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My Music Teacher Is My Superhero

Elizabeth B. Peterson | August 2016

    I contacted several directors who are in the first two years of their teaching careers to learn more about their early successes and obstacles. In some cases, these teachers were giving daily instruction in unfamiliar subjects or under difficult conditions. These students freely shared their experiences in several areas:

    •    The topics they felt most prepared for by their undergraduate training.
    •    Those subjects they wished they had worked on and studied more in school.
    •    Two professional development clinics that they needed most.
    •    Balance of personal and professional life.

    The first-year teachers were asked about their greatest source of distress. The second-year teachers were asked what they had learned with a year under their belts and what areas remain difficult. Because perspectives can change over the course of a year, I contacted the directors again in March to see how they had learned and adapted.

Name Withheld
First-year teacher

    I teach middle school band in a small college town near the Baseball Hall of Fame. I have a 6th grade band of 43 students, a 7th and 8th grade band of 69 students, and a 6th grade general music class of 14 students. I also teach most of the middle school lesson groups. (The high school band director takes six of my lesson groups because there is not enough time for me to teach them all.) My predecessor had different requirements for grading and classroom management, so it has been hard to get students to understand and follow my expectations. The students were used to playing a lot of pop music in band. Things were just different.

Best Prepared
    I felt my undergraduate studies prepared me to play other instruments confidently, engage students, undertake basic classroom management, and have good rehearsal techniques.

Less Prepared
    I wish I had more experience for teaching general music. I teach a 6th grade general music class for kids who did not want to be in or were kicked out of band or choir. It is difficult finding ways to engage them and keep them focused. I basically have all of the troublemakers from the 6th grade in one class. I loved the Music Education for Children class I took during my undergraduate experience, but I could use more help here.
    I also would like to have learned more about jazz band. I played in high school jazz bands but never learned how to lead one. I really don’t know what to do with a middle school jazz band. I know nowhere near as much as I should about percussion and strings. We also never learned about Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) in college, and when you get a job, they assume you already understand it all.

Professional Development Workshops I Need
    1. How to get students and parents to accept a new teacher. Most kids have been pretty good about it, but some of the older students still use the excuse that the previous teacher did things differently last year. Some students and parents resist change, so I try to change a little at a time. I expect structured rehearsals and am strict about grading and lesson policies.

    2. Middle school general music. It is a difficult group, and I plan one day at a time because I never know if students will pay attention long enough to meet my objectives. They have gotten much better, and I am really impressed at all they have learned. However, all it takes is for one student to become disruptive, and they take most of the class with them. I like exploring this area that is new to me, but I wish I had tried and tested ideas for the class.

Finding Balance
    My balance of professional and personal life is not all that bad. At the beginning of the year, I stayed at school until 7 or 8 every night and was going insane. Since things have slowed down, it has not been too bad. I still need to plan a bit every night and plan for the week on Sunday night. I play in a community wind ensemble that rehearses at my school once a week and that has been a lot of fun. I have also reached out to younger teachers in the district and have met up with a few of them for coffee or dinner. Besides occasionally working late on Sunday night, I try to keep weekends free of work and get together with college friends. I am pretty involved at church and am teaching the kids at church songs to sing at our priest’s upcoming retirement party. I keep in touch with my family via FaceTime at least once a week, which always gets my mind off of school. Overall, I really have not been too stressed. I am starting worry about loans because I enter repayment next month. A private college costs a fortune, and the amount of my loan payments is insane.

Greatest Distress
    Parents are the biggest problem. The emails and calls have calmed down, but some parents think their children can do no wrong. Some of these students act entitled and disrespectful, and parents feel that nothing can ever be their fault. A few parents expect me to do whatever they say for their child; some of these things go against class policies and are unfair to other students.
    One parent at an open house demanded that I put her 7th grade child in the high school band because this student is “so advanced and was in the 7th/8th grade band last year.” The parent was pushy and did not like that I disagreed with her. I explained why I was unwilling to put the student in the high school group, and my reason was based on sound pedagogy. In the past, many students had been moved up to a different band, often because their parents wanted them to be moved.  While I love giving successful students a challenge, some expect to be placed in a group based on age or based on what happened in the past. I am new and have a different way of doing things.
    Some parents gave me a hard time about the lesson schedule because previous teachers gave lessons only during study halls and therefore taught heterogeneous instrumentation groupings. I have changed this by rotating students out of classes for homogeneous lesson groupings. Countless parents emailed me to suggest changes to the lesson schedule and request private lessons. Perhaps because I am young and new, they think they can challenge my authority.

Reflections in March
    Things have changed so much since the beginning of the year. There came a point when I suddenly felt like I knew what I was doing. Something just clicked one day with my students, and I saw a tremendous amount of growth. I have experimented with lesson schedules and materials and have found systems that work for my students. My students were weak in several areas at the beginning of the year, but I have seen incredible growth in their knowledge, techniques, and musicality. It also seemed like students and parents understand and support my policies and procedures now.
    The other teachers and my principal are all incredible. Teachers are supportive about lessons and come and apologize if a student accidentally misses a lesson. My principal, the high school band director (my mentor), and the choir director have stood by me on problems with parents and guardians. I have becomes friends with other teachers in the school. It is great to work somewhere that people genuinely care about me. I have started socializing with another first-year teacher, and we meet weekly to talk about school and anything else that may have come up. It is nice to bounce ideas off of each other and know that we struggle with the same things. I continue to spend weekends with college friends. Even if I am having a horrible week, I know I will be able to leave it all behind and have a relaxing weekend where I don’t have to worry about school.
    Loan payments have not been as stressful as I feared, but I worry about how to pay for graduate school. I am really looking forward to going back to school and getting inspired again, but not to adding to my tremendous amount of debt. I am so happy with my chosen path. I love my job and my school, and I cannot wait for next year.

Name Withheld
First-year teacher

    My school is a Pre K-8th grade public school in Brooklyn. I teach 6th-8th grade general music with an additional assumed role as the instrumental music teacher. I am starting a selective after-school band program next week. Previously, middle school students at my school did not have any lessons, so many children have not had music instruction in over four years. In my general music classes, I am teaching bucket drumming and guitars.

Best Prepared
    I felt that I was prepared for lesson planning and self-evaluation and for teaching secondary instruments, especially band instruments. I am also comfortable with conducting and band rehearsal techniques and engaging students during lessons.

Less Prepared
    I definitely learned about general music from my student teaching with elementary-aged children, but it would have helped to teach general music to a classroom instead of small group instrumental lessons. I struggle to keep the musical knowledge relevant to my middle schoolers, and I think that with more hands-on experience in general music, I would have a better tool belt of interesting and fun activities.
    I wish I knew more about teaching students with special needs/IEPs. I teach a special needs class of ten students, all from different grades. Making sure I am engaging each student and finding ways to accommodate their emotional and social needs is a heavy weight to hold. In my other 12 classes, I have some groups that are over-saturated with students with IEPs, and I wish I had more teaching strategies for the wide range of learners.
    I also wish I knew more piano. My piano chops are hilariously awful.

Finding Balance

    I have not found a balance yet, and it is driving me absolutely insane. I travel a total of 21/2 hours each day on the train, and I try to work and unwind during this time but end up zoning out and sitting with my head in my hands. My sleep schedule is completely out of whack because I have to wake up so early. I have no time or energy to do things I enjoy outside of teaching. To be fair, I don’t drink caffeine because it makes me sick after a while. The after-school work overwhelms my free time because I spend most of it contacting parents about behavior, grading, and figuring out my next step. I try to finish all of it before I go back to Harlem, but it is difficult to crank out lesson plans with students constantly rolling into the auditorium (my classroom) to ask me questions about music and life.
    Outside of school, I play in Grand Street Community Band. This allows me to hang out and play with music teachers and friends to decompress. My struggle is validated by people who have earned their stripes in the New York City Department of Education. My weekends are spent exploring neighborhood hangouts and parks and going to parties. Occasionally, I take visiting family or friends on sightseeing tours of NYC because I love the cliché walk-abouts in Times Square, the High Line, and other tourist traps.

Greatest Distress
    I never thought I would be this confused about what is going on in my school, especially in October. We frequently learn about school-wide events and assemblies on the day of the event. There should be an orientation to answer questions that a new teacher might not think to ask about union matters, paper for copiers, and detention and disciplinary action rules. I find out about something new every day. It drives me insane because it keeps my fresh music program from rolling. We are expected to know all this stuff, but we do not even know what questions to ask. 
   Despite the challenges in a large city school district, I love my school, my kids, and my coworkers. I feel supported by my principal and mentor teacher, who have started taking ukulele lessons outside of school and want me to teach them more songs, so we can collaborate with the kids. There is a lot of talent and potential in my students, and I feel blessed every day to wake up before the birds to be with them.

Reflections in March
    Rereading my earlier comments really brings me back to how frantic and idealistic I was in October.
    Back then, I felt unprepared and stressed about classroom management. My undergraduate program did a splendid job of presenting its music education students with real-life classroom scenarios that we might have to solve. In an ideal world, that would be enough for us to hop into any classroom situation with ease, and in October, I thought that I would easily adjust and manage my auditorium classroom. I discovered that I was being inconsistent with rules, and some kids learned that they could get away with certain things because I failed to address it properly when the behavior first started. Now with just over 100 days of school under my belt, I recognize how crucial it is to learn by doing instead of just thinking.
   I found that talking with coworkers, especially teachers who have been in the school for many years, provides me with a support system and a wealth of ideas catered to our specific students. Once I tried what my coworkers and mentor recommended to address disruptive behavior, I was able to implement consistent, fair consequences and provide better experiences to the students who have shown that they are prepared both musically and behaviorally.
    I now have all the class activities on the stage to keep the students contained and to minimize the potential for students to be disruptive. My mentor suggested it at the beginning of the year, but I feared that the time needed for all of the students to line up to go on stage would cause chaos. After maintaining a consistent routine for a month, students became used to it, and I could hold class with fewer distractions.
    I still struggle with the students who are disrespectful to my equipment and to me, but unlike in October when I felt crushed by these middle schoolers, I am more prepared for both the expected and unexpected because I have more tricks and tools purely through experience. As a first-year teacher, it is most important to keep your mind present and open to learning as much as you can every day. Do not be afraid to ask for help.

Erika St. Denis
Second-year teacher in Ithaca/Groton, New York

    I did per diem substitute teaching in one county for half a year and was a long-term substitute for a school band and general music program at the end of the year. I am now in my second year of teaching and am a full-time elementary band teacher (grades 4 and 5) in two different districts. I am em-ployed by the county, which al-lows me to work in multiple districts.

Best Prepared
    I felt most ready to teach band pedagogy, secondary instruments, and conducting. I also undertook music library maintenance and digitized the school library and am trying to inventory the elementary school libraries. We have eight elementary schools in our district, but no list of what we have scattered across buildings.

Less Prepared
    I wish I knew more about string instruments. If I laid even a finger on a string instrument right now, I would probably break it. At least a semester on strings is necessary, if not more. It is a joke that my degree says I am just as qualified to teach orchestra as a string player. My keyboard skills were poor when I started in college and still feel terrible. As painful as I found keyboard class, double the time would have been helpful.
   I wish I had taken more time to study instrument repair. I have not gone a whole day yet without a clarinet exploding. Administrative tasks are another area that more preparation would be helpful. I teach in three schools in two districts. Last year all the paperwork and administrative work was overwhelming, and it severely limited teaching and lesson planning. This year for me, teaching comes first.
    Funding is another difficult area. This could include grant-writing and reaching out to the community. I have a really good problem at one of my schools this year: we have almost 50 students in elementary band, up from around 35 last year, but not enough instruments. Luckily my middle school and high school colleagues are there to help acquire instruments, but it makes me worry that some students won’t have access to music because of instrument shortages.

Professional Development Workshops I Need
    1. Kodaly training. I have used solfege and Curwen hand signs with my students this year, and it is having a great impact on their playing. Even my second-year students are taking to it well. I would love a workshop on incorporating Kodaly into the band room.

    2. Curriculum development. I want to learn how to create one that focuses on the classroom (micro) and also aligns horizontally and vertically (macro) in the district.

Finding Balance
    It is better this year. Weekends are mine. I work like crazy Monday through Friday but do what I want on the weekends. I also try to keep work at work and not clutter my apartment with school stuff. I have requested a separate laptop from my schools to keep my school work on instead of using my personal laptop, and I have taken my work email off my phone.

Wisdom in the Second Year
    Last year, I truly, deeply despised my job. At the end of last year, I swore you would have to bring me back kicking and screaming this fall. I have never in a million years though of myself as an elementary school teacher. I would have gladly taught middle or high school but never elementary school. However, I already love it so much more this year. I love being the first band teacher they have and getting to start them on their instruments. It is such an important and often forgotten step in a band student’s education.
    I hate the politics. Our profession is ridiculously politicized. The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein is a great new book that talks about the history of the profession, and how we reached the point where we are today.
    My relationships with colleagues are okay, but I spend most of my time in my classroom. Teachers hate that I pull their kids out of class, so I feel like the bad guy all day long, although most of them are supportive. I realize now that it takes time to make a program yours. It feels more like my program, and I am starting to create a culture that makes me feel good. I wanted to go in and be the most amazing teacher ever all in one year. I wanted enrollment to soar and have a 100% retention rate. I wanted epic concerts. None of that happened last year. I realize now you have to plan the big picture if you want to see change. I already have so many ideas for next year.

Reflections in March
    I have had trouble standing up for my program over the past two years. I have been told my music lessons are “too loud for lunch” (my band lessons are on a stage shared with the cafeteria and are too loud for students eating lunch on the other side of a curtain), and other teachers have no problem asking me to “just not have rehearsal or lessons today because we have too much going on in class.” At times I became convinced that what I was doing was not important. I thought this doubt was because I was new to the profession, and maybe my more experienced colleagues received more respect. However, I don’t think that is the case. Teaching on a noisy stage does not seem so bad when I remember that I know teachers who give lessons in closets, in school hallways, and my personal favorite, in the staff lounge. I am reaching the point where the barriers just do not faze me anymore. This is for the kids, and I will go to bat to ensure them the best education possible.
    A fourth grade teacher stopped me in the hall the other day. I thought I was probably in trouble for some schedule error I had inevitably made. Instead he said, “We’re doing a project where we take someone who is meaningful in our lives, transform them into a superhero, and write a story about them. You know Emily, your French horn player? You are her superhero!”