One Step At A Time, Reflections of First- and Second-Year Teachers, Part 2

Elizabeth B. Peterson | September 2016

This is the second part of a survey of young teachers; part one ran in the August issue. Several directors who were in the first two years of their teaching careers shared their experiences in the following areas:

    •    The topics they felt most prepared for by their undergraduate training.

    •    Those subjects they wished they had worked on and studied more in school.

    •    Two professional development clinics that they needed most.

    •    Balance of personal and professional life.

The first-year teachers were asked about their greatest source of distress. The second-year teachers were asked what they had learned with a year under their belts and which areas remained difficult. Because perspectives can change over the course of a year, I contacted the directors again in March to see how they had learned and adapted.

Name Withheld
First-year teacher

    I teach in a Pre-K through 12th grade building about 30 minutes from where I grew up. Each graduating class is about 25. Many of the teachers I work with went to this school, as did their extended families, so everyone knows each other. It is a small, rural farm town. I teach Pre-K through 4th grade general music, 5th and 6th grade chorus (which meets more like general music classes), 7th and 8th grade chorus (14 students), and two sections of 7th grade general music, which I really don’t enjoy.

Best Prepared
    I felt prepared in conducting, band pedagogy, basic piano, ensemble and chamber playing, and secondary instruments.

Less Prepared
    Two semesters is not enough keyboard experience, particularly when we are expected to teach general music or choral classes with our certification. Keyboard should be required for two years for all music education majors, not just vocalists. As a choral and general music teacher, I can get by, but I wish I had more experience.
    Percussion should be a year-long course to cover more technique and general/classroom music drumming (such as African drums and drum circles).
    I do not think I could lead a successful jazz band or orchestra. I played in orchestra and have limited jazz experience but lack the pedagogical knowledge to lead those ensembles successfully without emailing previous college professors and driving them nuts with thousands of questions.
    One semester of general music for children, even with a fantastic professor, is too little. I still do not have the tools to feel confident teaching general music. I subbed for elementary general music teachers when I graduated last December and borrowed as many of their ideas as I could. The elementary school music teacher I replaced also shared all of her things when she retired. Without this assistance, I would be lost.
    Teaching 7th grade general music is literally giving me gray hair. I want to love teaching it, but I don’t. I created a new 7th grade general music curriculum, and the students still aren’t having it. Teaching them is exhausting and makes me lose some of my passion, and that isn’t healthy for anyone in the room. The bottom line is I need more tips and tricks for teaching middle school general music.
    I also feel unprepared for working with special needs students. Many of our elementary and middle school students have various needs, and we do not have enough aides to assist them, so all special area teachers are struggling with how to best engage these students.

Professional Development Workshops I Need
• Curriculum development for new teachers
• General Music in the middle school (I am attending a session on this soon)
• Working with students with needs

Finding Balance
    I barely have a social life, even though I try. I drive over an hour each day. I leave right at 3:30 p.m., and get home at 4. Each night I try to cook, work out, read, and relax, unless there are meetings or papers to grade.
    I keep playing bassoon and other woodwinds as much as I can, so I don’t lose sight of why I love music. I play with a semi-professional orchestra and a community band and teach six bassoon lessons and two private oboe lessons on weekends. I would be losing it without those private students.
    I have to plan each day hour by hour, including weekends. Even when I have time for a night out, I am often too tired. Few of my friends still live in my hometown or college town. Because I’m lonely, I need to find more ways to have a social life, and meet more new people. It’s just not happening yet.
    This crazy, busy life, in addition to the stress of working in a small, economically challenged community with many special needs students, stressful testing, and considerable politics in the job, has altered my 5-10 year plan. This saddens and scares me. I still have passion for music or education, but it is changing. I need to get my social life in check to help that. I think if I do that, I will feel better.

Wisdom in the Second Year
    I started my job at the end of the last school year – in April. I now know more people (although I am still often confused for a student by kids and colleagues), and I understand the students more. Over the summer I reflected on what worked and what I wanted to change. I understand better now that change will not happen overnight. I will have to advocate more for music and the arts. So much of the ten weeks from April to June were a blur because I was in charge of ten concerts, including one in my second week. I think it went well, but I saw how important it is to be organized. I look forward to having more time to prepare this year

Greatest Distress

    Though the other music teacher, administration, superintendent, and parents are quite supportive, I still feel like I am just going through the motions, not as strong a teacher as I want to be, and not truly happy in my first job. and it is only October of my first full year.
    I hate that so much of what I have written sounds negative. It is hard for me to be honest because I want to love every aspect of my job, but I don’t. What I do love is teaching elementary general music. I never expected to love general music so much, and would not mind being a general music teacher for a long time. There are other parts of my job, whether it is the grade level, the subject matter, or the loneliness caused by the demands of being a teacher, that I really wish I was happy about.
    This is a good first job, even with the stress and unhappiness. I’m just happy to hear from others who are in the same boat and are people I respect so much. My department head is a wonderful mentor to me, and our new high school principal is a former music teacher. So, I have a lot working in my favor.
    I have been seeking advice from former teachers, and I know I will get through. I knew the first year wasn’t going to be a breeze, and I am fortunate to have a job. I may not be here forever, but it’s a good place for now.

Name Withheld
Second-year teacher

Note: The next respondent has done wonderful things in his district but still has a hard time thinking that he has done enough. His reflections in March were an honest summary of a difficult year that did have bright moments too.

Best Prepared
    I was best prepared in conducting, band pedagogy, leadership, knowledge of repertoire, secondary instruments, and instrument repair.

Less Prepared
    I wish I had spent more time outside of the School of Music.
    I feel inadequate leading my jazz band. I have played in several jazz bands and led semi-professional ones, but leading a high school group has been a real challenge. Frankly, most of my students can’t read music. It has been difficult devising exercises to improve reading skills without making the rehearsal tedious. I have a new drummer this year with limited experience and no background knowledge. Teaching him patterns for different styles has been difficult for me, and I have had to do a lot of legwork.
    Percussion class should have been a full year. My percussion knowledge and technique is just not as strong as any of my wind chops.
    I have several students interested in contrabass for concert band and jazz band. Class strings just felt like a blur to me. Bass among all of those instruments should have been highlighted because a band director deals with that instrument quite a bit.
    Seventh grade general music is the bane of my existence. I don’t feel like I know what I am doing and don’t enjoy teaching it. My time in undergraduate general music class does not apply to what I am expected to do with these 7th graders. I have tried guitar, drumming, and piano units, and nothing seems to stick. A mandatory college class geared specifically to this level would have helped.
    More time on fundraising in one of our instrumental methods courses would have been helpful. In one day this week, my students brought in $4,500 dollars for a fundraiser. It was a little overwhelming.

Professional Development Workshops I Need
• Curriculum development for middle school general music classes, especially for non-choral music teachers.
• Ideas on creating a harmonious department.
• Grant writing and how to take advantage of funding methods including state-level sources.

Finding Balance
    My balance between work and personal life is terrible but getting better. I play in three bands and two orchestras right now, and my brass quintet meets every few months. I no longer stay at school until 7 p.m. I play keyboard, lead a choir, and teach seven private lessons on Sundays. I spend my Saturdays practicing at the local college and attending concerts.
    I have worked to get my life in order, so I don’t lose my mind. I have been going to the gym at 6 a.m. for an hour and then practicing for 40 minutes before school. I try to leave by 4:30 if possible. So far, I have felt better about the balance. I really enjoy what I am doing but the balance is all messed up. I want to take up clogging, and I have been doing woodworking on Saturdays.
    I wish I had a house but don’t have the means yet with my budget. Apartment life messes with my balance. Almost every day I want to rake leaves, plant flowers, and read at my leisure. My apartment feels like a cell. I can’t practice or entertain.

Wisdom in the Second Year
    Dealing with parents is easier. In the beginning I struggled to deal with some parents who were squeaky wheels, but they were the outliers. I don’t chase students who want to quit like I did last year. If students do not like what I am doing, they can quit.
    Dealing with other high school band directors is tricky business, and I am learning to choose my words more carefully. I am working to repair my band program’s reputation regionally.
    This year has been more difficult because the program has grown. We added 21 students to the band from last year, and I have already spent my year’s budget on supplies. We have four new small ensembles. Some students lack instruments because the school and the students don’t have the means to get them. The year’s experience helps me handle the pressure from various forces. I have a much better understanding of the bureaucracy of the school and the politics of the district and the community. Although I was pretty good at it before, I am much better at defusing situations when they come up. In general, I appear to be much more evenhanded and level-headed. When I get tenure, I will advocate for my students much more aggressively.

Month of March Reflection:
    Last fall, I was asked to host a music festival at my school with just four weeks notice. The host school bailed at the last minute and the superintendent volunteered me. Corralling some of the other band directors to help was challenging. At the same time was I was gigging heavily with an orchestra. On Friday night of the festival, I left at the end of the night to play principal in a symphony an hour away. I changed my suit in 30 seconds and was in my seat one minute before the downbeat.
    Between December and February, there were some difficult politics in the music department of my school. A popular teacher was not offered tenure, and it was challenging for everyone. Between parents and students trying to help this person keep a job and press and media reports, it became a big deal. I was caught in the middle until this teacher was actually removed from the school. A new director was offered the position, and that also caused stress because we had to cancel our music department trip. My students’ activity account lost a few thousand dollars. We now have $120. Throughout the whole thing, I was accused of not being transparent by parents. I could say and do nothing as an untenured teacher.
    I’ve been elected to serve on a few high-level curricular committees for the district. It is amazing to me the chess game teachers and administrators play against one another. People seem to be friends on one board and mortal enemies on another.
    The band has been making a lot of progress. Student attitudes are changing, and music has become an important part of their day. All of the stress has made me more resolute. At times, the only thing I enjoy is making music by performing.
    At one time, I wanted to be a college band director (actually the president of CBDNA), but I’m not sure I see the point anymore. I wrote a letter of resignation during the worst of it and almost submitted it a few weeks ago because the situation was so toxic. I couldn’t afford to quit. I have poured my heart and soul into my program, my freelancing, and the people around me, but I am not sure I am cut out for this. (I’m sorry this is so dark.)

Name Withheld
First-year teacher

    I am a general music teacher at a special education middle school (6-8) in the South Bronx. Although my undergraduate preparation focused mainly on instrumental music education and I am a flute player, my position has no traditional band instruments.

Best Prepared
    I was ready for anything band related: repertoire, classroom management, secondary instruments, conducting, and pedagogy for winds and percussion.

Less Prepared
    I also wish we had more emphasis on students with special needs. I took one class (outside the music school) and while it was quite helpful, many general education techniques really do not work with this population.

Professional Development Workshops I Need
    I wish I could attend a professional development session that focused on general music for special needs students. I frequently find myself staring at blank lesson plans wondering what I could possibly teach them. I know it’s all a learning experience, but I’ve had more failed lessons than successful ones.
    I also wish I could attend a session on music for middle school. I find it hard to keep all students engaged because of varying maturity and cognitive levels. Classroom management has also been a struggle for the same reasons.

Finding Balance
    The balance is terrible. It is partly my fault for drowning myself in work on the weekends, but I am panicking about loans, grad school, and commuting. I hang out with friends once a week, but spend most of my time at home lesson planning and (literally) drawing materials for the next day. I also have an exhausting 11⁄2 hour commute each way, but my rent is much less than it would be in New York City. I prepare my meals in advance and don’t cook much except at breakfast. Errands are done late Friday or Saturday night, grocery shopping and lesson planning Sunday – lather, rinse, repeat. I plan lessons every night because my students are unpredictable, and I never know what will work.

Greatest Distress
    There are two classifications of children with special needs in my school: Autistic and Emotionally Disturbed. All of my students are on the Autism spectrum. They are all in middle school, but cognitive levels range from birth to 13-years old. I have four classes that are nonverbal, and I struggle the most with them. I am currently teaching students guitar, but even my highest functioning students are unable to put one finger on one string, due to poor fine motor skills. I still perform bus duties and interact with the students who are emotionally disturbed, and having to manage both populations can be stressful and confusing.
    Teaching at a school that is just for students with special needs is incredibly stressful, and I can barely look past one period at a time. I feel great as I leave the school and think that my job is also a great first job, but I also realize how unhappy I am as I reflect on the day. It’s getting better every day, I recently changed my 5-10 year plan.

Reflections in March
    The past few months have changed me for the better. Two things that stressed me out in October were my students and the balance between my professional and personal life. These are now two things that bring me joy. My students are some of the coolest musicians I know. I am lucky to have the opportunity to create music with them daily.
    As for my personal life, I quit my retail job, picked up my hobbies again, and made a commitment to health. Since I have excised many of the stressors of my personal life, my professional life has flourished. I feel much more confident and have a much more positive outlook. My job may not be in what I do best, but it’s in what I love, which is creating a positive change through music.
    Two things that have helped me through the past five months are tackling everything one step at a time and letting go of preconceived notions of what progress looks like, because progress is relative.
    Every day is a challenge, blessing, and lesson and we’re all so lucky getting paid to be our best selves and challenge the next generation to be their best selves as well. I never expected to enjoy this job so much. I still miss band and I hope to return to that world soon, but for now, I appreciate what is right in front of me.