So, You’re Hiring a New Music Teacher!

Nathan Voges • CommentaryJuly 2022 • July 8, 2022

One of the challenges for any administrator is selecting new teachers. A successful music program has much in common with winning sports teams. Both need consistency from year to year with demonstrated progress. I wish to address a common situation where a music teacher with long tenure retires or moves to a different position and is replaced by one with much less experience.

Music teachers may be a part of students’ lives for up to six years and are able to mentor students emotionally and spiritually in a deeper way than many classroom teachers. The act of making great music requires more emotional buy-in from the students than other disciplines. An effective music teacher builds trust and loyalty through years of commitment. The goal of any administrator who wishes for students to get maximum enrichment from teachers of the arts is to hire those who can provide stability for students and the community.

When an older teacher retires, the school district will often replace them with someone fresh out of college. This is done as a remedy for tight budgets, but it has hidden consequences. The danger is the position becomes a “revolving door” of failed teachers until someone with sufficient experience, skill, and tenacity is hired who is willing to commit to the community for the long term.

The position of the new incoming teacher can be perilous when following an established teacher. New teachers need up to five years to establish themselves and develop an identity. It takes at least three years to renew a high school program and imprint the new teacher’s style. Anything an administrator can do to guide an inexperienced teacher through these first years will pay long-term dividends. Don’t leave them to sink or swim on their own!

When an experienced teacher retires or moves on, there is a predictable grieving process the program goes through before re-establishing itself with the successor and it’s common for there to be attrition. Each ensemble is comprised of a predictable bell-curve of interest, starting with the True Believers, then the Enthusiastic, the Good Sports, and those who really need to be someplace else. 

The outgoing teacher will have their “stars” who now must renew their credentials with the new teacher. There may be disappointment and complaining behind the new teacher’s back. The difficulty for the administrator is to sift out what is a legitimate issue and what is insubordination from teens who are now “experts” in music education. It’s especially challenging because such students may be standouts in other areas so great care must be taken to determine whether their criticisms are justified. If the program is small, that student could be a member with skills that will be difficult to replace.

Another challenge is if the retiring teacher remains in the community. If they can be a mentor, the goodwill shown between the two can ease the transition and give a “stamp of approval” to the incoming teacher. The retired teacher must be careful not to undermine the new teacher. There will be temptation to go to the retired teacher with complaints, and if the retired teacher indulges those complaints the new teacher will have a difficult time getting established.

Hiring a replacement who has some experience gives the best chance for them to stay for the long term. Such educators have worked out certain “kinks” in their teaching approach and have real world experience. They are likely ready to sink roots into a school district for a longer term and have already navigated some difficult situations and found solutions.

The most successful transitions I have observed, especially for top-quality programs with high expectations, is when an existing assistant is promoted to a head teacher position. This has the advantage of offering a smoother transition because the assistant assuming the head director role already knows and understands the culture of the students, school, and community and has earned trust.

It’s possible to find that special teacher fresh from college who walks into a new situation and stays for their career, but they are the “unicorns.” The more a school and a community can do to allow a new teacher to grow and find their way, the more likely they become the long-term replacement to the retiring legend.

Nathan C. Voges is a group travel consultant for Bob Rogers Travel. After graduating with a B.A. in music from Luther College, he taught for six years in public schools and conducted community groups in Iowa. He earned the rank of sergeant in the Sixth U.S. Army Band. Voges has worked as a “Road Rep” making weekly service calls to area band and orchestra teachers. He joined the Indiana Wind Symphony in 2007 and became its assistant conductor in 2013.

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