Thrive, Don’t Just Survive Your First Year of Teaching

Often, the first year of teaching is associated with negative connotations. We are told to “stay afloat,” to “stay one step ahead,” and to “survive.” The purpose of this article is not only to dispel these predispositions, but to also discuss methods, actions, and strategies to acquire, enter, and thrive within the first few years of teaching.

I’ve organized this information sequentially in the form of a timeline, designed for you to use as you complete your education, interview, join the music education profession, and continue into your second year of teaching.

Mindset

The word “survive” unfortunately represents the mindset so many young teachers find themselves in (myself included). Gone are the days of our own class schedules, our naps between practice sessions, and cramming for the piano barrier.

In its place, we find ourselves in an environment where we are responsible for other humans.

We’re expected to correspond with parents, colleagues, and administrators. We’re expected to create lesson plans, to schedule buses, to update grades, to balance budgets, to organize inventory, and to maintain a music library. We may be suddenly asked to produce evidence of how we’re providing differential education when we can’t remember the difference between a 504 or 403b.

Did you catch that we still have yet to address the innate challenges of organizing, maintaining, and effectively teaching a group of students?

All things considered, the first year has undeniable challenges but does not need to be a negative experience.

Preparation

I attended Oklahoma State University with the purpose of studying saxophone with Dr. Jeffrey Loeffert. In addition to an enriching grasp of the saxophone, I gained a priceless model of how to prepare, study, and teach.

February 12, 2012: Dr. Loeffert is minutes away from taking the stage of the concert hall to perform Husa’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble. I ask the senseless question, “Are you nervous?” He responded first by lifting his hand to chest level and spreading his fingers. His fingers, hand, and arm were completely calm and free from tremor. “I’m not overly nervous because I’ve already done the work. The practice and process is done – all’s left to do is perform.”

The light bulb illuminated. Just as an aspiring professional instrumentalist must prepare for graduate admission, specialization, and performance practice, I felt the same necessary diligence in my preparation to be a successful educator.

Challenge yourself to release perceptions of education boundaries. Interpret classes, books, and assignments not as obligations, but as flexible opportunities. Allow yourself to be curious and travel beyond the curriculum presented to you. Allow yourself to ask questions and pursue the answers fervently.



Listening and Copying

You learned to speak by listening and copying. You acquired new timbres, new styles of articulation, and nuances by listening and copying. In the same fashion, observe master teachers perform their craft. Listen and copy.

I encourage you to venture away from teachers that only teach the medium that you are pursuing. As a saxophonist and middle school band director, I still find myself utilizing the gestures learned from sitting in on a Mozart vocal lesson, an oboist’s approach to Telemann, and numerous hours of watching professionals teach others.

I did this not to gain the ability to teach voice or oboe, but to analyze how a professional teaches others. How did the teacher move as they taught? How was their inflection? Their choice of words? The direction of their eyes? Begin to apply your observations to your own teaching style. Teach private lessons, tech for a marching band, work for a summer festival, offer master classes. Work to refine your use of language and become more selective with words. Test new pedagogical ideas and make mistakes. Find ways to practice teaching before you teach.

Use your university years to spread your name. Meet current teachers and professors away from the realm of your university’s community. Find a mentor that you can speak with regularly. This person will answer when you call, will look out for your best interest, and be honest with you, now, and in the years to come.

The Hunt

As you enter the market in search of your first position, spend time and energy to create a methodical resume, curriculum vitae, and cover letter. Saturate the market with applications (generating word of mouth). Utilize online job forums, postings, and send personal emails after you apply through the school or district website.

In every correspondence, interview, and meeting, work to make the right impression on others. An interview that doesn’t yield an offer could be the one that opens the door to a subsequent interview.

The Interview

The principle, the hiring committee, or the program director typically share a common fundamental question:

Can I picture this person teaching my students?”

Be genuine, be open, and be honest. Because I’ve never been in a position to hire someone, I questioned the people that hired me and many others throughout their careers. 

In the video playlist below, I’ve shared interviews with some of the people that hired me, as well as with a parent and student I interacted with in my first year of teaching:

Relationships

Congratulations! You’ve had a successful interview and have moved into your first position. Began to learn and anticipate the flow of your coworkers, program, and administration. Learn and use the first names of faculty. Maintain a healthy distance from students and parents so that they see you first as a teacher and professional.

Refrain from entering your work environment and changing too much too fast. Respect the methods and traditions that were there before your time, and integrate yourself into the culture. Once done, begin to slowly make changes that you believe are necessary for a better experience.

“Play the game, learn the game, change the game.”

Classroom Management

The term “classroom management” used to conjure images of printed contracts that outline all aspects of student behaviors and expectations. A binding document that is signed by the student and family to enforce behavior. The term used to conjure images of large posters applied to the classroom wall that listed the punishments for acting out of line.

As a teacher, I more closely believe the act of creating an incredibly detailed mental picture of my lesson and class. I decide how students will enter the room, how their stands will be positioned as they play, where their instruments are when they are not playing, how they ask questions, where I will be positioned in the room, etc. When a single factor of this mental picture doesn’t happen in reality, I stop and fix it. Attention to these small details creates long-term efficiency, but also conveys a deeper message to the students of your dedication and eye for quality. They respect it, follow it, and contribute to it.

Communication

I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” In this, Gladwell speaks to the significance of mitigated language, otherwise known as “sugar coating things.” From this lesson, I moved away from using filler words (um, like, try to, see if you can). I avoid passive language and iterate the solution rather than the issue. Instead of telling a class to “stop talking,” I say “create silence” (and I employ many examples within this concept). Work to speak the desired outcome rather than speaking the current issue.

I believe in inclusive language. I make eye contact with my students in the halls and greet them. In instruction, I use “yes sir” and “yes ma’am.” I thank them for their time. This language confirms their sense of musical contribution to something greater than themselves. Praise behaviors that you wish to see repeated (or copied by others). Praise eye contact, having all supplies, playing in tune, etc.

Economize your words. Often, less is more.

Teaching

In your first year of teaching, allow yourself to form a unique teaching style. More than likely, you were inspired and motivated to pursue a career in education by a previous teacher. Understand that your teaching style will differ from theirs!

When teaching, avoid “going through the motions” of a lesson, as “telling” them does not equate to “teaching” them. The act and process of teaching is typically reactive and happens as you address something that was just performed or demonstrated. Remember to demonstrate concepts on your own! Force yourself to form a double reed embouchure, a lip vibration, and a knowledge of the various stick grips. Research and take time to find the highest quality of recordings.

When teaching, strive for as much individual instruction as time and environment will effectively allow. As you teach to groups, understand and utilize different teaching styles to teach to the different learning styles.

Continuously revisit prior lesson, skills, and concepts! Students may have been tired, unfocused, or simply not ready to accept the information given. Reiterate past information, perhaps in a new way, to continuously reteach, remind, and reinforce.

Continued Education

In my observations, the strongest educators are the ones that consistently ask for help. They do not create identical years because they’re always trying new things and testing new ideas.

Continue to talk and brainstorm with other teachers, including your mentor teacher. Observe others teach. Host others into your classroom to provide your students with a new face and to learn from their teaching style. Attend your state’s music education conference and others like the Midwest Clinic.

Utilize summer months. Use this time not only for professional growth, but also for personal growth.

A continuing desire for all types of growth leads to a thriving life experience, and this experience can begin in your first year of teaching. Good luck!

Jonathan Villela currently serves as assistant band director at Four Points Middle School. Villela assisted the Four Points Wind Ensemble in their 2015 performance at the Midwest Clinic and led preparation of the concert band’s state evaluation, in which they received unanimous superior ratings from all adjudicators for the first time in the school’s history.

Villela graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2015 as a Velma Forbes Scholar. He was also a National Chamber Music Finalist in the Music Teachers National Association Competition, a drum major of the OSU Cowboy Marching Band, and guest clinician in Texas, Oklahoma, and Singapore.

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