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You Win/They Win How to Manage Music Classes

Trey Reely | April May 2022

    When reflecting on classroom management issues during my career, several instances immediately come to mind. First, the bizarre and inexplicable. Early in my career, I was teaching a seventh-grade fine arts class and turned to write some erudite comment on the board about Beethoven sure to fascinate my musical scholars. When I turned back around, I found one of my smaller students, a clean-cut little soul, sitting perfectly still with a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth down to the side of his chin. I asked him what happened, and he meekly said, “Damien hit me.” I looked at Damien, also a quiet kid but with a decidedly rougher look, not unlike a member of the iconic 80s rock band Guns N’ Roses. He was calmly sitting next to his victim as if nothing had happened at all.

    “Did you hit him?” I asked.
    “Yes,” he said, nodding slightly.
    He just shrugged.
    “Well, you need to go to the principal’s office then,” I said. Without any fuss, he got up and went. I didn’t have problems with him after that, even though I worked hard to keep him out of arm’s reach of other students since he had such a good right cross.
    The other instances that come to mind, though less bizarre, all happened when I was new to a school and position. These situations defied everything I ever learned about class management. Kids I inherited were so difficult to deal with because I was basically a step-band director replacing the one they didn’t want to leave. I had an eighth-grade band my first year that talked so much that I was shushing between every other word without realizing it. It was only after I heard the flutes counting that I realized they were counting every time I went shush. I was teaching across the curriculum without knowing it.
    Matters improved once the kids bought into what I was doing or quit, and I would have great discipline for years. When I took a new position, the process repeated itself. Sadly, I don’t have foolproof advice on transitions since my success was mixed. If your class discipline is great in this situation, consider yourself highly skilled and fortunate. If not, be patient until all the kids are yours.
    With that said, I can offer tips that will benefit you sooner or later if you remain consistent no matter how much resistance you receive. Long gone are the days when students were respectful and well-behaved just because you are an adult; you must earn it. Here are some suggestions that will help make your early years of teaching more enjoyable and successful.
    You must be determined and resolute. You must believe that you have worked too long and hard to let disruptive students win. Decide that you simply will not let anyone ruin the career you have spent so much of your life preparing for. Think: “Others have done it. I can do it. I will not back down.” As for students, if they aren’t behaving, it’s because they won’t, not because they can’t.
    Have a plan. Determination is good but worthless without a plan. Do your homework on discipline and have high expectations. There are two books I believe every teacher should read to help formulate their plan. At the risk of sounding callous and cranky, if you are not willing to read at least two books on discipline, you deserve what you get. There are others, but my two favorites are the classic Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter and Classroom Management in the Music Room by David Newell.
    Keep your plan simple. Here is one that has worked well for me over the years. I give one warning per student; a warning occurs when I say their name and declare “this is your warning.” Be very diligent about this. With the warning, you are being more than fair; you are putting them on notice, a courtesy you don’t have to give. The second time I warn a student, the student puts up their instrument and sits away from the rest of the class but within view. (If you have an office, that will work as well.) The next time they pass one warning in class, whether a week or a month later, I call the parents. The third time they pass one warning, I send them to the principal. This rarely happens if you have called the parents. As for principals, keep in mind that they really like a teacher who takes care of their own business and doesn’t bring them petty matters. However, don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. The goal is that things get so good later that you rarely use the plan but still have it in place if needed.
    Clear your plan with the principal to make sure it aligns with school policy. It is quite embarrassing to be overruled by an administrator on a disciplinary issue. Once you have approval, communicate the plan to the parents.
    Make sure all the band staff is on board as well. If you work with other directors, make sure you all follow the same procedures. Students and parents can play you against one another if you don’t; they will be sure to find inconsistencies if they can.
    Implement your plan early and often. As Barney Fife from the classic Andy Griffith Show would say, “nip it in the bud.” When a student is disruptive, turn your body to look them directly in the eye and apply your corrective action. If you make an early example of one student, the others will catch on that you mean business. If they see that you let things slide, they will adjust accordingly.
    Have high expectations. Students certainly have many problems that can make behavior difficult for them. The best thing for them is a teacher who believes it is in every child’s best interest if they learn to behave. Don’t have two standards of behavior – one for students perceived to be normal and compliant and a lower one for problem students. Your approach to some students may vary, but the expectations should be the same.
    Clearly communicate your expectations on the first day of school. Remind students of these expectations every day until you know they fully understand and follow them. Students should not find out expectations as they go. Be precise about what you want. Five simple expectations have worked for me over the years.
    I expect them to be punctual, and I define what on-time means. It can vary from year to year depending on logistics, but on time for me generally means that two minutes after the bell, their instrument is out, and they are warming up and practicing music they are responsible for that day in class. (Seven Nation Army and Careless Whisper do not fit in this category.)
    When I step up on the podium, they are to get quiet immediately. I tell them that I only step up on the podium when I am ready to begin and that there is absolutely no reason that I should have to ask them to be quiet and pay attention. I also explain that I will not talk over anyone. We practice this repeatedly if they are not doing it. I expect 100% compliance. Second, I will not recognize anyone who speaks unless they raise their hand, and I call on them. Third, we do not play a note unless every last one of them starts together. This requires me to get my head out of the score, scan the room, and give the downbeat.
    Explain the reasoning behind your rules. I tell students that we do this so that we can achieve musical excellence and that there is no way to achieve this without discipline. Reasoning with students will work much more than you realize. The only true way that they will fully buy in is if they understand that goofing off keeps the group from reaching its goals. If they only behave because of threats and the fear of getting in trouble, you will never reach the highest level of success. Over time, more mature leaders will straighten out the slackers because they want the group to be the best ever.
    Be ultra-prepared for class. I thought great preparation would be a cure-all in my first year of teaching. It wasn’t. However, I can’t imagine how my rehearsals would have been had I not had a strong rehearsal plan in place so I could move quickly from one task to another without hemming and hawing, giving them time to fill in the gaps with their own disruptions. You are not doing yourself any favors if you can’t keep the class moving and the students engaged.
    Build trusting relationships. Maybe you have heard the phrase: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Some of your best tools to establish good discipline are things you do away from rehearsal. Show an interest in students as individuals, encourage them, compliment them, call their parents with positive news, tell them that you missed them after an absence, and send positive notes home. The more that students believe that you have their best interests at heart, the better they will behave.
    Use assertive phraseology. Some-times in an effort to sound reasonable, teachers can come across as unnecessarily soft. “Will you please pay attention?” puts the choice to behave in the classes’ corner. Do not say please when asking students to do something. A confident, specific, declarative statement is what is in order: “When I step on the podium, I expect you to stop talking or playing your instrument so I can begin the warm-up. If you cannot do that, we will do it repeatedly until you do.” Do not put things in the form of a question, as in “Can we all start together?” You are unconsciously turning over the classroom to them.
    Involve parents sooner than later. Don’t fear parents. Despite what you may have heard, most want their child to act the right way.      Always approach the parents from the viewpoint of concern. Start by telling them something positive about their kid, and how you want this situation to work because you really care about their child and want them in band. Most will respond well to that. However, if you are at a breaking point with a student, be clear to the parents just how serious you are about the connection between their child’s behavior and continued participation in band. They might not realize you are ready to drop the student from the program the next time their child gives you problems. Something this drastic should not be a surprise. You should also document the problems and corrective actions you have taken with a particularly troubled student.
    The more stressful a situation becomes, the more calm you must project. During my first year of teaching, students would tell stories about how upset the previous directors would get at times. One grabbed a girl’s arm (leading to his dismissal), and the other was so upset one day that he went into his office and shut the door during class. The students took such delight at causing this level of angst that I vowed I would stay calm no matter what. To this day, I remember my junior high choral teacher angrily kicking a music stand off the podium and almost hitting me with it. (I wasn’t the object of her wrath; she just wasn’t skilled at directional kicking.)
    Finally, be patient with yourself. Many fine directors have taken a while to get their classroom management skills to a high level.  Be persistent and you will surely experience one of the greatest feelings in the world – standing up in front of young people and performing music together in an engaging and respectful environment.     

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5 Non-Negotiables
for Beginning Band

    In my experience, beginners are the quietest they will ever be on the first day of school. Take advantage of this by laying out your plan and sticking to it as they loosen up over the ensuing days. Keep your rules simple and few. Consider posting them. I suggest the following:

1.    Be punctual. On-time means sitting in your seat and warming up on your instrument.

2.    When I step on the podium, you get quiet immediately. I will not ask you to be quiet.

3.    You must raise your hand and be recognized before speaking.

4.    You will always sit with proper posture and correct horn position. This will show me you are alert and ready to go.

5.    Every first note must be played by everyone in the class. If even one person enters late, we try it again.

    Constantly remind them that they do this because the band is striving for musical excellence!