The Best Part of the Day

Elizabeth B. Peterson | August 2016

    Every year in May, college professors say goodbye to that year’s graduating class of music education majors, who for the past four years have spent countless hours learning how to teach and make music at a high level. They have completed mandatory hours of field work and student teaching, taken music history, theory, and aural skills courses, performed in ensembles, and studied secondary instruments in methods and pedagogy courses. Their musicianship skills have been challenged, honed, and developed in their applied lessons. Other upper-level courses included conducting, rehearsal techniques, and teaching pedagogy. They have had important conversations about standards, curriculum, repertoire, philosophy, and the purpose and history of music education. Yet after all of this, are these students ready to enter the teaching profession?
    While the members of each university’s music education department make critical and thoughtful decisions about what to teach during an undergraduate’s tenure, most faculty would agree that there are some aspects of teaching music (or any subject) that have to be learned on the job. In an effort to learn more about the first year music teaching experience, I contacted six first- or second-year teachers and asked them several questions about their current positions. They were all graduates of the same institution and felt comfortable sharing their responses with me and with each other.
    I emailed them in mid-October when they had only been teaching for about a month. Two of the teachers were teaching in small college towns, two were in rural upstate New York, and two were in New York City. While their geographic locations and school demographics were slightly different, they shared similar challenges.
    Reading their stories and descriptions about what brings them joy and what plagues them, I was reminded that the first year of teaching is more than just the start of a new profession. There are personal struggles as well. Bills have to be paid. Commutes may be long. Friends and family may live far away, or family may live too close.
    I learned from their experiences that the first year can be a mixture of happiness and sadness, elation and loneliness. When students graduate and leave the secure walls of their music schools, where everyone loves music, they can feel quite shocked and alone. They also expressed their excitement and passion to share their love of music with children.
    They repeated some of the same things other young teachers have said about aspects of the undergraduate curriculum that could be stronger or emphasized more. They wanted more experience with piano, general music for the band major, string instrument practice, and teaching methods for children with special needs. Their advice to new teachers or college music majors included, “Practice piano and take secondary instrument classes seriously. Although most colleges have tracks for band, choir, general, and orchestral teaching, most states offer K-12 music certification. You never know what exactly you will be teaching, so try to be as well versed as you can be, while still perfecting your musicianship.”
    Workshops and professional development specific to teaching music as a new teacher are highly desirable. Young teachers feel incredibly well supported during their undergraduate years. Indeed, by commencement, it is time to move them out the door. However, they often feel completely isolated and unsupported once they leave college. Social media provides one resource, but many feel that the questions and answers shared on Facebook pages are not serious enough or pertinent to their situation. Recent college graduates are eager to reconnect with each other, but new teachers may be so overwhelmed, exhausted and isolated they just do not reach out to each other as much as they should even through the relatively easy method of social media.
    Recently, I heard that employees at Facebook ask job applicants the following question: On your very best day at work – the day you come home and think you have the best job in the world – what did you do that day? My hope for all new music teachers is that they can come home and say that their favorite part of the day was making music with children and knowing that many, perhaps most of the children, were excited to make music too.
    I recently saw a Facebook post by one of these teachers who shared what one of her elementary school band students wrote on their review of her program. The question was, “What would you improve about the band program if you could?” The answer was, “To have one-on-one lessons for everyone!” The next question was, “What was the best part about the band program?” The answer was, “Getting from horrible to good.” That comment has to make some of those first-year teacher challenges worth it.