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The First Two Years

Trey Reely | August 2015

    In going through some old files a few weeks ago I found a set of reflections that I wrote the summer after my first year of teaching. Typed on aging, yellowing hard stock paper with splotches of correcting fluid here and there, these reflections take me back to a time that seems like only yesterday. I originally wrote it for myself without any intention of sharing it, so I was not as careful grammatically as I might otherwise have been. In reviewing this writing for publication in this column, I have edited it a little for grammatical purposes. Also, I have added various annotations, notated in red. These are clarifications in some cases and further reflections in others.

Year One (1985-86)

    In looking back on the first year, I cannot help but have mixed emotions. The culmination of many years’ study is now being used in the occupation I selected way back in high school. Was it as I thought it would be? Did I have a successful year? What were some big surprises? These are questions that should be answered.
    The year started out on a positive note, with students responding well to my more positive and friendly rapport than they had known under their two former directors. (Actually, only one of them was what the students considered mean.) Despite this good start, there were students who doggedly made remarks like “we’ve never done anything like that” or “we wish [the previous teacher] was here.” Any disagreement or dissatisfaction would conjure up the utopia they had the year before – the time when they behaved perfectly and never got angry with their director. (Sarcasm.)
    Memories of how good they used to be were exaggerated. (I knew this because I had listened to recordings left by the previous directors.) Any success that this year’s band had was attributed by some to last year’s teacher, not knowing it doesn’t even take a month to ruin a band’s sound. When it got down to the nitty-gritty, the lack of work ethic began to re-emerge in the eighth grade group. Previous tapes and conversations with the former director showed me they were way behind musically. The seventh grade group, however, had a great attitude most of the year. (And they were far more talented than the eighth graders.)
    Problems began to emerge when several students knew they were not going to be in band the next year because of the reduction from an eight-period day to a seven-period day. These students would not give up athletics or their investment in Spanish. (If students completed two years of Spanish, they would receive a high school credit if they took one more year. It didn’t seem to matter to them that in high school they only had to take one year of Spanish to get the credit they desired, so they actually could just take it later. I made the mistake of sending out a letter explaining this point, but without first clearing it with the principal. The Spanish teacher understandably got a little upset and complained to the principal. My facts were all correct, but I should have consulted the principal on how to handle the situation.) This scheduling difficulty, combined with bad-mouthers, caused a general deterioration in attitude.
    Despite these problems, we managed to be successful musically, performing well on concerts and receiving excellent marks (IIs) on concert music and a superior (I) in sightreading at Region Concert Contest. I expected good scores at the contest and was pleased that my concept of the band sound and the level we were at was consistent with the view of experienced judges. (I brought in some experienced band directors to guest-conduct my band before the contest to get a realistic picture of where we were. Even though I expected IIs, I was hoping against hope that we would get Is and was disappointed that we didn’t, particularly since one judge was one I had done my student teaching under.)
    I feel bad that there were negative feelings about band on the part of many kids, but at the same time I temper those feelings by noting three points about the year: the common problem of transition, the positive attitudes of other students, and the beginner band.
    I cannot say that I fully understand why transition is such a difficult time, but I can verify that it is a problematic situation. Somehow, unexplainable in some ways to me, the introduction of a new director is hard for students to handle. They have to adjust to a new personality and ways of doing things. Many build up a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, waiting for me to make a mistake (not too long a wait, I’m afraid) so they can mercilessly pounce on me. I was prepared for such problems, but it hurt just the same. Richard Bishop (my colleague at the high school, also new) experienced the same things, so I was not alone nor irrational in attributing many of my problems to transition – a sickening term.
    Fortunately, there were many students who worked amazingly hard and made great progress. Many students not only thought band was good, but great. I really developed a close relationship with several students. This particularly positive association with students and parents gave me the encouragement I strongly needed.
    I suppose the only true measure of my success will be with my beginning band and future groups that are mine from day one. In general, attitudes in the beginning group were excellent, and they made great progress. Some parents who have seen beginning groups here for the last several years say this was the best yet. (This was probably true, but I have discovered since that parents are likely to think their kids are the best ever no matter the case.)

    The next several sections contain a list of the biggest surprises about teaching, some general observations about band, and some adjustments I wanted to make for next year.

Three Surprises
    Being a teacher is much tougher than being a student. I could not believe how worn out I was by the end of the school day. If I did not get to bed by about ten o’clock at night, I was dead the next day.
Maintaining classroom discipline is much more mentally taxing than I imagined.
    I was able to develop a solid band sound my first year. (This was one of my biggest worries when the school year started. I had never had to teach a whole beginning band from scratch, since I was a student teacher in the spring. Looking back, I wouldn’t really say my junior band that year had a solid sound.)

    Students quickly perceive (often mistakenly) any inequities between themselves and others in their relationship with the teacher.
    Girls’ athletics is such a big deal now that you cannot even count on their full dedication to the band program. (This was my biggest surprise. When I was in high school five years earlier, girls’ athletics was no big deal as it seemed that only tomboys were participating. Now girls of every ilk were wanting to specialize in sports, too.)
    My next move (job-wise) will be to a larger school where there are more kids to go around. (I actually stayed in Paragould School District for 23 years. It grew to the point that it was the size school I preferred. However, I eventually moved to Riverview, which is the same size as Paragould when I started. But that’s another story.)

    I would possibly adjust the rehearsal slightly so that all students participate as much as possible during rehearsal. Less personal attention, but more action. Sectionals outside of class may be necessary to offset the shift. (I still do this.)
    Be more open to suggestions and questions even though the odds are they are irrelevant or smart-aleck. (Hey, I couldn’t help but be a little cynical after the year I had had!)
    Maintain more distance and create a more obvious “fine-line” in student-teacher relationship. Quickly punish disrespect. (I had let some students joke around in a way that was disrespectful. I was a little insecure and didn’t want to make some of them mad since I had seemed to have so few supporters.)
    More activities like playing at more football games, even possibly at basketball games.
    Demand that the students watch more and do not verbally count off all the time.

Was this a successful year?
    Despite the struggles, it was definitely a good year. I’ve been told the first year is the toughest, and that most first-year teachers are ready to quit by Christmas. If things ease up next year, it should really be good.

Year Two (1986-87)

    I wrote this reflection the summer after the completion of my second year. Keep in mind that I am not bragging with the comments; they were originally intended just as something that I could read in future years.

    Several fellow band directors told me throughout my first year that the second year would be much better that the first. After my first year of experience, I was praying that this was no myth. Fortunately, they were correct. Although I had a good first year, it was not smooth enough that I could go on that way for another twenty years. This year I proved to myself that one could have a well-disciplined junior high band.
    I was slightly apprehensive about what would happen to my wonderful sixth grade beginners over the summer. I often heard about the frightful transformation that occurs in the short span of three months. (I actually had faculty members tell me how much the kids changed for the worse over the summer. Talk about lowering expectations!)
    Although second year players lose that lovable, wide-eyed look of a beginner, I found that their behavior was just as good as the year before. The eight graders who remained after the mass summer exodus (about 15 band members quit for some reason or another, varying from legitimate class conflicts to hating my guts) behaved remarkably well. As a result, rehearsals were pleasant and productive. (Having all of those kids quit was quite a blow to my ego. I didn’t always have the best band directors growing up, but quitting never seemed like an option because of my love for music.)
    The 7th and 8th grade bands combined throughout the year since the 8th grade band was small (20). I decided to keep the band busy so it would remain a top priority with the kids. I found last year that band would take a real backseat to other activities when we weren’t busy. We played at seven football games (with two or three rained out), including an away game at Piggott. Our last game was at a high school game where we planned a mass band extravaganza. Unfortunately, we were rained out.
    Seventeen of our students made the All-Region Band. That was the fourth largest total from any of the 21 schools in our region. Solo and ensemble performances also went very well, with 94 of the 120 entries receiving medals. The kids were ecstatic at their success.
    Region Concert Contest was a great success. The kids did everything I asked of them, and I thought that if we didn’t get top scores (I), then I certainly did not know what I was doing! We did make straight Is on our prepared numbers and a II in sightreading. This band sightreads very well, but I just botched the song badly, having gotten the pages of my music mixed up after looking over the piece. (The score was not stapled on the binding. You can bet I checked that every year thereafter. However, I never encountered a score like that in the sightreading room ever again.) The Is were very strong and boosted my confidence. I found that I could develop a good band sound and that what I thought was a fine sound was confirmed by the judges. (My concept of a good band sound had grown from the previous year, and my assessment was much more accurate at this point. We played “Command March” by John Edmondson, “Denbridge Way” by James Swearingen, and “Adventures” by Jared Spears.)
    My first real experience recruiting was successful. (I say real recruiting because I did not have beginners the previous year because of our switch from middle school (grades 6-8) to junior high (grades 7-9).) Forty-two students signed up for band. I wanted better numbers, but there were not that many good students available. Only 4 or 5 A-B students did not sign up. (I also based that opinion on music aptitude test scores. However, in looking back on this I realize that I could have used improved recruiting techniques to draw in even more. I was simply doing what was done during my student teaching.)
    The year was capped off with two final concerts – one at the high school for the parents and one at the junior high school for the students. The principal and vice-principal both said that this was the best band they had heard in all their years at PJHS. (About ten years. Administrators are not always the best judges of bands, but if that’s what they think, it is certainly a plus. One of the songs we played on the school concert was Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling.”)

    In some ways I now wish that I had written a reflection every year of my career, but at the time I felt that the first two years and the contrasts that they presented were the most critical. Also, after the success of the second year I really felt like I was right where I belonged.