The profession of a music educator is diverse and unique. There are many different facets to our jobs and not enough time to learn everything before we step into a classroom. Since I began my teaching career, I have learned several approaches along the way that I wish I had known before my first day on the job.
Here are 10 strategies from the “other side” that have proven to be helpful for first-year music educators:
1. Find a Mentor
First things first: you need a mentor.
If you are a secondary level director you will most likely have a head director that can help you every day on the job. The elementary music field can be lonelier because most of the time those teachers end up on a campus by themselves. If you are not assigned a mentor in your first year, find someone who can help you!
You need to have a seasoned professional that you can call if you have questions; someone who can watch you teach and give you trusted advice. If you are new to the area or unfamiliar with the professionals in the district, contact your fine arts director or your local music education association for help in finding someone who can meet those needs.
2. Ask Questions!
Most principals and administrators would rather have a teacher who asks questions than one who makes assumptions. If you are unsure about the way to proceed in any situation, ask! Take notes and listen to the other teachers around you. Learn the culture of the school and district that you are working in.
The more informed you are about your colleagues, bosses, and students, the better choices you will make for your program. It is also a good idea to meet with the other fine arts teachers in your district. Make sure you maintain a line of communication with them throughout the year, especially if you are an elementary music teacher.
3. Be Open-minded
When we leave our beloved universities and professors after graduation, we can sometimes have a preconceived notion that our method of teaching is the only way to be successful. There are so many effective ways to teach and we need to be open-minded and adaptable.
This is especially true regarding technology. Resources, applications, and websites are rapidly produced now and it is important to find ways to integrate technology even in the music classroom.
4. Be Cooperative
Be willing to coordinate with the people you work with by sharing ideas and being cooperative. “Teamwork makes the dream work!” Most of the time, fine arts teachers are by themselves on campuses and it is important to be supportive of the other fine arts. Even with teachers that are outside of the arts, being approachable and communicative makes problematic issues easier to solve for you and your students. This is especially true with coaches and scheduling conflicts for middle and high school students.
5. Embrace Mistakes
You will not be perfect; you will be human. Don’t sweat the small stuff and keep pushing. Do your best and make mistakes because that is how you will learn. Even the director of 35 years who gets annual sweepstakes is not perfect and never will be. As musicians, we know that every professional was once a beginner.
6. “You Is Smart, You Is Kind, You Is Important.”
“Use your training” is something you might hear in a Star Wars movie, but it relates so well to first-year teachers. Never forget everything you accomplished to get to where you are, including state certification tests, teaching internships, recitals and more. You might not remember specific facts and objectives every second of every day, but you have the tools to find out.
Use what you know, find out what you don’t. You can do it!
7. Rest Is Part of the Job
Take care of yourself so you can take care of your students. A day in the classroom is problematic if the teacher is exhausted. Prioritize and work hard, but don’t push yourself to exhaustion; it’s not worth it.
Music educators especially need their rest because we frequently attend extracurricular events like football games and honor choir clinics. We work longer hours than most teachers so there must be time to rest so that energy can be maintained throughout the week.
8. Inventory Investigation
When arriving at a new campus it is important to find out what instruments and materials you have to work with before the students come on the first day. It is also important to have an inventory list because you never know what system, or lack thereof, you have inherited. Get all those ducks in a row before school starts so you are prepared.
9. Understand Staff Roles
The administrative assistant that manages your classroom budget, the custodian that will help you set up for your choir concert on the stage, the records clerk that will help you learn how to input grades: these are the people at your campus that have vital roles at your workplace.
As teachers, we spend so much time preparing lessons and teaching our students, it is sometimes easy to forget the logistical side of our profession. It is important to find out who does what job and to be respectful, helpful and accommodating. Don’t forget that these people serve every child and adult in the school.
10. Know the Law
This last strategy is the most vital in my opinion, especially because if you do not fight for yourself and your rights as a fine arts teacher, chances are that no one will. In most states, there are mandated policies regarding duty-free lunches, professional development, appraisal systems, and student pull-outs from classrooms. It is important to know these policies and stay updated.
The first year of teaching doesn’t have to be difficult. Use these strategies from the other side to thrive in your first year of teaching music. You will face many challenges, but don’t forget you have all the tools to make it through them. And by the way, welcome to the world of teaching and inspiring young minds. Music education is significant for a child’s development, so I congratulate you on a profession well-chosen. Good luck!