Survival Tip One – Who Moved My Band Director? Suggestions for Accepting Change

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 24, 2015

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(c) ShutterstockCongratulations! You’ve been a hot shot your whole life. Going to music school wasn’t the question, which instrument you were going to major on was. A perfectionist, you chose a prestigious school and worked hard through many semesters of instrument method classes, performed with many ensembles and were placed with the most desirable cooperating teacher available. Life was good — until you dipped your toe into the real world, as an assistant band director in the middle of nowhere, a thousand miles from home, with children who acted nothing like you expected students to behave. 

Change is a daily part of life. It is necessary, exciting, unknown, scary, and sad depending on many variables as well as your outlook accompanying the change. In other words, change is neither inherently good nor bad – but the way you are prepared for change and are able to handle stressful situations will allow you to ensure that you will skillfully transition into a new teaching position, and that your students will focus on learning rather than focus on the many ways in which you may be different than the band director you replaced.

Your teaching title affects the way your role functions within a band program. You’ve always been your own person: you’ve always had the same primary instrument, you’ve always attended the same university, and you’ve always had the same performance background – but depending on your teaching role (head director, assistant, et cetera) you may have to accept the role of Good Cop, Bad Cop, Cheerleader, or Comedian. And there will always be only one Chief. The role of the head director is to establish the culture of the school music program. While it is wise for music teachers to work as a team and to establish goals, procedures, expectations, and curriculum, the head director must ultimately accept responsibility for the success and challenges of a music program. If you are an assistant director, you may have the credentials to be a head director; however, sharing and supporting the same vision as the school’s head director will unify your music program. As you progress through your musical career, you will find that your students’ responses to the same instructions you deliver may change. You may have to change your teaching style, your tone of voice, your demeanor, or other teaching personality traits as you role as you mature into a new role.

Networking is important. Every new place has its own culture. Despite all teachers sharing the same vision: wanting to help students learn how to make beautiful music, you will find that the backgrounds of your colleagues drastically vary depending on where they grew up, who their primary teachers were, and where they attended school. An inexperienced teacher may be tempted to rely on teaching others exactly how he was taught; however, you will find that embracing the suggestions of those around you will ultimately be the easiest way to accept change. Attend as many professional development workshops as possible, during your state’s music convention and during the summer. If you are in a new geographic area, this may seem more daunting than if you are teaching in the same area as you attended your collegiate studies. Keep in mind that the instructors of workshops want to share their knowledge with younger teachers. They will be impressed that you’ve shown you want to be a lifelong learner, and will be more willing to answer your questions, be your mentor, or serve as a clinician for your ensemble during one of your transition years.

(c) ShutterstockMake yourself aware of the history of the music program you’re taking over. Your teaching philosophy must align with the goals and expectations of a school music program – think evolution rather than revolution when you’re moving into a new position. There may certainly be elements of a music program that you’d like to change from one year to the next year, but keep in mind that change is much smoother when items removed from the schedule and curriculum are replaced with a new comparable item. You will gain credibility with your students, their parents, and the community when you enact change for the better. Keep in mind that there is a reason traditions have been established – the students and their families value participating in the curriculum that’s been established. Even if you do not agree with the pedagogical practices of your predecessors, always be sensitive in the way you present positive change.

Be the change you want to see. The first year is often the most challenging year for any teacher in any position. Anecdotally, I have heard that it takes three years of teaching in a new position before one feels comfortable. This can be for a variety of reasons, including simply embracing a new class of music students. If you are impatient, you may be tempted to lose your temper and accidentally establish poor rapport with your students. But there is a way to successfully establish positive change within your first year of teaching in a new position. You simply have to win your students over. When you report to work every day prepared to make music, when you have a cool and calm demeanor, and when you genuinely show that you are interested in learning about your students and their lives, they will have no choice but to want to make music with you. Over time you will successfully guide your students through various concert cycles. Spend a large amount of time planning the music you know your students will be challenged by and yet successful performing – and never give up on your students or especially upon yourself. As you are successful, remind your students where they have come from, and remind them how far you’ve traveled musically together.

Your philosophy of education will keep you going in the right direction. There will be many barriers throughout your first year in a new position, including obstacles from your teaching colleagues and reluctant students. It’s crucial that you stubbornly follow your heart and your head when you decide to keep or change your curriculum. You may surprise yourself and even decide to change a policy for the first time in your career if the change is acceptable for your overall musical goals. Do not be afraid to change along with your students. Change is like war. When you are introducing change to your students, every day may feel like a battle. A firm hold of your philosophy of education will remind you why you’ve chosen to include what you do. With your end goal of teaching students music in mind, you may win and lose battles, but you will win the war.

Aaron Kennell currently serves as director of bands at Chester W. Nimitz HS, of the Aldine Independent School District in Houston, Texas. His duties include directing the wind ensemble, marching band, and overseeing the concert band program. A graduate of Bowling Green State University (Ohio) with a major in instrumental music education, Kennell received his master’s degree in music and human learning from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to his appointment at Nimitz HS, Kennell held the position of assistant band director at Plummer Middle School, Aldine High School and associate band director for Canyon ISD in Amarillo, Texas. Aaron Kennell is an active adjudicator, clinician, and consultant for bands in Texas and Ohio. His professional organizations include the Texas Music Educators Association, Texas Bandmasters Association, the International Trombone Association, Kappa Kappa Psi, and Phi Kappa Phi.

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