Close this search box.

October 1993 Older and Wiser, By Catherine Sell

In the September issue of The Instrumentalist we published the diary of a first-year teacher; two more diaries are included this month. Although we have sought the daily observations and thoughts of first-year teachers for several years, all prior efforts failed. Our overview of these diaries is that these teachers started out with more problems handling students and parents than technical challenges rehearsing music. In response to the problems raised in these diaries, we asked some veteran educators for suggestions to new or future teachers.

How should a first-year director cope with a percussion player (or a clarinetist) who intentionally makes a sound on his instrument at an inappropriate moment to annoy or test the teacher?

Victor Bordo: It is necessary for first-year band directors to firmly establish order in rehearsals. Students have an uncanny way of sensing whether they can take advantage of a teacher. In my experience most administrators are very willing to help first-year teachers. I was a music administrator for 13 years, and it was a given that first-year band directors would have problems in the classroom.
   The method I use to handle students who will not cooperate is on the first breach of an established rule tell the student that I will remove him from the classroom for disrupting the educational process. (Administrators really love that phraseology.) If removal becomes necessary, I contact his parents to set up a conference that includes the administrator. There is seldom a repeat of the offense or a need for further action because I make it clear to the parent, student, and administrator that I will not put up with this behavior. I generally watch the student like a hawk for several weeks and make sure he knows that I am monitoring his behavior. (Victor Bordo is director of bands at Troy High School, Troy, Michigan.)

Paul Duker: The key to curtailing students from trying to gain attention through disruptive conduct is to determine what need that action fulfills for the student. A discussion with the student, his counselor, parents, or another teacher may produce an appropriate method to meet the student’s need, but this takes time. If the action is too disruptive to ignore and warrants removing the student from a rehearsal, do so for only the time necessary for the student to gain control of himself. Work with the student to develop the self-control necessary to return as a member of the organization. (Paul Duker was a band director for 22 years and is now principal at Baldwin Intermediate School in Quincy, Illinois.)

James Croft: It’s always best to recognize the offender and ask him to play something that requires uncommon attention to the task. As a general rule there will be something that needs attention in the music. This opens the door to praise when the task is done and focuses the band’s attention on the individual who needs attention, receives it, and enables the rehearsal to get back to common objectives. Band and orchestra kids are amazingly perceptive; their years of schooling have provided many opportunities to observe teaching strategies, and they enjoy someone else’s success, especially when they benefit as well.
   You may have to do this several times, calling upon more flexibility than you thought you had. Recurrences call for a one on one session in your office after the rehearsal. If a student needs some time out, keep him in the office with an adult monitor until he realizes that only by altering his behavior will he be a part of the group. There comes a time when an unreasonable student should find another activity that holds greater interest for him. (James Croft has 41 years of teaching experience and is director of bands at Florida State University in Tallahassee.)

Roland Stycos: It often works to tell a student “Save if for later Jim,” and to move on. For a second offense glare sternly, and say, “Let’s not make a habit of playing out of turn,” and continue quickly, giving the student no time to reply. If the problem persists with one student, tell him to pack up his instrument and sit for the remainder of the period. Never begin until there is complete silence. Make it clear that stepping on the podium is a signal for playing to stop. (Roland Stycos is a band director in Kalamazoo, Michigan.)

Mark Grauer: The key to disciplining students today is to deal with the problems without confrontation so neither student nor teacher loses face as a result. Fire prevention is always easier than fire fighting. Rewarding good behavior reduces the amount of disruptive behavior and creates an atmosphere in which learning can occur.
   The best response to a student who intentionally disrupts a rehearsal is in a low-key manner. Sometimes a look of disapproval or a comment such as “That’s not really helping,” will discourage this. Even a little humor, such as “Hmm, that’s flat,” will accomplish the desired result without confronting a student. For repeated misbehavior, I ask the student to play his part for the class in an effort to turn a disruption into a part of the lesson. (Mark Grauer is the band director at Northampton High School in Massachusetts.)

Roger Rocco: A first-year teacher is really in the fifth year of college, just with new classes on a different campus. Some factors that influence children’s behavior in a rehearsal room are their past experiences with rehearsals or elsewhere in the school and whether students have experienced much achievement in music or anywhere else in their lives. Students must understand that achievement in music is an important element in the enjoyment of music, and it is the enjoyment of music that will motivate students. Students come to the rehearsal hall for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the teacher.
   No matter how much training a teacher receives in the first four years of college, he will be insecure at first, and this insecurity will show through to the students. When a new teacher takes over a band, the students and the school environment are the same. The new teacher simply lacks the experience and knowledge that produces success, which builds confidence. It was not possible to take courses in experience during the four years of college.
   In gaining this experience it is important for teachers to realize that they have to be true to their personalities. Some techniques that work for others may not work for you because you are a different person. If we go against our personalities, there will be no real conviction in what we are doing. There is a tendency to forget that students are human beings who respond to the same emotions that adults do; the key is persistent communication with the group and with individuals. Teachers should maintain precise and consistent expectations for student behavior and communicate these frequently to students. At the beginning of each new class, I hand out a sheet with the class requirements, expectations for behavior, and the consequences for improper conduct. Students and parents read and sign this document. (Roger Rocco is on the faculty of Mother McAuley High School in Chicago.)

Every director has some unhappy memories of awkward moments or problems handled badly.   What experiences of yours might help a new teacher?
Kim Trytten: I have learned many valuable lessons in 13 years of teaching, including these: double check bus orders, don’t compare students to their siblings, train your new principal slowly, and familiarize yourself with and don’t misplace students’ emergency medical forms. One of my more unhappy memories comes from a band camp about five years ago when my usually intact patience meter blew a gasket, and I yelled at a sweet, freshman girl who played trumpet. “Michele, how many times have we done this today? Do you want me to call your mom, have her drive all the way out here, and walk you to your spot near the hash? What is the problem?” Almost as if in slow motion, she bent her head, dropped her trumpet, and slumped to the grass, sobbing. No one had told me that her mom had died several days previously and it was all her friends could do to convince her to come to band camp to get her mind on some positive thoughts. I learned a lesson that day. (Kim Trytten is director of bands in the North College Hill City School District in Cincinnati, Ohio.)

Victor Bordo: I taught at Ann Arbor High School in 1964 as director of bands, and was also assigned a seventh grade band at Tappan Junior High School. There were 120 students in the ensemble, and they were a lively group. A very competent young lady from the University of Michigan School of Music came to Tappan for her student teaching. Her first interview revealed that she had very liberal ideas about teaching and wanted to be a friend to each student. In those days student teachers were required to keep a diary of their daily student teaching activities. Although she had only observed me teaching twice, she concluded in her log, which I was required to read each week, that I was a dictator who stifled the seventh graders’ creativity.
   We discussed this issue on numerous occasions, but I could not change her outlook. I determined that the best course of action in this instance was to administer some shock therapy. This was a talented young lady, who in my view and that of her university advisor, was going down the wrong path in music education. I offered her the opportunity to conduct the band for three full periods to demonstrate her ideas about teaching; the only stipulation was that if she got into trouble, she was on her own. She readily accepted, and the first period went pretty well because the seventh graders did not know what was going on, but it did not take them long to find out.
   Ten minutes into the next rehearsal a cornet player reached over and knocked his mute off the music stand; everybody stopped and looked at me. I didn’t move a muscle, and the game was on. They did everything they could for the next 40 minutes to drive her nuts. Playing wrong notes, exchanging instruments, talking out of turn, and blasting their horns. She pleaded with them, but to no avail. She finally left the room in tears, and I restored order to the class. We sat down after rehearsal and I began by saying “You have to demand the respect of your students before you can teach them anything. They don’t need a 21-year-old friend; they need a 21-year-old teacher.” She admitted her ideas didn’t work too well, and went over basic policies and why they were needed.
   We covered many issues including the fact that what you teach is at least as important as how you teach. Many young music teachers are not prepared with practical information about repertoire. If you pick interesting and worthwhile music to perform, discipline problems will take care of themselves. This is an area badly neglected by some universities, and it really hurts a first-year music teacher to be so excited about teaching but not to know what to teach. Young band directors have to learn how to evaluate and make judgments about what students at various levels can handle.

Robert Reely: My first year of teaching had many ups and downs. Students expected me to do everything exactly like their former director, and this caused many problems. Students who felt betrayed by the departing director took out their frustrations on me. As a result, many of the students were behavior problems all year. The one solace I had was that my beginning band, which had never had any other teacher, behaved wonderfully. By the next year most of the problem students had moved on or quit, and I have had little problem with discipline since. (Robert Reely is director of bands at Ridgecrest High School in Paragould, Arkansas.)

Shirley Strohm Mullins: My first teaching experience was as a music substitute in the city schools of Minneapolis. My first day was at a school close enough to my apartment to ride my bike. During the morning two seventh-grade hoodlums took my bike apart piece by piece and left it laying on the ground. A gym teacher helped me locate the boys, confront them, and arrange for payment of repairs. It was an interesting introduction to an important concept: ask others for help and never be afraid to confront inappropriate behavior. Strength brings respect, and respect brings learning. I was 23 at the time and looked younger. Later the same day an older teacher stopped me as I was about to enter the faculty restroom and said, “This room is just for teachers, young lady” and brushed me aside. (Shirley Strohm Mullins is a string specialist and orchestra conductor at Yellow Springs (Ohio) High School and teaches string methods at Central State University.)

Frank Battisti: When I was a young teacher, I wanted to resign every other day because of frustration. Beginning teachers want to make things happen, but they’re not old enough to realize that this takes time. Establishing who you are, what your style is, and communicating with parents, administration, teachers, and students takes time, and there is frustration involved. (Frank Battisti has conducted wind ensembles and bands for over 30 years and is conductor of the wind ensemble at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts.)

How should a new director deal with a student who forgets to return a permission slip or some music? This is not the first or an isolated instance in which explicit instructions are ignored or forgotten.
Stephen Shoop: Place the responsibility on students’ shoulders. Set a deadline with consequences for failing to meet responsibilities. On the first day something is late, take points off, give a verbal reprimand, or withdraw privileges; on the second day give a detention and have a phone conference with his parents; on the third day give another detention, refer the student to the principal or have a conference with his parents. Give students a reasonable amount of time to take care of these matters. Apply consequences and punishments fairly and consistently. I find that incentives work better than penalties and might give the section that gets their permission slips in first a chance to put instruments away early and leave first on Friday. (Stephen Shoop teaches band at Apollo Junior High School in Richardson, Texas.)

Roger Rocco: Convenient forgetfulness or disruption of a class are acts of improper behavior for which students should clearly understand and accept the consequences. We experience consequences for our behavior in every aspect of our lives, and the classroom environment should not be different.
   The behavioral education of students takes time, and teachers should be persistent and patient. As with all learning, it takes more effort at the beginning and becomes easier with persistence. The ultimate goal is not only to achieve proper behavior in the class, but for students to experience the joy of music.

Ross Kellan: Explain up-front to students the importance of a deadline and the reason for your request. A reminder sent home to parents will sometimes help. Clearly spell out what the consequences will be if the request is not met and then follow through. (Ross Kellan is director of bands at Glenbard East High School, Lombard, Illinois.)

Kim Trytten: When a student regularly ignores his obligations, it is time for a conference and perhaps a behavior contract — with the stipulation that the student has lost all privileges of participation until the meeting is held. If the student continues to inconvenience me and the program, I will lay no small inconvenience on the parents; results can be remarkable.

Shirley Strohm Mullins: This is a tough problem. I knew a scoutmaster who left two 8 year-old boys standing on the corner because they were five minutes late for a major league baseball field trip, while others will accept phone call “permission slips” from negligent parents while 85 others wait on the bus. Most of us probably fall between these limits. Mail the information and permission slips home and set a sensible date for their return. Mondays are bad because of the weekend. Allow time to solve genuine crises. Try to be fair and consistent; decide how firm you want to be and then enforce the deadline. A junior high day trip last spring resulted in one of the ugliest confrontations I have ever had. I was right, but I’m not sure it was worth the hassle. Every trip seems to bring new problems. Delegate as much responsibility to students and parents as possible, but reserve the final decision. After 30 years in the classroom I still have problems with careless and forgetful students.

Frank Battisti: Try to identify why a student made the mistake by sitting down and talking with him. Explain that responsibility is an important part of membership in the group. Some students don’t know how to keep track of things, and you might have to teach a student organizational habits to keep track of things. At times I have literally instructed students how to get themselves together. Sometimes it helps for you to ask a friend of a forgetful student to assist him. Stress that being irresponsible, either within or outside of band, is a human characteristic that will be a negative factor in his lifetime and that correcting this habit is important to how his life progresses. As a last recourse, bring in a parent.

To what extent should a first-year director attempt to resolve all problems without help from school administrators? No new teacher wants to admit his inability to handle students, but when should pride be suppressed and help from others sought?

Paul Duker: New teachers should discuss this potential problem with the school administrator before students arrive. Ask about his rules of thumb for requesting assistance. The administration is there to help solve problems and will probably welcome an invitation to help a new teacher. As an administrator I prefer to enter problem solving early, before the problem has escalated. Many schools have mentor teachers set up as backup; if your school does not have an arrangement, ask for someone to volunteer to be a mentor. In most cases, new teachers just need someone to share ideas with.

Richard Coulter: Establish a support network before the inevitable problems develop. Include experienced pros, such as the supervisor, principal, or a college professor, who can act as a sounding board to help you avoid a pitfall or to advise you on the best way to dig out of one. Professional band organizations at the national and local levels are eager to offer support. Colleagues, including those in other departments, can offer practical advice on how things work at that school. Staying in touch with other recent graduates serves as a reminder that you are not the only first-year teacher facing endless new challenges. Gaining the support of the custodial staff will help alleviate problems before they arise. (Richard Coulter was a director of bands and supervisor of fine arts in New Jersey for 13 years and is now supervisor of music education for the Williamsport Area School District, Pennsylvania.)

Robert Laber: Ultimately every teacher should learn to handle routine discipline problems effectively in class; however, school administrators usually expect new teachers to need a little more help. If you have a problem, ask the administrator responsible for school discipline for advice on a situation before it becomes a problem. This way you are not just passing along a problem but getting expert assistance to prevent one. Don’t be bashful about asking for help before you think you need it. Administrators usually appreciate a teacher who values his expertise and experience. (Robert Laber is assistant superintendent for curriculum and administration in the Darien, Connecticut public schools.)

Kim Trytten: An administrator once told me, “unless there is blood involved, don’t send me a single student for behavior problems until after you have personally met with the student’s parents.” If not taken too literally, this advice has some merit. What he implied is the importance of documenting behavior and the steps taken, and the big guns will usually support you to the death. It’s time consuming initially, but think of the time to be spent with aggravating repeat offenders.

Frank Battisti: I try to solve problems without help from the administration. On the other hand, it’s important that students realize there is a sequence involved in the resolution of a problem. When I was a public school teacher, I had an information booklet with everything clearly spelled out and which I sent home to every parent. The parents had to read and sign the booklet to show that they knew what the procedures were going to be if their child caused problems and that they would take part in the educational process of the child. It is important that students, parents, and the administration agree on the policy so that a teacher does not have to ad-lib solutions, but has a structured process to arrive at solutions.

Stephen Shoop: Directors should solve problems on their own as much as possible but do better with help and guidance from the administration and fellow teachers. Even after 10 years of teaching, I keep administrators informed about problems with students and let them know how I am handling the situations that arise. I add strength to my position when I can tell a parent or student that I have mentioned the matter to the principal, who agrees with me on how to proceed. seek the advice of administrators and fellow teachers on a regular basis because they will almost always provide an objective and insightful point of view.

Mark Grauer:
 Use your administrators as an additional resource for dealing with students and parents. When you have used up all strategies, seek your administrator’s advice, and perhaps you will find alternative ways to achieve the desired behavior from students. An important rule to remember is that administrators hate surprises. It’s always better for them to hear about potential problems from you, before they hear about them from a parent. There are always more options available to you and your administrator before your backs are against a wall.