Close this search box.

Learning to Thrive In a Small Town

Elise Naber Allen | December 2020 January 2021


    Teaching in a smaller town can be a particularly rewarding experience. However, if you grew up in a major city or suburban area, the thought of teaching in a small community may seem intimidating. Undergraduate music education programs often do not have time to prepare students for every teaching situation they may face early in their careers. While basic pedagogy stays the same, the unfamiliar nuances of teaching in a smaller community can be tricky to navigate. Here are some tips to ease the transition.
    In a smaller community, you have the opportunity for amazing support for the program. Almost everyone is related to someone currently attending the school or who works in the school system. In these situations, it is difficult to find someone who has not had a direct experience with the band. Nearly everyone attends at least one football game or enjoys your winter concert as a family tradition. If nothing else, they have heard the band practicing outside during their commute. You may already have an army of helpers and people who will donate either time or money and show up to help the band when needed.
    After accepting the job, identify the key people in your new community. These leaders might include the local convenience store owner, clergy, and the editor of the newspaper. There is frequently one band parent who knows everyone, can help you find these people, and even make introductions and open lines of communication. If you do not have a strong parent organization, ask your principal, another administrator, or a long-time staff member you trust. Anyone with strong local roots can point you in the right direction.
    A great way to boost goodwill between your program and the community early on is to learn the traditions. When I started teaching in Jacksboro, Texas, the high school director and I arrived in the same year. Throughout the first few months, he had some community members mention that the band formerly made a block “T” on the field (for Tigers, the mascot) at the end of the halftime show. We added it in as a special surprise at homecoming, and the response was powerful. Many alumni were touched that we honored the traditions of the band and the community. This simple addition made them feel included and showed that we cared about their experience not only when they were in the band but as alumni.
    You may be the only band director or even the only arts teacher in a smaller town, and it can feel lonely. You can, however, find a local support system. At the next district or region meeting, try to meet directors who teach nearby. These people will be a great resource. You will go to them to borrow a piece missing from your library, find an obscure percussion instrument, or answer questions about local contests and events.
    When I taught in another rural area in north Texas, I found a great community of directors. I had a limited music library, but one of the nearby counties had an extensive one. It was close enough to drive there to borrow music and get advice during my planning period. In my first year at that same school, another local director noticed that I failed to register my band for our region marching contest and reached out to me so I could fix the problem in time. Since then, I have not missed a deadline and am eternally grateful for the community of directors who helped me.
    Your area music store offers a wealth of knowledge. Get to know your road representative. They always know what is going on and can help you if you get into a bind. They will often assist with transporting equipment between schools if you need to borrow a tuba from the next town over, and it is on their route. As long as you are respectful and give them business aside from running errands, they will be a great help.
    Find the closest college or university with a music program and get in touch with the coordinator of music education or individual instrument teachers and ask them to visit your school to work with students. If they are too busy, ask them to recommend students who can help. These students will likely become area directors in just a few years.
    As we are learning this year with COVID-19, technology can be useful in the band room and that does not have to stop when we return to in-person teaching. If a university is too far for a professor to come visit, ask them if they would be willing to Skype or Zoom with your students. This can be a great way to expand the horizons of young musicians beyond what can be physically brought to them.
    Many universities will livestream their concerts on Facebook or another platform. Even if your school is too far to take a field trip, you could organize a concert watching party in the band room one evening. This is a great opportunity to bring new experiences to students for no cost.
    In any school, but certainly one in a smaller town, it is important to align the goals of the program with the goals of the community, especially with marching band. Goals can be changed over time, but the shift should take place slowly and strategically. You can still maintain high standards while working within community expectations. Some districts want bands who regularly compete at high levels at Bands of America or Texas UIL competitions. Others simply want an entertaining halftime show and for the band to play well in the stands. It will be easier to build support if your goals match those of the community.
    When I was a solo band director teaching 5-12 band in a 2A school, I felt most frustrated when my goals differed from those of the students, district, and community. Some of this stemmed from a lack of communication, but it more often came from a lack of understanding. When the community members said they wanted a successful band, that meant large numbers and a band that played a lot at the football games. I envisioned a more holistic view of the program. At the time, I thought we were in agreement, but I now realize that we often misunderstood each other.
    At a small school, students often participate in multiple activities. It is less likely that you will have students for whom band is their only extracurricular activity. Students will be involved in sports, cheer, theater, choir, FFA, 4H, and religious groups.  
    Communication and collaboration are key to make sure your schedule allows students to participate in all of their activities. Share important dates with parents and students, ideally, 6-8 months ahead of time. Continue communicating upcoming events and deadlines often and in many different ways. Send letters home, verbally remind students, use electronic messaging apps, email parents and students, post on social media, and make phone calls as needed. With just a little bit of extra work on your part, students will be able to participate in many different activities with ease. This will make your program stronger and build more goodwill within the community among all the sponsors of youth organizations.
    Promote the successes of your students and program. Communities love to see their students thrive. Have an updated social media account and send information to the local newspaper. A simple picture of students and a short explanation of the event will increase community pride in your program.
    Celebrate such ensemble successes as a superior or excellent rating at a large group evaluation or a successful weekend at a marching competition. Be sure to include individual successes, sending a list of students who did well in solo and ensemble contests or a picture of students who made district band. If you have students who make All-State, consider writing a short article about them and their accomplishments in and out of the music room.
    Keep up with what is going on in town and in your school district. Subscribe to the local paper, attend school board meetings, and make sure you know about changes in local government, school board, and school policies. Do everything you can to be in the room when decisions are made about the school and school programs. If a new principal is being hired, volunteer for the search committee and help with interviews. It is up to you to support the longevity and success of your program.
    The smaller the town, the more likely that everyone is related somehow. This is neither positive nor negative; it is merely something to remember. Everything that comes out of your mouth or goes into writing concerning the town must be positive. We all have challenging days when something goes awry, a student upsets you, or a parent does something you think is insane. If you have an experience like that and need to talk about it, take it to your partner or someone you trust outside the situation. Do not take it to the teacher’s lounge or lunchroom for discussion. A good rule of thumb is not to say or write anything you would not want shared all over town. If someone is doing something illegal or that may hurt another person, let the right people know. Make sure the information is directed to the proper administrator and cannot be misconstrued as gossip among community members.
    Humility and respect go a long way in building trust and community. There is so much pride in a small town, and if you are an outsider, you must earn trust and respect before making too many changes in a program. As a good rule of thumb, when deciding how to proceed with a change, the more well-liked the previous band director was, the slower you need to implement your approach. Listen to students, parents, and administrators. Trust yourself and ask members of your support systems for help when you need it.