For whatever reason, I have noticed over the years that art and music teachers seem to get more than their fair share of misbehavior in their classes. I suppose the children regard these classes as a time to let down and blow off steam after sitting immobile in a classroom writing, reading and generally keeping their youthful energy in check. Still, there are ways to achieve smoothly running classes for music teachers, regardless of the ages being taught. While my classes are by now means perfectly behaved all the time, I would like to share some of the things I’ve found work well to keep kids engaged and on-task. This is the result we want; for our students to be invested in what they are doing, so their attention doesn’t turn in other directions.
There are three things I try to do every day that I have found are most important in having a well managed classroom. These are, good relationships with my students, making my expectations for them clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, and using music that is relevant to the students to teach those enduring understandings. I will discuss each of these presently.
For years I have heard from other teachers, many of them at the time more experienced than I, that you begin strict, and don’t ever smile until December. It’s easier to let up from strictness, than to begin lenient and then become more strict. There may have been a time when this worked, but not anymore. That kind of sternness just puts kids off, leaves them with the impression that you don’t like them or that you’d prefer they were not in your class, and fuels resentment that easily turns into negative behavior. While there must always be a distinction between the student learner and the sage/experienced teacher, that distinction can easily be maintained when the teacher-student relationship is friendly and caring. Students just respond better to a teacher who has shown that he/she genuinely cares for them and is on their side. Greeting each child at the classroom door with a smile and by name will get any class off to a better start. Smiling, and noticeably showing that you are enjoying teaching them will keep things positive, fun and managed well. A principal I once worked for put it like this: you must be intellectually superior but socially equal. He did not mean a teacher should hang out with students as if he or she were a peer; he meant that the relationship between student and teacher has two dimensions–a scholarly one with which the teacher brings knowledge and experience to bear, and a social one with which the teacher demonstrates sincere commitment and concern for each student. To demonstrate this, a music teacher might go to a basketball game in which his/her students are playing, or attend a fund raiser students are sponsoring.
The second item is stating my expectations clearly and often. Both are necessary. I used to state expectations at the beginning of each class, and then set about teaching and putting students to work. What I found was my expectations stated up front did not carry all students through to the end. For students who finished their work but with difficulty, I had given them no expectation of what to do next. For the student who had finished their work and excelled, I had given them no next step. For the student who had worked but not finished their work, I had given them no intermediate point from which they could resume next time. My expectations were simply that everyone would follow directions, and stay on-task working on their project, or practicing their vocal or instrumental part. At the end of class, when I drew closure, it was stated in terms of a completed class, regardless of where each child was when it was time to stop. “Today we learned…”
But now, my closure drawing is different. “For those of you that learned an entire instrumental part today, well done. Next time, combine with someone else who has finished a different part from you, and combine with them to start practicing in an ensemble. To those of you who started getting a part, but can’t play the whole thing yet, continue to work on it. We can simplify the part if you need to, and I will work with you next time. There were also a few of you who didn’t make an effort to accomplish much of anything. You need to get going. Not making a good effort is not acceptable. You chose the song you are working on, you need to prepare it for presentation.” Do you see the difference? There isn’t much wiggle room anymore. All are accounted for, and new expectations are set even before they leave for their next class.
The other day, I had a sixth grade class state one thing they were going to try to do well during music class that day. It was very insightful for me, because some students stated tangible things, like listen better, sing better, or sing more in tune, while other students said very general things, like get a better grade or do better. I told them that while there is nothing wrong with wanting to get a better grade, in order to succeed at that, they must know what they are going to do that is going to result in getting a better grade. This was the moment of truth for me. If they couldn’t tell me what would get them a good grade in my class, then the blame would be on me for not making expectations clear. I was relieved to hear them say, when pressed, that they were going to focus on the speaker, and sing more (focus on the speaker is something I stress; whether it is I or a student who is asking or answering a question, one person speaks at a time and all eyes and ears go to that person. The bottom line here is, when kids have something specific to accomplish they are much more engaged than when the expectation is not well understood.
The third item is starting with enduring understandings, not songs. What I mean by this is that music class can easily just be singing songs. While singing songs is fun, and many a fine concert can and has been prepared just by singing or playing repertoire in rehearsals, students also need to be engaged in learning activities that require them to use critical thinking skills, create musical works and interpret their own works and those of others, learn about music and how all the musical elements are used by creators to convey an expressive intent, and how music relates and connects to the other arts, the other disciplines, the student’s culture and his/her personal life. These are articulated in enduring understandings, not in the repertoire. The repertoire is used as material with which the student works in the process of acquiring deep understandings of music and the arts and of becoming musically and artistically literate. This kind of deep learning is the only kind that will produce students who are equipped to fully enjoy and benefit from music and the arts for their lifetime, regardless of the profession they work in. Students sense the shallowness of just singing or playing songs, and will often not continue musical study if that is all they have received in music classes. On the other hand, they are drawn in to deeper learning as they realize the many dimensions of thinking and doing that are utilized when enduring understandings are pursued.
Giving priority and attention to these three items, good relationships with students, making expectations clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, will improve the classroom management of any music teacher. Attending to these things won’t solve all your problems, but it will certainly solve many of them.