Always More to Do

Every time I think about teaching as a job, it just seems like there needs to be a better word for what teachers do each day.  The time and energy it takes to simply keep a group of children occupied, let alone finding ways to present new information and experiences that will encourage learning is intensive to say the least.  I go home each evening, exhausted, but fascinated.

A never-ending supply of variables present themselves through any moment of the day.  If a group enters noisily, and I do not correct it, the entire class period is affected.  Every group reacts to lessons a bit differently, some may need more or less instruction in a variety of ways.  Kids coming from broken homes act out or attach themselves to you or completely shut down.  The kids who just need someone to let them speak, the ones who hide behind others and will not talk at all.  Some who become overwhelmed and need a space to collect themselves.  Sometimes it is heartwarming, other times heartbreaking.  But there is a distinct pressure to make the most of the time.

The first year, so far putting together lessons takes up the most time.  Working in a new area, with new students, with resources chosen by someone else, developing a curriculum to fit a district model; it is certainly a process.  The best part is when a lesson comes together well and the students really take something from it.  But even the best lesson that went off without a hitch one day, could be completely off the mark for the next group.  I try different approaches, talk to other teachers, observe their classes, trying to gauge how to go about the next time all the while thinking that there is not enough.

The more I talk with other educators, the more ideas and tools I receive.  Every day I add a new element to keep things moving, to engage the students, to hopefully make them think and spur some curiosity.  What I really am looking for is to make sure they all feel welcome and encouraged to do more than what they would otherwise know how to do.  Not there yet by any means, but I’ll be working on it.  There is a certain frustration in knowing that I am not the teacher I want to be.  Just need to remember that it is about the journey, there really is no set destination.  Maybe I need a few years here.

On to the next week, there is plenty of work to be done.  Definitely grateful to have a supportive school community to work in and help develop.


I’ll See You Next Time

The majority of my adult life, in fact almost all of it, has been spent in jobs requiring evening or later hours and flexible schedules.  Between school and ensembles, it was always important to be able to shift around a work schedule.

Now I find myself in a situation with regular hours, weekends free, and I see the sun rise and set.  Perhaps it is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, however, some anxieties have been cropping up.

Every other instance of teaching experience has been short term.  Substitute teaching, even student teaching, although longer, was certainly not at this caliber.  There is a certain safety in short term, having someone else in the classroom, not being wholly responsible for the students, in knowing you can quit a part-time job when you need to, or take a longer weekend for an impromptu trip.  This has built into a reaction to drastic changes in my life.

There is a feeling of unease with my position.  We spend so much time looking forward to when we finish high school, when we finally finish an undergraduate degree, and we are bred to believe that “you’ve made it!” when we summit these peaks.  Naturally, as the dust settles, there is a bit of a let down as if someone pulled one over on you.  It is easy to feel that the journey will be done when we reach x despite knowing that it is really just another piece of the process.

Part of me has felt that instrumental music is where I truly wish to be, and I do believe it to be true, but the unease is simply because I am not comfortable or settled into this new role.  I will see the fifth graders who needed to sit out for half a class period for rude behavior, I need to learn the names of the five first grade classes, and I will have to teach in new ways I have not experienced before for this whole school year.  No turning back, no wavering in responsibility.  Growing pains seems like the best description.

So acknowledge the feelings, realize what is necessary, and push on.  I know the kind of teacher I want to be, the one these kids deserve, and I have many resources to help guide the way.  Here’s to a new week!  Let it be faster paced, have more variety in lessons, more energy, and better, more consistent management!

“Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” —–Morihei Ueshiba

It’s a Craft

This week, as promised, I focused on how I use my voice in the classroom.

The first couple days I was very aware of how loud or soft I was, how often I gave instructions and the length of time it took to give explanations or instruction.  It was surprising how much more I wanted to say or how easy it is to simply try to talk over the bustle of students.  The second day was noticeably better than the first and the results were dramatic.

I begin each class by showing a video of a musical performance as they walk in.  We take a couple of minutes to discuss what they observed.  In this segment, I tried to start out by softening my voice, but still used lots of inflection and facial gestures.  I tend to speak with my hands, too.  In just about every class it made for a quick way to gather their attention.  They were actively listening.

Many times I stopped my instruction when I heard extra conversations.  I tried my best not to repeat myself, but to move on to the next part.  The most notable change happened in second grade.  We were working on a rhythm activity with manipulatives, I clapped a rhythm and they would notate it in popsicle sticks.  There were three opportunities to hear the rhythm and each time before I began, there was one notification before.  “First time,” and then there it was; “second time,” and the same for the last.  It took a couple rounds before the students really took notice and most figured out that the best way to check their answers was to tune in to my voice and shut off theirs.

As with any new position, there are pieces to learn as they occur.  Some new aspects came up and sidetracked my focus for day four, so it reminded me that teaching truly is a craft.  Every day you return to the grindstone and work.  You fine-tune the quirks and details.  When you start, the ‘details’ are much larger pieces like the lesson itself, the transitions between activities.  Relating back to practicing an instrument, after some time, smaller, more precise moments become clear and the parts we clean in practice require a subtler approach.  Teaching is a craft.  A practice that is experienced and becomes clearer with intentional work.

Continuing on, I want to make the use of my voice a constant focus.  It is a fundamental tool in management and technique, as much a part as lesson planning and assessing understanding.  The real fun is in growing, watching the students grow and knowing that your skills are growing, too!  Slowly but surely!

Voice is the Baton

There was a distinct moment during student teaching where time seemed to halt as all sixty band students’ eyes were on me. They were listening, if just for a moment, to me and my face went flush, words escaped, and then it was lost on some whisp of a thought process. It had never been spelled out so clearly that students would be looking for answers to questions, for more in-depth information, to feed off my energy until that moment.

It is a rush, feeling needed and useful in that way. Of course, cultivating those moments where students are thirsty for knowledge and willing to listen is an undertaking. Every day is different, each group is unique, and finding great ways to engage them all takes experience and resource hunting. Keep pushing forward!

This article came across my feed a few days ago and will be the focus of improving this next week.

The biggest problem I hear from other teachers in my building and the one that is causing the most disruption for me is the talking. Students having extra conversations or needing to comment after every point, it can take quite a bit of time from a lesson. Here is a resource pinpointing techniques to build a listening environment.

Things I can focus on for this next week are softening my voice, to stop repeating myself, and cut the extra words. Clear, concise, and one time. The less talking I do, the better off we will be and the more time my students will be doing! Plenty of rhythm and form experiences for them this week.

Softening my voice seems funny as often my supervisor for student teaching would tell me to speak louder. Subtle difference in the concept, here I will be using my voice to draw their ears in, and there are around twenty-five in the room, not sixty. There have been numerous times where I have caught myself speaking very loudly in order to be heard over extra talking. It is a natural response, speak louder. Unfortunately this simply illustrates that students can feel free to continue talking and that they will still hear the information. There is no work or focus on the part of the student, whereas I am bending over backwards. Setting high expectations starts with an expectation that students will be in class working and learning. Listening and following directions are incomparable life skills when it comes to school. Music class should reflect that and it comes down to me.

The best part of the article, this puts the power in the hands of the teacher. There may be the one kid who pushes buttons every once in a while, however, the majority will conform to the rules and management style of the teacher. The fifth graders may need to repeat transitions like the first graders if directions were not followed. Stay with those boundaries and expect students to listen.

The classroom is only as great as it can be envisioned to be. Listen closely, we are diving into making music.

Here we go! Week number four!

Measures of Success

Three weeks of school and although I am excited about having made it through, there needs to be another way to measure success.

Making it through the day without losing the class, that is step one for measuring success as a brand new teacher. It is a good feeling to know that, at least for that day, you were engaging and managing the class well enough. This is often how far it goes with substitute teaching unless the assignment is for an extended amount of time.

The second measure of success is having a lesson go very well. It is not perfect, but the students were focused, working hard, and management became much simpler. This really speaks to having a quality lesson plan is the best form of management. Students want to do well, they want to learn, they want to feel successful on some level, but often we face a variety of disinterest, attention-seeking behaviors, or behaviors to ward off failure. It is a difficult balance that, once you start to understand where your students are, you can meet them there and build successes to move them far beyond that.

The best lesson I have had so far was actually with kindergarten. Because of their age and lack of experience in a school setting, having many different activities that involve as many as possible or all is very helpful. We moved from one activity quickly to the next, I repeated a transition that was noisy after explaining my expectations, and everything we did, all musical concepts of course, was presented as a game. So far this works for every grade, as long as it is appropriate for their age. The fifth graders will be offended if they find something too babyish.

That was one lesson out of the three weeks I have taught. Granted I have had many others that I felt went well or worked out, yet there were always moments that slipped away or were not effectively placed. Reflecting on these experiences, I have been making adjustments and really that is exactly what a good teacher should be doing. Each group of students presents different challenges and it will simply take time to find the best ways to navigate a lesson on any given day. What a job!

Moving past using a single lesson as a measure of success in the classroom, what would be next? As someone who likes to set small goals to feed into a larger one, I will be striving to have an entire day of solid lessons. That means the lesson plans were put together well, the transitions and explanations were thought through, management was quick and effective, the atmosphere remained positive, and the students were engaged from ‘bell-to-bell.’ The next goal would be to create a string of these days.

With the nature of school, every day will be different. My position has me teaching the same lessons four days in a row, but just because a lesson works well with one group of third graders, does not mean it will work just as well with the next. Each classroom has its own dynamic and as much as I can try to be prepared, there will be times where it just will not work as well. I have to be mindful that I have known these students for three weeks, most of which I have seen three, maybe four forty-five minute class periods. Instead of seeing those lessons as a mistake or failure, it has to be taken in stride. Make note of what happened, figure out why, and make adjustments for that group next time.

As I have yet to reach that next tier of successes as a teacher, in my mind at least, I can only ponder the next pieces. Long term lesson planning, assessing goals and more individualized benchmarks, performance opportunities to build community within the school; there will be time to work on those parts. For now it is great to keep those in mind while working to refine my skills.

The musician in me cannot help but to relate all of this to that of learning an instrument. Years spent continually working on the fundamental skills, then scaffolding in new terminology, techniques, and more focused practice. Eventually there will come a point where it feels like a terrific performance. After going over these two measures again and again, changing the tempo, varying the articulations, you finally have the chance to go back to the beginning and just play with everything in context. You just play. And all the pieces you fine-tuned in those hundred times flow together, the sound bouncing off the walls, feeling completely involved in the moment and completely certain of where it is leading. Understanding the ebbs and sways of the composition, intuitively performing the physiological responses to communicate the interpretation; I imagine it will feel like that. Not to mention the amazing interactions with students. It is awesome to see their faces light up!

Three weeks in and this is where I am. Perhaps it is part of the survival stage as all of these lessons are new and finding the resources to match is time-consuming, but one day at a time! Moving along and looking forward to the weeks and successes to come!

When Does Surviving Turn to Thriving?

The first week of school as a first year teacher is in the books!

Celebrated this successful use of my degree by going to the laundromat and heading to bed before 10…  Really!  This is a demanding, tiring, exciting position and I cannot wait to see where it goes!

A few details about what I have encountered over this week.  Kids are awesome!  Lots of energy and the elementary kids are (mostly) excited to learn new things.  They definitely push boundaries and I expect that to be more so next week.  Transitions between activities must be thought through!  Have a variety of activities and ways of working with different learning styles.  Kindergarteners are completely different to work with than any other grade.  Effective pacing and solid lessons are the best form of management.  Every class is different and some combinations of students produce very different results.  Veteran teachers are a gold mine of information about working with students.

In any case, the beginning of the school year is incredibly important.  The beginning is where expectations, procedures, and first impressions are formed.  Any teaching literature will say the same thing, this is what sets the tone for the rest of the year.  So, I did my best to focus on that truism and created interactive lessons where we went over rules and I had a chance to assess where my students are.  It took the week to meet everyone at the school, nearly 600 students, all of which I am responsible for, and I think overall it went quite well.  (How well I will see in the coming months.)

Some things I have realized:

  • No class will ever fully prepare you for this job
  • You cannot be friends with your students, there must be clear teacher and student roles
  • It is so very very easy to justify not following through with discipline
  • School is a community and you have to be part of it
  • Ask many many questions because no one will remember to fill you in on everything

I have what feels like a great, supportive, and competitive team of teachers, support staff, and administrators to work with.  The most difficult class I taught this week, was in fifth grade.  This group had a cluster of girls with bad attitudes, did not want to participate, just laugh and talk when I was talking.  After a warning, having two of them sit out, and separating them in my seating chart, it just felt that their attitude issue was creating a negative atmosphere in my classroom.  It’s music, it should be fun and a great place to be expressive and try new things.  I do not want to spend that time putting out fires when there were plenty of kids who wanted to participate and try what I asked.  During lunch and after school I took some time to talk with the fifth grade classroom teachers, the counselor, and I will speak with the assistant principal on Monday morning.  The advice was to be very firm and get rid of warnings, they are in fifth grade, at this point behavior expectations are clear and if they are being ignored, quick consequences are the best strategy.  Maybe I’ll be sending a couple folks to the office next week.

First year teaching articles/graphics all describe much of the year as surviving.  Developing your own curriculum, learning what lessons and methods work with students, and then discovering what the school and district you work in expect.  It feels like a constant learning curve to be navigated with flexibility.  I wonder when that will turn into confidence and being ready for anything.  Although, I have to say it doesn’t feel like I am just surviving right now.  I have an idea of where I want to go, it is more a matter of collecting and using the resources to make it happen.  Lots of legwork, but hopefully we will have a great year!

Now I have lesson planning to do!  And I might go enjoy the sunshine this weekend a bit, too!


Three days until school begins.  It’s going to be a wild ride!

Reading articles about first year teachers and what they experience, this is the anticipation stage.  Preparation, lesson planning and replanning, staff meetings, classroom setup, and so many binders of information to read.  The amount of logistical pieces that go into preparing for school as a teacher is staggering.  Not only that, but the list grows daily as new information from veteran teachers and administration is discussed.  Did you set up the voicemail system?  Did you find out how many copies you are allowed to make?  When do you have meetings?  Have you read through the district curriculum?

And we’re starting school when??

Much of the education for teachers prior to graduating and licensure is focused on content and developing a teaching philosophy.  My classmates and I talked regularly about what area of music we wanted to teach and what age group.  Did we believe marching band could develop solid musicians and the effectiveness of Orff or Kodaly methodology beyond general music.  It was a great atmosphere and we had numerous opportunities to observe teachers out in the trenches.  I believe that was the most beneficial aspect of my education (teaching side anyway), actually seeing teachers in action.  That is where we are finally exposed to classroom management, pacing, transitions, and organization skills.

Content is able to be learned when procedures and management are effective.  Substitute teaching was a fabulous experience.  Every day was a new day to practice management skills.  When students feel secure in their environment, knowing the expectations and consequences, both positive and negative, everyone can accomplish more.  Obviously having engaging lesson plans makes a big difference, but even the best lessons are no substitute for strong management.  The beginning of a school year is where those procedures are introduced and demonstrated.  It has to be from the first moment consistent, fair, and quick.  It will take weeks to establish, particularly since I see each group just once or twice a week, but will become easier to work with as the year continues.

Meeting the other teachers and staff of the school is also super important.  It’s a community and being able to work with these folks from the beginning will make life easier when issues arise.  As a new person in the building, I want to be flexible with extra duties or expectations thrown my way.  The principal’s secretary, building engineer, building secretary, and paraprofessionals are some of the most important people to know (and perhaps bring chocolate to).  Then, be ready because “your time” during a school day is still part of a contracted time that will probably be used for other things that cannot be anticipated.  Parents, detention, other teachers, administrators will be calling.  They all know where your classroom is, too.  (And let’s not mention the assessments and evaluations I’ll be experiencing.)

So with all that in mind, I head into the first week of school with hope, lots of excitement, and anxiety.  The second stage of a first year teacher, survival.  Let’s see how far I make it before this happens!!  Hah!

Happy teaching!