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Teaching with Determination

Shirley Strohm Mullins | June July 2021

   It troubles me that so many young people become music teachers but either burn out after a few years or never turn on in the first place. Of two teachers who are well trained, eager, and enthusiastic, it seems that one will succeed as a teacher while the other will turn to selling realestate, abandoning five years of university training and a lifetime of music study.
   I have heard that the burnout phenomenon exists, but it is an expression I don’t understand. After thirty years of teaching I still whistle on my way to work every Monday morning. I love teaching because I love the children I teach. Anyone who does not love students should get out of education and sell cars or insurance because there is no reason to work at a school. Enjoying music is not enough to counter all the aggravation from parents, administrators, and the school staff. If you love teaching you do not think of the job as work. A few formulas may help avoid burnout, but they might also be called facing reality in music education.
   Never assume anything. Many teachers think that by sending a calendar home with students in September, all parents will read it. This is not so. To assure parents will open that letter, hand address the envelopes. As silly as this may seem, consider how different your reaction is to mail that arrives addressed to occupant or personalized and hand written. The next assumption to avoid is that each letter, having been opened, will be promptly noted in felt pen on family calendars, or even that there are family activity calendars. After 30 years in this business I do not assume anything.
   On the day of a concert I stand at the end of the hall as students leave with a bright smile and say, "See you tonight." When I did this last year one student responded that he had basketball practice that night and another didn’t have a ride to the concert. My response is to call the family during the dinner hour and explain that members of a musical organization are expected to be at the concerts. It may seem silly to have to do this, but I want to be sure.
   Avoid negative people like the plague. In any school system the people who are unhappy and wish they were doing something else will make your life miserable if you let them. It would be nice to find out why they’re unhappy and help them, but few people have that much energy; avoid them, especially on concert days. They say such things as "You won’t get much of a crowd tonight because…" and weigh you down. I surround myself with people who tell me to have a good concert and make life more enjoyable.
   Listen more than you talk in rehearsals and daily work with colleagues. By asking questions and listening to people you pick up a lot of information.
   I used to say a happy person accepts and adapts. One time after saying that, a teacher complained about having 60 beginners for 20 minutes once a week, and I told her sometimes we have to dig in our heels and say no. That is an important philosophy.
   Worry often and early. Waiting until the day or week of an event to worry is not soon enough; I wake up staring at the ceiling months in advance. For example, I once had breakfast with Vaclav Nelhybel and asked him to lead a clinic in Yellow Springs. I sweat blood over that little two-day festival: the financing, people who said they wanted to be in it but later changed their minds, and many other hassles. Three days before the clinic I went to Iowa to lead a workshop for teachers and could have managed that only by worrying early and working through all of the details. I made sure the fee was acceptable, the hotel was ready, and arranged his transportation. Each problem by itself isn’t much, but when collected together they become a migraine headache.
   When my children left home I told them to do what makes them happy, and to give everything away. When you ask some teachers a question they answer in monosyllables, giving just a small bit of information. If you press them for more, a door closes, as if it were a private matter, the secret to their success. I had read Elizabeth Green’s books, but never met her. One day I telephoned her and said, "Miss Green, I admire your work so much and would like to meet you." She welcomed my call and we spent two days talking, and she remains a mentor, encourages me to write, and asks questions. She said, "What have you written?"
   I answered, "Nothing, I’m no expert. I’m just a teacher doing a job." Green replied, "You’re in the trenches. Share what you know."
   Do what makes you happy simply means figure out how to manage your job so you are not running crazy all the time. If you spend more time in your car than teaching, talk to your music supervisor. If you spend more time yelling at students than teaching them, that is a discipline problem. If you lose 50% of your students, something is wrong. Look at these things because you cannot be happy having serious problems. High energy tells a lot about how you like what you do and that it is not boring.
   Stay active. Many people are so bored with their work that they use the same book and music each year. Only the kids’ names change. Students quickly discern boredom in a teacher or environment.
   My principal hates seeing me come through the door because I will ask for a minute of her time but a half hour later we will still be talking and planning something. It does not have to be an expensive project; it can be performing at a nursery school or nursing home.
   Always have some carrot out there to keep students’ interest alive. Last year my elementary students played the first concert of their season without me, with two high school students running the show. I told my principal not to worry because they know what they’re doing.  Keep the excitement going the rest of the year with a lot of concerts. The carrot is always out there. If Nelhybel comes the first of January, in February we play in the village for different service groups. We may go downtown and play on a street corner or have a potluck supper on a Sunday night, trying to bring people together. Don’t go long without something exciting.
   Be a team player. It is absolute madness if the choir, band, and string orchestra directors never meet. In successful programs they not only work together but like each other as people.
   If a guidance counselor does not support the music department but encourages freshmen to take study hall instead of orchestra, I would take that counselor out for lunch. The wrong reasons why students should be in music classes are that their S.A.T. scores will go up, study habits will improve, and music will permeate their entire life. They should take music because music is wonderful. That’s it. Having good rapport with the counselor, I sit down with her in the summer before the schedules are set and give her a list of the students who should be put in orchestra. The high school freshmen automatically are scheduled for orchestra before another class is put on that schedule. It is only because of administrative support that I have built the program over the years and now have many students. The counselor and I go through the list together and find out which students have moved in, families have split up and the kids who were with the father now are with the mother, and other details. When we go on our spring trip, the school counselor will be with us. If a counselor stubbornly refuses to support music programs, then talk with the principal and to the superintendent, if necessary. Get their attention: many students who win scholarships are in music ensembles. Counselors should know by now that major universities look at a complete transcript.
   Some orchestra directors only have after-school programs or rehearsals scheduled at times that are inconvenient for students. These are logistical problems that should have administrative solutions. Sit down with the school principal to discuss and work them out. Music classes should be part of the school day to be successful, and music xeachers who have rapport with their principals have a better chance to obtain a good schedule.
   When I started teaching, I could schedule an extra rehearsal the night before a concert, and 95% of the kids would be there. Those days are gone. You had better get done what has to be done during the school day or have home practice and sectionals.
   Teamwork with administrators and colleagues and rapport with students and colleagues enhance one another. Rapport means establishing such a good relationship that if you make a loud and embarrassing mistake, as we all do, students and colleagues are with you. You can apologize, and they will forgive you. Establishing that kind of rapport with the community helps form a support network.
   Go to athletic events even though there seems to be little time for them. Make it a point to attend a girl’s basketball game and a boy’s soccer or football game to show interest in students. There is no shame in good public relations. Music teachers often are so focused that they get buried in their offices and paperwork. The result is that students may decide a director does not care about them as people outside of music. Be involved and show genuine interest.
   The best thing you can do to build rapport in the community is to ask for help. I don’t have time to run a bake sale, but a parent might. Ask a parent to invite the football coach to attend the concert and have his team pass out programs. This may sound absurd, but they might do it.
   Acknowledge private teachers at a concert, and invite them to attend. They work hard, and public expressions of appreciation build good feelings. Sharing the applause deepens rapport. Get involved in community life. When there is some major function in Yellow Springs, the band director and I will receive a phone call because schools are an integral part of our community.
   Good teamwork is essential to build a program and recruit students. I recruit cello and bass players from the band by telling middle school saxophone, flute, and clarinet students who express. an interest in orchestra, that they will have a long wait for their turn: "See you senior year," I respond. When they look sad I add, "Well, there is a way. This summer I will start a class of intensive viola. If you work hard, you can join the orchestra next fall with a viola under your chin." Seventh grade is late to start strings but works with band students who already play an instrument.
   This is not stealing band students, but adding to their education. They still play saxophone and clarinet in band. For a wind player to be in the orchestra he must also be in the band, cut and dry. Being in the band is a prerequisite to being in the orchestra and avoids the animosity that often results from taking another director’s students.
   Administrators in some school systems concern themselves more with the number of students than the quality of music, but when the quality is established, students will flock to you. Retaining students is much more important than recruiting. It is easy to recruit students; just put an arm around the kid and invite him to play an instrument. Retaining that student is where motivation enters. An example is taking students on an annual trip, as long as their behavior is good: omitting the trip if students don’t behave then makes quite an impression on them.
   Losing students can send teachers into mourning. A cure for mourning is action. Find out why a student is quitting, and often it will turn out to have been the parent’s idea. I make it hard for a student to quit. Some students feel pressured to study music because in their school playing in band and orchestra is prestigious. They really are not that interested, but they take lessons five years and walk in the door too lethargically even to open the instrument case. When a student is not interested, suggest other avenues and visit his parents. See them at the dinner hour and make it difficult for them to refuse. I don’t like loose ends, and so I go to talk with them.
   One student said she had to return her double bass to school because her mother said it was too hard for, the cleaning lady to vacuum around it. That bass did not come back. I explained to her mother that Jennifer has a lot of talent that she could easily develop by practicing at home. The bass had been in an awkward place in the house; she moved it in Jennifer’s closet.
   Parents sometimes pressure their children to quit because the family lacks musical interest and a tradition of music study. Take time and explain to parents how playing an instrument can improve their child’s self image. Get students in front of the public within three months of beginning study, and make their performance important, with posters and a radio spot. If a parent reads in the newspaper that his child will perform in a concert, he looks at music lessons a little differently. His child is getting something special, and that makes it more difficult for parents to let a child quit. "Mary can’t quit; the school orchestra is going to Cincinnati in January."
   To counter negative peer pressure from a student’s friends, it helps for a director to recruit the cutest girl, the best athlete, and even the toughest kid, not only the nice students. These people can help make the ensemble the envy of the school, particularly if music students have their pictures in the paper regularly and are viewed as the ones who do everything.
   Successful music teachers have competence and let their sense of authority show. A teacher is highly trained, competent, and enthusiastic. These should be givens because competition is tough and jobs not that plentiful. They better have all that going for them.
   A young woman who had been my student seemed a natural to become a teacher. She got her degree in teaching, taught one year and quit, explaining, "I could not handle those kids. They ran all over me and made my life miserable." This did not have to happen. Her problem lay in not coming across as an authority figure or an expert. Something in her demeanor stopped students from realizing what she had to offer; she would have been a crackerjack teacher but sadly, she left the field.
   Demeanor is important for students in an orchestra as well as for teachers; it is part of professionalism. Certain things are necessary for a good orchestra including sitting erect with a good posture, and being proud of what you are doing. You cannot play a string instrument with long finger nails and get a beautiful tone with vibrato or shift effectively. The minute you back off because a student balks at trimming her nails, you lose students. Instead, take those kids who want to learn and mold them, get them so turned on that cutting their nails is no big deal. If you start backing off, you lose your program anyway. You are the authority, the teacher; walk through the group and say, "Sit up and have your nails cut by this afternoon," and let your face tell them you mean it.
   I will chastise a student in front of a group if they’ve done something inappropriate; I don’t back off. Sometimes it is wise to prevent an ugly scene in front of the group by telling the student to see you later. Situations vary, but avoiding confrontations sometimes causes problems. Once you establish that you will not keel over and play dead with parents, administrators, students who try everything, it is not necessary to come on strong. They know that predictable results will follow some actions, and that’s the end of it.
   People say, don’t smile before Christmas. I can’t imagine teaching that way. Students know I have done my homework, studied the scores, can carry on a conversation and know what’s going on all over the room. I use humor as often as possible in the classroom because students respond to it. The more you can laugh at yourself with young people without being foolish, the more they enjoy being around you. They love to see you as a real person. Here’s an example. When I took my junior high students on a trip last year, I thought I wore a rather fashionable swimming suit at the Holidome. I saw eight boys standing at the pool laughing hysterically, and asked what was so darned funny. They answered, "We haven’t seen a suit like that since Hedy Lamarr movies." I wasn’t offended, because it was funny. If you can whistle on the way to work after 30 years or after 5 years and say, "I’m never going to retire, they’ll have to drag me out of here," something wonderful is happening.