Top Seven Tips for First Year Teachers

Mike Lawson • • August 2, 2019

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This time of year, we have loads of fresh music teachers coming into their new classrooms for the first time. Most are well aware of the challenges, and many have taken extra steps to seek out mentorship and advice through a variety of outlets.

One of the most popular forums for first-year teacher advice is Facebook groups. These groups can be extremely helpful for resourceful music educators, but it can often become challenging to find the answers you’re looking for, with the understanding that your questions may or may not even be shown to the right people, those most willing and able to help.

That’s why for this column I’ve pulled the top queries from first-year teachers, gleaned and curated for you from recent group posts. I’ve filtered out the more specific requests- like décor and repertoire ideas- and tried to focus on general advice. I’ve added a dab of my own thoughts and here you are, a recipe for first year teacher success. Let’s dive in.

1. Know what’s expected of you.

Whether it’s the contract hours you have to work, the number of performances you have to stage, the quantity of meetings you’re required to attend, or the amount of budget you have to spend, and how to spend it, make sure it’s clear cut from your administrator. This will save you many future faux pas this first year.

2. Develop relationships.

You’ve probably already embraced the advice that you should make friends with the custodians and secretaries, and that’s true. But don’t neglect the importance of getting to know the teachers and staff, too. Veteran teachers in your school can be a great resource for learning the important traditions you need to maintain, and the staff can be so helpful on a variety of occasions- whether it’s a kid passed out in your class, or a lunch that has to happen a little early on festival day. Get to know the other music teachers in the area, too, even if you’re just email contacts and Facebook friends.

3. Keep it simple.

Look, you’re going to want to do everything. You’re going to want to be the best, do your best, help everyone, and do it all. But don’t. Commit to only what is required. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can add more commitments in future years. Know that it’s okay to say no. It’s okay to not have every resource under the sun. Use what you have, do what you can, and let the rest go. You’ve got this.

4. Master classroom management.

Few things will destroy your will to keep coming back to your classroom every day faster than having poor classroom management. Create a plan and stick to it. Establish clear rules and practical consequences. Don’t commit to rules you can’t enforce or consequences that you can’t administer yourself. Make it logical, with the purpose of establishing that in your classroom everyone should be safe and free to learn. There are hundreds of classroom management resources out there, including several episodes of the Music Ed Mentor podcast. You can find them at, just search for “Classroom Management.”

5. Take care of yourself.

You can’t do anything if you’re sick or feel like your life is hijacked. Take care of your physical, mental, emotional, and familial wellness. Protect your immune system. Keep up with your hobbies and things that get you excited outside of work. Spend time with your family. Don’t take work home, and while at work, do what you can to nourish yourself by surrounding yourself with your favorite things. Get rest. Reenergize. Reap the awesome rewards.

6. Play the long game.

You’re going to have rough days. Maybe some awful days. If this job was easy and paid millions of dollars everyone would be doing it. It’s a challenging field. But each subsequent year will get easier. By year three you’ll start to feel like you finally are getting the hang of it. By year five you’ll feel like you can do this forever. It’s going to take endurance, and most of all adaptability.

7. Remind yourself why you’re here.

Most of all, keep reminding yourself why you’re in this gig. You became a music educator for a reason. Keep that reason ready for when you get to celebrate, or when you have a rough day. Create a folder where you can save all the awesome emails from grateful parents, and photos of your student’s thank you and love notes, so you can turn to it whenever you need a little pick-me-up. Now go have a stellar first year of teaching. You got this.

Elisa Janson Jones specializes in helping music educators build, manage, and grow thriving school music programs. With an MBA alongside her degree in music, she is also a coach and consultant to small businesses and nonprofits around the country and serves as the conductor of her local community band. She’s also an experienced K-8 and private teacher. Elisa is a frequent conference presenter, podcast guest, and contributor to music education magazines. She is the founder of the International Music Education Summit and the author of The Music Educator’s Guide to Thrive.

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