The Instrumentalist

Articles March 2020

Getting a Teaching Job



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“Ask every teacher you meet to name three pieces for band that they recommend highly.”

 
    Entering the job market can be intimidating, but two strategies that can result in great success are strong preparation and a firm vision about what direction you would take the program if hired.



Preparation
    Preparation is critical for determining whether the district is a good fit for you, as well as for the interview itself. Consider the type of school system you prefer (urban, suburban, or rural) and the type of program in which you want to work: well-established, high powered, or smaller with growth potential.
    These considerations are particularly important for those just entering the job market. The match between your aspirations and the first school systems in which you work may very well determine whether you survive in the profession. Your first job needn’t necessarily be your dream job, but it should be something that will get you on the route to what you want to be doing 20 years from now.
    Do a brutally honest self-assessment of skills, weaknesses, and which subjects and areas you especially do and do not want to teach. If you dislike marching band, perhaps applying for high school jobs is a poor decision. If you have always aspired to be a Bands of America Grand Nationals director, chances are that applying for an elementary school general music position isn’t going to do it for you.
    At one point I was a cooperating teacher for a music education student who played great classical clarinet but had no interest in jazz. Despite my strong recommendations, she never attended a jazz rehearsal at our school while she was student teaching. After several years of teaching elementary school, she got her first high school band job – at a school best known for its jazz program. She was hopelessly in over her head, and didn’t make it past her probationary period. You do not want to fall into that trap.
    Once you have set your parameters and decided on the type of job you want to apply for, research individual schools. For students out of music school, your contacts – university faculty and your cooperating teacher – can be useful in steering you toward or away from situations. Here is where your student teaching experience (and insisting that your school places you in a good venue) is important. The most important thing you have going into your first interviews is the recommendation of your cooperating teacher.
    My college’s music education coordinator strongly recommended several less-than-stellar schools that were convenient for the university’s student teacher supervisors. I found a venue that wasn’t convenient for the supervisors but was well respected. The first call my prospective employer made was to my cooperating teacher. I got the job.
    Once you apply, carefully research each position. Beyond asking questions from those who know the situation, examine the school’s website and, in particular, the band website. This often will give you concert schedules, listings of ensembles, an idea of how active and successful groups are in adjudicated venues, and a general sense of the health of and support for the program.
    Before you enter an interview, try to determine why the previous person left. This will give you a valuable perspective. It is also helpful to determine what the recent history of the program is. If they have had five band directors in the last six years, there is a problem. If the last band director was there 25 years, that is a more stable opportunity but also a pitfall in trying to replace a legend. It might have great potential but be incredibly difficult for the first few years. Try to go in with eyes open.
    If you cannot determine the recent history before your interview, do not be afraid to ask – and then carefully observe your interviewer’s reaction. If there has been frequent turnover, they might squirm a bit, or you might discover a principal ready to throw full support behind the right candidate. No principal wants to be on a band director search every other year. Band parents are often active and vocal, so it is in the principal’s best interest to get it right. Also, be on the lookout for signs a principal isn’t firmly convinced of the value of music education. Be non-confrontational, but ask the difficult questions.


Vision
    Often job candidates fail because they do not voice a strong vision. You cannot be afraid to sell yourself. After all, if you cannot inspire an interview committee they might conclude you will not be able to inspire the band. There is a fine line between a confident presence and being overpowering. To portray a confident presence, you must have a plan. This is where your research comes in.
    When I was interviewing for what became my dream job, I was asked “What’s your vision for this band program?” “Glad you asked,” I replied, handing out copies of my proposed first year programs for every concert and festival of every ensemble. Years later, one of the committee members told me, “The moment you did that, the job was yours.”
    Part of preparation is having the best possible background in literature. For those just out of school, do your homework before your first interview. A softball question on literature for a veteran teacher can be vexing for someone new to the profession. Ask every teacher you meet to name three pieces for band that they recommend highly. Collect and study every concert program you can find. Think of how one of your programs for these groups would look. Examine a year’s programs for a major symphony orchestra or college ensemble and see if you can follow the music director’s thought process.
    At one point I was on an interview committee for a middle school position. One of the candidates dazzled the committee. It looked like she had the job until the committee started to ask her about literature. To the query about three great pieces for middle school band, she gave three Gershwin pieces for which there were no middle school arrangements. To the question about who has written great marches suitable for middle school band, she made up names. The non-musicians on the panel thought she sounded great, but she knew next to nothing about music curriculum. She was a great salesperson who would have been making it up on the job as she went along.
    In the same interview cycle, another teacher was asked to name three great pieces for middle school jazz ensemble. He responded with three Stan Kenton Grade 5 charts. Putting either of those two teachers in front of those groups would have been a disaster. The person who won the job answered both questions with literature perfectly suited for the bands,and was a great success.
    If you prepare the right way, interviews are not a harrowing process. These are an opportunity to have an enjoyable give and take with kindred educational spirits. When you find this, you have found a home.

 

Tom Lizotte

Tom Lizotte


    Tom Lizotte recently retired after 31 years in public education, the last 17 as director of bands at Cape Elizabeth (Maine) High School. He is a member of the Maine Music Educators Association Hall of Fame and recent recipient of the John LaPorta jazz educator of the year award by the Jazz Education Network and Berklee College of Music, Boston.

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