Teaching is hard work. I’m not trying to garner sympathy from anyone by writing this, I just know that after 32 years of teaching public school music in Connecticut, USA, it’s always a tiring day. But it’s more often than not an inspiring and fun day too. I come home often exhausted, but at the same time looking forward to tomorrow. That’s not to say I’ve never felt burned out, because I have. But I’ve always found a way to not just survive, but to make it to tomorrow expecting good things to happen. Today I’d like to share some of what I have done over the years to get to the point in my career where I am looking at 32 years in, a number that along the way I never thought I’d reach.
The first point is that change is always a factor. Change can come in many forms. Sometimes the school or district I have taught in has changed over a period of years. Sometimes that change has been for the better, sometimes not, but schools and districts change over time. What may have been a good fit between you and a teaching position may evolve into something different that no longer suits your strengths and aspirations. It’s important to be aware of these changes as they are taking place. Sometimes changes like this suggest a move. There may be another position within the district or in another district that now suits you better, and it is wise to at least have a look at those alternatives. Sometimes it turns out to be a good idea to move, sometimes it’s better to stay put and work through the changes. If you stay, you may find that you also change as you find new strategies and approaches to teaching your students, and this personal change is good; it grows and strengthens you as an educator, and leads to greater successes and the gratification that comes with them. When the going gets tough, if you are well supported by administration and colleagues, if your students respond well to you and place you in a position of importance in their lives, then you are probably in the right place for them and for you, even though things have gotten tough. Stay put, and always remember that students come first. Do everything you can to meet their needs, and when you succeed you will have met your own need to teach and positively effect the lives of your students.
It is popular to point out that “nobody likes change,” but that is not necessarily true. Many people don’t like change, but others need it to avoid boredom and complacency. I rarely teach the same lesson plans two years in a row. My students in a given grade change from year to year, so the best way to teach to the objectives I have changes also. I am also driven to find a better way, so if there is a hint that a lesson or unit could have gone better, I’m all about changing it so that more children achieve higher proficiency. Change brings newness, newness brings challenge, challenge brings excitement and makes me want to teach that lesson again, this time in is new form. Embrace some change to keep your teaching fresh.
The second point is to avoid isolating yourself. Early in my career, I arrived at school in the morning, made a b-line for my music room and stayed there, tucked away from the rest of the school. Only at lunch did I see other teachers, and kept to myself as much as possible there too. This is a bad strategy. Music teachers who are isolated from the rest of the school are often misunderstood. Other teachers think that their students just sing songs and have a good time in music, and that there is little if any substantive learning there; and because they haven’t at the opportunity to get to know the music teacher personally, he or she is easily dismissed. When the music teacher needs to pull kids for a rehearsal, teachers are reluctant because the only time they see the music teacher is when he or she needs something.
Music teaching is much more rewarding when done in collaboration with others. Talk to the other teachers in your building. Keep up on what they are teaching in their classrooms, and connect to those things in your music lessons. Kids respond well to clear connections between what they are learning in other subjects and music, and those other teachers appreciate the connections. In fact, you may find one day that a child in your music class will tell you that another teacher made a connection to music. It is also just more rewarding to know you are part of a team, and that you are part of a bigger picture. I especially enjoy this with the teachers, alumni and parents who work with me on our music theater production. These include a 6th grade teacher who stage directs, a 5th grade teacher who choreographs, alumni of our productions who come after school to help us rehearse, and parents who do a number of things to support our work. Those same teachers and parents who are now also friends then move mountains to chaperon at my concerts, even though they are not directly involved in the preparing of the concert. They all make teaching a socially rewarding endeavor, eliminating what was once a rather solitary existence at school.
The third and final point is we must be flexible about the choices we make when planning instruction. When teachers get burned out, they are sometimes described a “battle weary.” Truthfully, teaching does at times feel like a battle, but if that feeling lasts for more than a day at a time, something is off. The simple fact is that kids behave well and become engaged and invested in learning when they are being instructed in something in which they see value and relevance. The “battles” that teachers fight in the classroom generally are over instruction that teachers see value in but students do not. The National Core Arts Standards place a premium on students selecting repertoire for performing and responding. Teachers who are activities driven see this as an affront to their authority or prerogative to make those kinds of decisions, but teachers who are standards and objectives driven understand that it is those standards and objectives that must be taught, and not usually specific musical works. Students generally will embrace learning the concepts if they are working with music that interests them, that they have some knowledge of, and that is within their ability to perform and/or respond to. This in turn creates a better learning environment and fewer classroom management problems, and that in turn reduces teacher and student stress, and consequently a teacher’s job dissatisfaction.
If you’re just starting out in a music teaching career, let me tell you that you have picked a great career. You can make to 30-something years in the profession. If you’re up there in teaching years and feeling weary, be encouraged. Look at change, be connected to the whole school, and embrace student centered learning within the context of your curriculum and objectives, and you will find personal revival and more motivated students.