Avoiding Complacent Teaching: The Importance of Mentorship

Avoiding Complacent Teaching: The Importance of Mentorship

Mentorship is often overlooked in our profession. The right mentoring experience can mean the difference between a mediocre teacher and a great teacher. Some sources (like this one) suggest that nearly fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. I suspect that most of these exiting teachers had little or no quality mentorship during their short-lived careers. But mentoring is not something only of value to new teachers. Even the most experienced teachers can learn from one another and benefit from an alternative perspective.

Hands-On Mentorship

Mentorship comes in many shapes and forms. One of the more familiar forms might be called “hands-on mentorship.” This is the equivalent of having a cooperating teacher coaching a student teacher, or someone frequently helping out a first-year teacher. In Texas, first-year teachers are required to have a seasoned mentor teacher who teaches their subject or something similar.

While I would never want to discount the help I received from my mentor during my first year of teaching, I also frequently called upon the director at a nearby middle school. I talked to her about everything from how to get my clarinets to sound better to how to deal with difficult parents and students. This form of mentorship played a huge role in my success.

The Band Mentor

Another form of mentorship occurs when a clinician periodically visits your band hall, several times a year. Most people refer to this as a “band mentor.” When I first started teaching, I brought in clinicians just a few weeks before a competition. This proved to be a big mistake: had I brought these people in earlier in the year, it would have likely made a bigger difference in the success of my ensembles. It might have also made me a better beginning band teacher.

At my current school district, we are fortunate to hire clinicians on a regular basis. Currently, we have a designated band mentor visit just about every month. He observes our ensembles and stops the class periodically to give both musical and technical feedback. He also shares tips on making the program function better.

Our mentor might make suggestions on posture, hand position, sound fundamentals, and musicianship. Things like posture and hand position may seem like obvious problems; the kind of things we might be too proud to admit could ever occur in our band hall. But the reality is that these things do happen, and students will benefit from correcting them, no matter who points them out. We find it valuable and important that he comes early and repeatedly during the school year so that bad habits are not established, and so the ensemble has time to improve prior to competition or festival.

Are We Prepared for This?

A few times I have had people ask me to clinic their ensemble, only to later have these plans fall through for various reasons. In some cases, it may be that the sessions were canceled because the director was afraid the ensemble would not be prepared for my visit. I believe this is the wrong approach.

Feedback is helpful, and helpful feedback should be applicable to the ensemble at their current level, not where they should be or where they will be later. Here is my thinking: What if the ensemble is finally “prepared,” but has established a really bad habit? Wouldn’t it have been better if I had been there earlier to catch the habit before it was deeply ingrained?

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Collaboration and Other Mentorship Forms

In my district, I am fortunate to work with three other band directors who are in at least a few of my classes every day. I learn the most from these three people. I am able to bounce ideas off of them and receive feedback. Most importantly, however, they challenge me. In addition, we believe that it is important that we are truthful with each other about the progress of our students. This form of mentorship has by far been the most valuable to me during my teaching career.

Mentorship can also take the form of simply exchanging ideas. Every year that our area hosts clinicians for the region band, I try to invite them to dinner or an adult beverage following the concert, simply to pick their brains. I have met so many wonderful people and stolen so many awesome ideas by doing this. This type of mentorship can also be accomplished simply by exchanging ideas with colleagues from nearby schools. With “Friendsgiving” being a trend, I have always thought it would be a neat idea to do a “Bandsgiving” with other directors. Think of how many ideas you would be able to steal! The directors might even be more pleasant than your in-laws.

Another form of mentorship is going to watch someone teach for a day. I try to do this at least once or twice each school year. Recently, a colleague and I took a day on spring break to visit Stiles Middle School and observe their classes. We were surprised to find several other teachers there for the same reason. While there, one young teacher from out-of-state asked for any advice on teaching. My reply was that because he was here doing the exact same thing we were, he was clearly already on the right track. And of course, I mentioned mentorship.

In the past, our school has hired clinicians – in addition to our band mentors – such as professors, retired directors, and private teachers to clinic bands and sections. These are also valuable forms of mentorship. If schedules or budgets do not work and you absolutely cannot have someone come to your class, the next best thing you can do is record your rehearsals and beginning classes. Watch them yourself or send one of them to someone you trust. A lot of times when we are being watched, we turn into someone else. So why not capture your class in its authentic environment? It’s also like having a second director in your room, except that you are watching it and your own feedback gives you a plan for tomorrow’s rehearsal.

Putting Quality Before Pride

There are so many options when it comes to mentorship. It all boils down to two things: managing pride and deciding what kind of teacher you want to be. Sometimes it takes getting down from an extremely high horse before you can allow yourself to ask for help.

Ryan Sanders

Ryan Sanders is the associate director of bands at Gregory-Portland Middle School in Portland, Texas. Bands under his direction have earned numerous awards and superior ratings. Mr. Sanders has conducted ensembles throughout the area and remains active as a clinician.  Sanders has given presentations and master classes on rhythm and Texas All-State music, most recently on “Rhythm That Teaches Itself” at the Texas Music Educators Association. He graduated cum laude from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi with a BME.

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