Tales From First Year Teachers

Elizabeth B. Peterson | September 2011

   All directors vividly remember their first year of teaching. Even those who feel well prepared musically face such difficulties as organizing a busy schedule, dealing with parents, and building support for the program. Elizabeth Peterson interviewed dozens of young directors about the lessons gained in the first year and experiences not taught in the­ classroom. Her new book, The Music Teacher’s First Year: Tales of Challenge, Joy and Triumph by Elizabeth Peterson, (used by permission, Meredith Music Publications, 2011) recounts these stories in vivid detail. Most directors will recognize themselves in these pages. Excerpted here are the recollections of two young directors: one teaches high school band in New York, while the other is an elementary and middle school teacher in Connecticut.

   John currently teaches band at a high school in Brooklyn, and he has been very successful. He started his interview by describing his first-year teaching experience, which was in the North Bronx, where he taught sixth- through eighth-grade general music in a difficult school setting. “The students are almost entirely from the projects – very, very low income neighborhood. The school is the second to the last stop on the 5 train, adjacent to New York City’s largest housing project – a very impoverished school community; I was there for one year.”
   The position was very different from his initial expectations. “I was brought in under the assumption that I was going to be starting a band, but that was not really the case.” He was given an overwhelming number of sixth-grade general music sections, along with several sections of Academic Intervention Services (or AIS students).
   While John’s administration knew that his area of expertise was as a band director (he was a trombone major in college), he felt that his interviewers were so eager to fill the position that they may have misrepresented the job. “I was shown a room full of instruments,” he said. “It was a little messy, but they made it sound like they wanted me to start a band.” When school began in the fall, however, he discovered that he was really a full-time general music teacher, and he was also dismayed to learn about the future of his band program. “On my first day of teaching I went to that music room to start cleaning the instruments, taking inventory, and every single case was empty,” he said. “There was not a single thing left; they all had been stolen over the years by God knows who.” John began the year without a single instrument, but he was persistent and creative in his programming, not willing to give up on the band he thought he was employed to initiate. He started a drumming program and found funding through an After-School Beacon Grant program. He never did get enough instruments to start a real band, but he “did get about eight trumpets and a couple of trombones and a few saxophones, but that was not enough to meet the needs of something like 300 students a week.”
   John wasn’t entirely convinced after this first year that urban teaching was right for him; he looked for a new position and found a job in Brooklyn, where he continues to teach and is very happy. “I walked into a program that at the time had two bands, and the support was much greater.” He has been able to develop this program by adding a beginning band for high school students.
   He says that teaching students in an urban setting is not a lot different than teaching students anywhere. He also discussed his experimentation with different rehearsal techniques:

I thought I would go down the line and hear them play individually. It completely backfired. The ensemble shut down. It didn’t work. I found that the only way you achieve discipline in a setting with students from an urban background is through the musical and aesthetic experience. Sometimes people will say you can’t do that and it doesn’t work in the real world, but so many teachers are not actually in the real world and they’re only able to get away with their bad teaching because they’re in such good districts. I find that you don’t get away with that in the urban schools. The kids will shut down. They won’t respond to it. It’s not worth their time. They have enough other drama in their lives that they are dealing with. If you’re willing to go in and you’re willing to work and just have the same high standards for them that you would have for the kids in the suburbs, you will be successful. A good director from the city is the same as a good director from the suburbs. You have to be willing to be flexible for a couple of years and maybe teach a couple periods of gym when you first get there, and you have to be able to advocate. It’s not so much advocating to parents in the community; you have to be able to work with administrators. Often, you have to know how to work with incompetent administrators; you have to show them how you can make their life easier, and then you get what you want.

   In John’s limited experience, he felt that some administrators were so overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities in their own job that creating or maintaining a viable band was relatively low on their list of priorities.
   “The most important thing is that you just go do it,” John said. “The reason a lot of the city band programs fail is that they have poor directors. The city doesn’t really make a distinction of who they hire. They see that you are certified eighth-twelfth music and they’ll hire you.”
   John’s current school administration was very supportive and involved. Administrative support was necessary in order for him to raise money and receive grants for instrument purchases, but that support meant that they were sometimes very involved. “The administration’s hands-on approach is at times negative, but at the same time I would much rather have that than the apathetic administration that I had with my first program.”
   Another big lesson was in classroom management. When he taught in the Bronx, he had many students with undiagnosed severe behavioral disorders. He said,

  My first year teaching, I was breaking up a fight – which was almost a daily occurrence – and I was punched in the face by a student. I was not given any support by the administration. In fact, I was told that if I wasn’t really hurt I did not need to file a report. Many city administrators are under pressure and receive pay bonuses based on whether or not they get their school’s incident rates to go down. So the easiest way to do that is to not report them.

   When asked how he handled management in his own rehearsals, he said,

    It was difficult. I used the point system. I would work with their classroom teacher, who would see them more. It was hard to have authority over students that you only saw once a week or twice a week, especially when my classroom was by the cafeteria and it was completely isolated from the assistant dean and the rest of the school. Students were basically allowed to run through my room on their way to a scheduled fight. You had to roll with it, I realized, to avoid confrontation. I’m not saying avoid correcting bad behavior, but students were seeking confrontation. When I didn’t pick my battles, I learned I was providing them with attention that they were seeking and you don’t reward that. You give attention to positive behavior. Eventually, I learned to modify their behavior by keeping them busy. For instance, I would find a student who looked like he was about to give me a problem and I would ask him to take attendance or hand out the drums. I learned to give them responsibilities – so I found ways to give them attention for positive things that they could do.

   John said things are easier now because he has established a reputation. His professionalism and consistency as a role model has helped:

  I wear a tie every day. I stand in the hallway, and every time I see a kid wearing a hat, I ask them to take it off. I enforce the school rules to the T. I had to establish an atmosphere. For instance, rehearsals always start three minutes after the bell, allowing them time to get instruments and music. I walk to the podium and there’s silence. If you are not at your seat, you’re in trouble.

   John said that he tried many different things to establish this atmosphere, including making students stand behind him for the entire rehearsal if they arrived late. He did not care why they were late and did not allow for any excuses. Sometimes he made them play their parts for the ensemble if they were late. He found however that “there were some students who enjoyed standing behind me, so that was bad. Some trombone players liked it, for some reason, but for the most part they got the point.”
   John said that he tells students what the expectations are on day 1. He lets them know that he won’t tolerate negative attitudes or mediocrity. He knows some kids will quit but feels that his high expectations are best for those who want to make music and be part of the program. “What’s nice with my program is that I have complete control over my enrollment.” He comments,

   I told the students on the first day that if this is ever too hard for them or if they are unable to accept my policies, the door is right there. I know it is a little bit of tough love but at the same time, I started about one hundred ninth grade beginners this year and we are down to eighty-three right away because seventeen had to quit. The only requirement to be in my band is that they are expected to come five periods a week. I sit them all down and tell them this at the beginning. They have to give up their lunch to take it, plus two days a week after school. I don’t give aptitude tests. Students are expected to be at a minimum of five practice sessions a week with a journal entry for each one, and that is the basis for their grade. Every time they miss a practice session, it’s a minus two on their average. I basically explain to them how hard it’s going to be and if that doesn’t scare them away, if they want to do this, and if they can give me their word that they will keep trying even when it gets hard, then they can be in my program.

   This approach seems to work well, but he also believes one of the main reasons his students stick with band is for the friendship:

   This is the only disciplined environment many of them are in, in their entire lives. They enjoy the sense of camaraderie. There are two “high schools” in my building and it is interesting; one of the high schools has a very good reputation and one of the high schools is on the verge of being shut down. Students from both “schools” come together to be in the band. Most of the freshmen are from the school that is about to be closed, so for those students, band is the only disciplined, organized, coached environment in their entire lives. Their math class involves students throwing stuff at the teacher. Their home environment may consist of housing projects, where they are sharing a bedroom with four or five other siblings, or they might live in a group home. Band is a great experience for them. I told them and I promised myself that I would have the best band program in New York City.

   John was asked if he could identify one aspect of his teaching style that has changed or evolved during his first few years of teaching in New York City. He said,

    That’s hard to explain because it is sort of like watching a tree grow. You know it gets bigger, but it’s your tree so it is hard to notice. I’ve made many little changes, but one thing: I find I raise my voice less. I’m able to instill discipline more constructively. I’m more in control of myself and my program, and I think that affects the ensembles. I realize that most ensembles are actually a mirror of the director—a direct reflection of someone’s personality and attitude. Your students will behave the way you behave. Your students will value what you value.

• • • •

   Leslie teaches in an urban school district in Connecticut, where she is responsible for teaching elementary and middle school band, plus 120 recorder students each week. This is her second year in a district that she describes as a Tier One school – part of the lowest socioeconomic bracket.
   Her job description has changed slightly since last year, when she was split between two school buildings and taught several sections of music appreciation.
   She was asked to talk about her most memorable experience from her first year of teaching and she immediately told the story of the ten-piece middle school marching band that was required to perform in a parade three weeks after the school year began!

Three weeks into the school year I had to take my middle school band to a parade; they didn’t know how to march. We only knew two songs, and I had maybe ten kids. The principal insisted that I do it for public relations reasons and said the parents would be very upset if we didn’t march – but they didn’t read music because their last teacher had taught them to play by rote. I had students who were playing a mellophone and thought they were playing a flugelhorn. We played the only three songs they knew from the Essential Elements method book. We marched to “Ode to Joy,” “Hard Rock Blues,” and “School Spirit March.”
   We had only had two trumpet players, so I asked a colleague to play trumpet with them so we would have enough melody. It was very stressful, and I learned lots of administrative things right away – for example, reserving the building on the weekend. I needed to make sure the principal was there, and I was in charge of finding parent volunteers. Then I forgot water for the kids. The actual parade was delayed two hours, and we walked up and down the parade route two times because the map they drew for the starting points was wrong, and I had to call all the parents on the way home to tell them that we would be two hours late. It was not exactly the way I wanted to get introduced to a program, as I know basically nothing about marching.

   Despite this rocky start, Leslie started to settle into the new job and learned a lot about teaching in the urban setting. Her first big challenge was to establish a routine for her classes and develop a curriculum for general music. She said,

   Things got better, but I had no planning periods and I taught four sections of middle school music appreciation, even though they already had general music. I was there to provide prep time for the classroom teachers, even though I didn’t get any. We did a survey of American popular music, and I traced the development of jazz through hip-hop, and tried to show them that jazz actually matters.

   Leslie said she started to develop the curriculum based on the things she had learned from a music history professor in college. She surveyed her students, asking them what music they listened to and what was their favorite radio station.

    I programmed their favorite radio stations into my car and listened to their music, and tried to find things I could connect back and forth from jazz to hip-hop. I know pop, but I had to really listen to hard rap and hard hip-hop, which I don’t really like. I went from there and tried to plan out a curriculum based on the music they liked. I searched lyrics online, and spent hours looking at the lyrics so I knew what was appropriate. “Urban Dictionary” has become my best friend – I’ve learned what all the slang means. We went on a field trip with the entire seventh- and eighth-grade class, and one of our students kept saying the word “Becky” over and over. It’s actually a really derogatory term toward females. I knew what it meant so I could put a stop to it. I have a whole new vocabulary since I began teaching in the city.

   Leslie had a difficult time earning the students’ trust at first. She had been hired to replace someone who was on paid leave; her predecessor had been accused of inappropriate behavior. In addition to her predecessor’s legal challenges, he apparently had given up trying to teach music. Leslie said,

    The kids would even admit that they could do whatever they wanted. They could show up whenever they wanted. Band was after school until he left in March, and then band just stopped. The district did not get a replacement band teacher. All the kids had their instruments over the summer, which isn’t supposed to happen because the district provides instruments. So, it was a very hostile environment. They just didn’t trust that I was going to be there every day. I spent a lot of time with kids – I stayed after school every day, and helped them with their homework in their other classes. On the first day of class I told them that I expected all band students to be honor students and I would stay after and help them with their math or their English or whatever they needed to just prove that I was really there. If they had baseball games or basketball or football, I would go. I would stay after the game and embarrass myself by playing basketball with them – anything to build that relationship with them.

   Leslie said that it took time before the students realized she was really serious and committed to them. While the principal didn’t seem to care about her challenge to the band students to become honor students, the teachers supported her efforts and even began communicating individual student progress with her.
   Leslie said she had good relationships with the parents who supported her efforts to improve academic success. Overall, her “band students as honor students” challenge was a great success. About sixty to seventy percent actually made the honor roll.
   Leslie did have one particularly difficult problem with one parent, however, during her first year. She described the incident,

   I teach on the stage in the cafeteria and there are many setup changes because I would get kicked out a lot and I would tear down after each class. Part of my percussion section’s responsibility was to get their own stands (we have twenty percussionists, three drums). During this setup time, one of my students got bumped on the head, and I sent her to the nurse right away. The nurse said she was fine, gave her an ice pack, and sent her home because it was the end of the day anyway. I found out later that day that she went to the doctor and was told she had a concussion. Then, she went and had an MRI, which was negative, but it eventually became this whole big thing. According to the doctor she was fine, but according to the parents she wasn’t, and she was put on bed rest.
   It became a year-long saga, and the parent kept sneaking into school on the days that I was there to try to catch me off guard. The principal kicked the mother out of school a couple of times. She sent a really nasty e-mail to every teacher in the school except for me saying how irresponsible I was, and how I don’t care about student safety. In the end, my administration was very supportive. The parent did make motions that she was going to sue – it really was this whole big saga. The sad thing is that her child is fine and wants to be in band, but the mother won’t allow her to be in the group anymore. It was frustrating. Here is a child who wasn’t allowed to participate in gym but was going to roller skating birthday parties. I understand she is an only child and I know it is very scary when something happens. You don’t know what is going on, but at the same time, accidents happen.

   Leslie talked about the instrumentation and recruitment of her band program. When she started, she had a handful of percussionists and a clarinetist in her top ensemble. She was determined to take this ensemble to adjudication festival, and helped them set this as their goal:

    I called it drum-line with clarinet solo because the instrumentation was five drummers and a clarinet. That was my band! At that point my beginners were still sharing instruments. I didn’t get instruments for every student in the band until March, so I took the drum-line to adjudication, and we used the MENC rating sheet. We scored a 2 out of 5, with 1 being highest. I sent a letter home telling the parents – it was really exciting.

   While all the extra effort does affect her personal life, she doesn’t appear to make a sharp distinction between her work and her life:

   Well, I played in a community band and a community orchestra last year. I think it’s really important for teachers to show their students that we are performers too. I teach privately for six hours on Saturday, so my kids know I’m really busy. I kind of have a life, but, it revolves around music. I had a standing dinner date with colleagues on Thursday nights before we started our rehearsals last year. Sometimes I would get to go out for a beer on Saturday nights if I was really lucky.

   Leslie quickly established solid classroom management skills. She said,

   I pretty much told the kids on day 1 that band was going to be different than they were used to. I told them that I expected them to work hard, and if they didn’t work hard they could stay after school for detention, and we’d go over how you participate in band. It took them a couple of weeks to realize that when I was behind my stand, it was time to make music. I didn’t actually have to issue any detentions. It took some time but they did get it. I keep my pacing quick.
   Last year my rehearsals were just a gift from God because so many times I was at a loss for what to do. I didn’t have a full band, and I teach in the cafeteria so people kept coming in and interrupting the rehearsal. The room wasn’t a dedicated music space, but the kids were patient. I think what worked in my favor is that I was so different from their last teacher. I just came in with energy, and was gung ho. I’m short but mighty! I told them that if they wanted to mess around I had parents’ phone numbers programmed into my cell phone.
    I did call a couple of parents in the middle of class. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Those parents were supportive and didn’t get defensive. One father came into school and programmed his cell phone number into my phone himself and told me to call him anytime his child misbehaved!

   Leslie said that things are a little different this year because her enrollment has grown tremendously. In some ways, her classroom management skills are more challenged because she has more students now and a diverse group of abilities.

    All of my veterans who are now in eighth grade are excited because many of their friends saw the things we did last year and have now joined band. My middle school band grew three hundred percent. I had a total of nine kids last year, and this year I have forty. It’s awesome – half of them have never played an instrument. I have kids who have played three and four years, and kids who don’t even know what their instrument is called. So, it’s an interesting balance of, “You guys go and practice your regional audition pieces while I show them how a saxophone goes together.”

   Leslie reminisced about an interesting behavior modification technique she tried on the first day of school:

   I made them go out and practice marching on the first day of school when they couldn’t control themselves. The first day they were having issues just quieting down long enough so I could say a sentence. Finally, I said, “Alright, we’re going outside.” They were really excited until I lined them up and taught them attention. I taught them their first step and they complained for about two seconds, until I made them start marching and it got better. They are finally beginning to understand what needs to happen in rehearsal. I’ve had to pull a few of my veterans aside to speak to them individually about their peer leadership. They know what needs to happen for us to be good again. And, they helped get their friends under control.

   Many first-year teachers struggle with classroom management because they don’t know what to expect from students. This was not the case for Leslie:

  I knew what I wanted – I wanted it to be like a collegiate ensemble, where you sit in your seat, you are ready to go five minutes after the bell rings, and you are warmed up. We are getting there. We’re not there yet – we are like a middle school band right now, but I’ve found classroom management to be very different between my big band rehearsals, my music appreciation classes, and my recorder classes. Band, I know what a band is supposed to look and sound like at any point in the rehearsal but recorder class? How many times can you play “Hot Cross Buns” a week before going insane? I try hard to not let the kids know how much I dislike recorder and to make it fun. We are starting a recorder ensemble this year so I think that will make it more interesting for everyone.

   Leslie talked about her concert last spring and the performances she is planning for this year. The students in this band program had never had a concert performance in the past so it was a big part of her job to educate the community about performance etiquette. She said,

  The children didn’t know what a band concert was. Because my elementary band kids saw me about ten minutes a week for instructional time and they didn’t have their own instruments until March, they were way behind – they weren’t even where most beginners are in December. So, they played short songs in chamber groups from the beginning of the method book. The parents didn’t know what to expect and were a little taken aback. And then in the middle, I had the drum-line play because everyone loves a drum-line. They worked really hard and deserved a spot on the concert, even though you might not normally have marching band play. I finished up with my advanced band of sixth through eighth graders. I recruited a flute player and a clarinet player at the last minute, and I asked a bunch of colleagues to play. I had bass trombone, another clarinet, and saxophone.
   We played a beginning band piece – I mean, six notes and they worked on it all spring. We got to run through it with faculty at the dress rehearsal. That was the only time the students actually heard the piece – live at the dress rehearsal, which was right after school the day of the concert. I kept all the kids after school by myself for four hours – I had eighty kids, and I was the only supervisor, so I just locked the cafeteria doors so no one could leave. We had a pizza party and I made cookies for them.

   Leslie talked about her performance goals for this year:

    We are doing two concerts, a parade, and band adjudication. I’ve picked the music for the December concert – it’s all beginning band music – no more than six notes because half of my band just started to play. We have some new cadences and my drum-line can play easy high school cadences. Some of them are writing their own. They are figuring out how to notate what they hear as I am trying to get them reading from both directions.

   Although Leslie was a relatively inexperienced teacher, she seemed fairly adept at teaching to her individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. She talked about the challenges she sees in her job because of a diverse talent and experience level. She said,

   When I walked into this job, there were two percussionists who just have a phenomenal ear for rhythm, perhaps because of the music they hear on the radio. Their ears gravitate to those complex rhythmic patterns, so when you ask them to play something they’ll play a rhythmically complex pattern even if it isn’t very melodically interesting. I try to give them different ways to connect what they already know to something more challenging.

   Leslie has asked these two more advanced percussionists to write their own music as a way to challenge them while she works with the less experienced students. She constantly finds ways to keep everyone interested and active making music. “I have to come up with different ways to get them to stay focused,” she said. “If they are each doing something that makes them kind of uncomfortable, they don’t smack talk with the other too much. We have enough smack talk!”
   When was asked to sum up the advice she would give to a first-year teacher, she immediately said,

   You won’t know what your first year will be like – there is no way to predict. You are going to show up on your first day, and you’ll have all these great ideas, and you’re going to realize that none of them apply to your situation. Take a deep breath every time you get overwhelmed. Go hide somewhere in the school – calm down.