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Teaching in Small High Schools

Timothy Heath | September 2014

    My first teaching position was a small band program in a 6-12 school in North Carolina. It may have not been my dream job, but it was full of experiences that will remain with me for the rest of my career. The ideas discussed below would have benefited me greatly had I known and followed them at the start of my career.

The Band’s Role
    When I first took over the job, I was unsure of the band’s expected role in the school. It took me two years to figure out what my principal wanted out of the high school band. Eventually I learned that he really liked to hear from community members, especially those in leadership positions, about how grateful they were to the band for volunteering to perform. The principal saw the band as a good community liaison. Although some administrators want to see a competitive program, mine did not care about competition; he wanted us to promote the school.
In a rural area the band program is an important representative for the high school. It may be one of the only performing or service groups available. We performed in six parades and up to twelve community events during each year. These events took place throughout the county, which had a total population of about 60,000. We performed at Christmas tree lightings, local festivals, and other events, such as Relay for Life, Habitat for Humanity, and the Veterans Day parade.
    We once received an invitation to play for the corporate members of Butterball after they had called at the last minute and requested a jazz band. The students stayed for extra practice after school for a couple of days to make sure we were prepared. Our performance was well received, and after we played for them, Butterball made a donation to the band program. We also gave a similar performance for Mt. Olive Pickles, which also sponsored us.
    Another notable event was playing a Christmas concert at a church in a tiny town. This concert was memorable to the students because of the great hospitality they received from the church and town members. The audience fed the students and spent time getting to know them after the event.
    It is essential to develop friendly relationships with the local mayor and other community leaders. These relationships sometimes started with simple phone calls. I once called to ask the mayor if we could give a Christmas concert, and he loved the idea. In the following years when the mayor continued to ask for the band to perform, my principal was excited to have us out in the community. This made it easier for me to get permission when I needed to ask about other performance opportunities.
    Many teachers fall into the trap of thinking that their class is the most important in the school, but in a small school with only 200-450 students, everyone must share. It took time to figure out that I had to set priorities and work with other teachers. In the time shortly before concerts or marching performances, I had to approach other teachers and say, “You can have these students these days if I can have them on these other days.” This required considerable communication, and sometimes it would take a week to develop a schedule for shared students. One year a football player was also a member of the marching band. I could only have him for two days before a game and half of practice the Monday after a game, but we made it work. I retained many students in the band program because I was willing to share them with others.
    Get to know your fellow teachers and be a team player. Let the teachers in the school know that you are there to help them, too, because teaching is a team effort. There will always be one or two teachers who are unwilling to share students. Get used to it, but remain positive.
    Few teachers in the school realized how much community involvement the band program had. The school published a monthly newsletter, and I asked the person running it if we could have a fine arts page. My wife, who taught middle school band and choir, and I used it to print a calendar and pictures.
    We also developed a culture of service in the band. Students had a daily assignment to pick up a piece of trash from the floor of the school and throw it away. In addition, every time a new faculty member started, my leadership team would deliver a welcome package consisting of a school t-shirt, bumper sticker, window cling, and some of the cowbells that were used at football games. At first, this was just a good way to get rid of a few extra items in the band room, but when the new teachers sent emails saying how nice it was, I realized that this was a good way to build a rapport.

Students and Community
    I taught in a rural community with a diverse population of students, including a large number of migrant Latino students. Understanding the makeup and culture of the community can help in recruiting. I learned to limit participation in marching band competitions because many students needed to attend religious services on Saturdays.
    Sometimes the way a director runs a program may not be the best for the community, of which band students are an extension. Decisions must be made based on how important competitions and social activities are to students. If these topics are overlooked, they can cause a great deal of frustration during the school year. When deciding on structural ideas for your program, try to consider these values.
    If you only have thirty-five wind players, and five of them hate your ideas and quit band, that’s a big enough percentage to set the program back. Five of these players could be your entire low brass section, and even losing one player could wipe out an entire third clarinet section. It sometimes worked best to provide options and to allow the leadership team to vote on some of the music we played. This was how I approached marching band. For pep band at football and basketball games, the students picked out arrangements of standard pop tunes that they knew and liked.
    For concert band performances, I picked pieces that I thought students would enjoy and that worked with the limited instrumentation we had, but in class, we would read and rehearse pieces they had heard other bands play and wanted to try. We played them in class, but we would not perform these pieces because we lacked the instruments to make them work.
    That said, students can sometimes be overzealous with their ideas. With a small school it is difficult to have multiple ensembles because there are too few students to fill them in a traditional sense. I noticed all of the ensembles offered had the same students in them.
    We put on an annual talent show and spaghetti dinner to give students a chance to perform in a small setting. That was our best fundraiser. The original plan was just to have a spaghetti dinner, and then my wife proposed getting students to play. It was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, so she suggested making it a jazz night. Two hours of jazz band was impractical with the number of students we had, so eventually we decided to make it a recital night. Students could play individually or in chamber groups, and they loved the idea. We had a jazz quintet that played 20-30 minutes of music. One student was a singer-songwriter, so he gave a 15-minute performance. The drumline ended the performance, and this became a tradition. We set up a flute choir and a woodwind quintet, and the students rehearsed for this by themselves.
    The first year it was an easy sell, and we made $3,500, but the second year we booked the event on the same night that a local church was holding a fundraiser. We still made around $2,200. A number of people went to the church and then came to our fundraiser. They did not eat but still bought the plates. When scheduling events, it is a good idea to check not only the school calendar, but also the community calendar.

Teacher Characteristics
    Flexibility was the key to making the program successful. I had to get past what I wanted and understand that the students really do come first. Many young teachers fresh out of college are excited and filled with hopes and dreams. It took about a year of trying my ideas before one of my students suggested something that the students wanted to try. I let them try the piece and did not worry about it other than to have fun, and the students had a blast.
    For marching band I asked students what kind of culture they wanted for Friday night. They had seen college bands do some fun things. Through that we found a way to meet in the middle, doing some things I wanted and other things the students wanted, while still having a high-quality program and getting a good education.
    Keeping the students the main priority is important. This is true for all music programs, but it especially matters in a rural school. Get to know the families, as this will help in getting the students as well as the parents on your side. When band members know that you care for their well-being, they will support you forever. This is important at schools of all sizes, but it is even more beneficial in a program with only 20-60 students.
    One of the best things I did in my first year was to stand in the parking lot and meet with the parents after marching band practice. I asked them how they were and told them what we had done that day. This made the parents and students feel that I was approachable. I also stood in the hallway every day and joked with students.
I told students from the beginning that they could come to me with anything. There were a few early incidents. One student got into a lot of trouble one year, and when I stuck up for him, the other students noticed. It took a year and a half for students to decide that I meant it when I said I would help them.
    One night, one of my section leaders called me to say she had run away from home and was scared. She asked if I could come pick her up. I called her mother to talk with her, and my wife and I got the student home safely. The mother and I had a good relationship, and when I called her she said, “I’ll keep calm, just bring my daughter home. She won’t answer my calls.”
    Another key factor to remember is that you will be the only source of music education for the faculty. Embrace this role and help teachers with any music or musical technology question they may have. It always pays to help others.
    Never make fun of the town or community. When you go out in public, remember that there will always be a student or parent who will see you, so keep your behavior in public professional. In a rural area there are usually few places to eat or visit, so many people will observe your behavior.
    For those who are young and single, it can be difficult to relocate to an isolated area with a limited population. Find ways to keep yourself entertained and enjoy the beauty of the rural areas. Take weekend trips to stay refreshed and visit friends until you become rooted in your new community.

    Designing a curriculum for a small school took me a couple of years to really grasp. Small schools necessitate limitations with class offerings, and as a result, many of the ensembles you want to create have to be held after school. By my second year I learned that I had many more grand ideas than one person could implement and fit within the schedule.
    We ended up having a concert band/marching band class in the fall that would be concert band-only for spring. The administration would not change it to be concert band-only for the whole year; we had to have a combined marching/concert band class in the  fall. This was difficult because many of the middle school students who wanted to be in band did not want to march. Ultimately, we changed the approach so that marching band was treated an extracurricular activity, and I allowed a few students to continue participating in band without marching. These students were given alternative assignments, and they were able to continue in band. One of the reasons the students did not want to march was that they did not like the uniforms. To make the uniforms seem cooler, we asked the girls’ varsity basketball coach to dress up in one of the marching band uniforms and lead us through a parade. She agreed, and it was a huge hit.
    In addition, there was a small jazz combo after school. The jazz combo would meet after school, pick out tunes, arrange them, and rehearse them. I attended all of the rehearsals, but this was a student-led ensemble. The students loved it. We also tried to put together a big band, but every single band member wanted to be in it, which was too much. In the end we compromised by playing a big band piece arranged for concert band once a year, which was a good way to give everyone some jazz experience.
    We also had a percussion ensemble that met after school. This group was open to anyone, but because many percussionists were athletes and played basketball, I couldn’t have them after school in winter. We offered this ensemble for middle and high school, and each year the ensemble performed at a local university day of percussion.
    My wife ran a non-competitive winter guard. At a 6-12 school, we had to work around both middle and high school basketball, and there was no gym time available for anything except basketball. We did a stand-still winter guard routine with dancing and choreography, but there was no drill. We had uniforms and everything else, just no floor. This became a staple of the curriculum, and it was also our big recruiting tool for color guard for the fall. The winter guard only performed at basketball games and the spring concert.
    Many teachers in rural areas may be asked to teach classes outside of their specialty, and for me this meant teaching concert choir and show choir. Concert choir was held in the fall and show choir in the spring. The students organized all of the choreography for the show choir. I could help them with staging and music, but the students themselves handled the choreography.
    When choosing music for concert band, think realistically about your instrumentation. You do not have to play the same concert music you played in college to be successful; on the contrary, this music usually will not work in a small setting. Rewrite parts or choose music from flex literature; there are many options for teaching high-quality literature in small program. It is also worth noting that a competition or festival is sometimes not an achievable goal. Find alternatives to these types of events. One alternative that a nearby band director and I used was to take our ensembles to a local university and play for the band directors. The students enjoyed the trip because they were off of school grounds and could spend time on a college campus.

    When taking this position there were many things I did not consider that could have made the experience more successful. Over time I developed ideas on how to make the program work. Following these ideas helped me to build the program and made what could have been a difficult job into a great one.