detailed rehearsal plans until I realized I was the weak link in our preparation. Now I lay out plans for the entire season that evolve into pretty detailed rehearsal plans and I share them with the musicians in advance. In my case, directing premier military bands, I can say confidently I was never the best musician in the room, but it was my job to ensure there was a plan and a purpose to every rehearsal.

In describing why a particular teacher’s students scored so high on standardized tests, he found It was not about the right program. It was not about the newest technology. And there was no magic. It was a teacher who defined her success by the success of her students. It was a teacher who was willing to do whatever it took for her students to learn and thrive. Isn’t that the type of teacher all of us want to be?

Steele describes how important it is to keep learning and growing and provides three areas many teachers said helped them to continue to grow. Collaborate with and observe colleagues. Solicit feedback from students. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. All three of these require someone who is not only able, but eager to accept criticism. Want to get better?  Check your ego at the door!

Teachers have the ability to give students something that is far more valuable than good grades…. They can give them hope. Being a kid is stressful and teen suicides are the direst, but not the only result of hopelessness. 

He describes a situation where the school rules required him to discipline a student for an extreme hair color. In talking with her, he found she felt powerless in her life and her hair was the only thing she felt able to control. Think back to Drive, by Daniel Pink, reviewed earlier in the book club. It found the most important way for employees (or students) to feel happy was to have a sense of autonomy and control.

Steele describes a time when all of the students were asked to write down name(s) of an adult they could trust. Almost 10% of the students wrote “nobody.”  Many of them were strong students, the “good kids.”  It’s not enough to think students trust you, be sure.

When educators invest the time to learn their students’ stories, the have a better understanding of what motivates them….no student wants to be labeled a “loser.”  Again, we have to know them in order to know what makes them tick.

Have fun at work!  Positivity is contagious!

This book is packed with much more than feel-good stories. It offers concrete suggestions on classroom management, planning, faculty relationships, professional development, and so much more.

Now back to the curse of the ninth. Mike Lawson has been editor of SBO Magazine for many years and shepherded it through a global pandemic. He’s a practicing musician who is passionate about music, kids, and education. Mike recently became publisher/owner of SBO along with several other music magazines so it has become necessary for him to let go of some of his duties at SBO. It’s with a bit of trepidation I have agreed to try to fill his shoes as editor of SBO Magazine and will step away from my In Service columns and Colonel’s Book Club. Have no fear, you will soon be getting terrific book reviews from Jon Bubbett in a series called Bubbett’s Bookshelf.

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