I remember a time, early in my career, when I looked with disbelief and awe at older music teachers who had logged 30 years or more of service. I just couldn’t imagine teaching for that long. Indeed, after only 6 years of teaching, I resigned and pursued a performance career, taking free-lance jobs playing in orchestras where ever I could find them, working in restaurants, and taking clarinet lessons with the late Kamen Opperman in New York City. Now lo these many years later, even with what turned out to be a 6-year hiatus, I have logged 31 years and can’t imagine having spent all that time doing anything else.
I began reflecting on this yesterday, after I read the following on Facebook: “Does anyone else wish they could write a letter to every college music education major and give them a real life run down of our jobs? If i had known then what i know now, i wouldn’t have invested so much time, money, and years just to be stuck.” This immediately caused me to realize I could easily have felt this way. To be honest, I think I did feel that way when I took that hiatus. I decided to be a music teacher because I loved music, and I loved being a music student. I reasoned that if being a music student was so much fun, bringing the sort of happiness I was enjoying to others would be a great way to make a living. Mixed into this reasoning was also the fact that a large part of why I enjoyed being a music student was that I really enjoyed playing in the bands, wind ensembles, orchestras and chamber groups. It was like being employed as a professional musician, and that was a lot of fun. When I started teaching, I thought I could continue to enjoy a performing career as the conductor of my student ensembles. That’s where I started to run into difficulty.
I had placed myself in the position of choosing to teach to fulfill my own ambitions. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying teaching music, there is something wrong with making what I get out of it the primary motivation. My students became a means to my end of being a performer. I expected them to do what was best for me, not what was best for them. When they resisted that arrangement, some opted out of my programs. I became frustrated, they became disappointed, and I eventually walked away from them. I realized that if I was going to enjoy a performing career, it would be better to pursue performance instead of teaching. So I did just that. As those six years passed, and I logged more hours waiting on tables and then cooking in restaurants than on the concert stage, I began to miss teaching. Living the life of the struggling musician wasn’t what I wanted for the rest of my career. I realized then that maybe I had made some mistakes, and that maybe I’d be making another one if I kept at what I was doing much longer.
So I decided to give teaching another try, but this time, I would devote myself to my students. I would be a teacher who performed this time, instead of a performer who taught. I would celebrate my students’ accomplishments, and provide them what they needed to enjoy music then and beyond the years they would spend with me. That re-entry occurred twenty-four years ago, and through all those years I have never thought twice about leaving the profession. So to all of you who are feeling tired and burned out and to all of you who are just starting or soon to be starting a career in music education, here are some things I have learned that have made it possible for me to honestly say if I had to do again, I would still choose to be a music educator.
- Build your music program for your students and your community first. If you do that you will get back plenty for yourself too.
- Be active in your school community. Your music program is important, but so are the other programs in the school, and the interests your students have outside your classroom.
- Take an interest in your students. Go to a basketball game, play, or fundraiser to support them. It will mean a lot to them when they see you there and realize they mean more to you than just the part they sing or play in your ensemble.
- Develop friendships with other teachers in your building. If some of them go out on a Friday afternoon, go with them. I am friends with a group of teachers I have lunch with everyday, but I’m closer friends with a group of teachers in my building that I play golf with every week.
- Going along with the last point, collaborate with other teachers in your building. Find out what your students are doing in science, social studies, language arts and math, and build into those things in your music lessons. If the 8th graders are studying the renaissance, include music from that period in your lessons. If the fourth graders are studying Native Americans, then build a unit on music of Native Americans and try to focus on a tribe that lives or has lived near where your school is.
- Avoid ruts. I’ve known teachers that have used the same lesson plans for twenty years. They usually look bored teaching and so are their students. You don’t teach the same students in a grade level every year, so don’t expect that teaching them exactly the same lessons is the best way to go. Find out what musical interests they have, and change the materials and activities you use while teaching the same concepts, objectives and goals.
- Keep yourself interested in what you do by being a life-long learner. The best teachers are those that continue to enjoy learning. Try a new method, teach a new topic, or learn a new instrument yourself. I always think that no matter what, there’s always a better way, or another way that is just as good but a little more fun, and I have to find it.
- Be consistent and fair. Students respect fairness and consistency. A large part of succeeding at teaching is helping your students relate to each other and respect each other. Now more than ever, students don’t seem to understand how to respect another person without forfeiting others’ respect for them. Your classroom must function as a community, and communities are built on respectful and encouraging environments.
- Remember that teaching is hard. Rarely will you have an entire day where everything comes easy. Some days, hopefully only occasionally, you will have days where you will think that there must be an easier way to make a living, and you will be right. There are lots of ways to make a living that are easier than teaching, but few that are more important or more rewarding. The key is never forgetting the importance of what you do, or losing the ability to recognize what the rewards are.