Starting Out In A New School

Recently, I offered suggestions for Preparing to interview for a Teaching Position. If you are looking for a teaching job, you can follow the link to read that article. Today I would like to follow up on that post and discuss how best to proceed once you are hired. When you begin in your new teaching position, you will be, like it or not, a change agent to your students and to your new colleagues. They are all used to how your predecessor did things, and everything you do that varies from that will be viewed as change. This will typically be a difficult adjustment for your students. Although they are used to starting the year with new teachers as they move from one grade to the next, they are also used to the same music teacher each year. A music teacher who services an entire building is a constant and a familiar comfort at the start of the school year when so many other things are new and unsure. Because of this, it is wise to proceed carefully.

The best approach is to learn about the practices of your predecessor as quickly as possible. Having a conversation with them to find out what approaches, methods, and procedures were used is a good idea. If communication is not possible, then go through any student work, assignments, lesson plans and materials that were left behind. These can give you a good idea of what their music classes were like, or at least designed to be like. You can also talk to other teachers about your predecessor. Find out what the kids really enjoyed doing in music, what kinds of collaboration might have been done, and generally what the relationship between students and music teacher has been. These conversations with other teachers are also a great opportunity to meet your new colleagues and demonstrate that you hope to be a part of the school community, and not isolated in the music area.

All of this is not to say that you should set out to be an exact copy of the previous music teacher; not at all. It is to say that you should start out by being a similar as you can, so that the initial degree of change is minimal. Then, gradually, as the students get to know you, you slowly replace the old with the new. By transitioning gently from the last teacher’s ways to yours, students will be more receptive and at ease with having a new music teacher.

Also, understand that many of the students will have really liked the last music teacher. Eventually they will really like you instead, but for now they still will miss their previous teacher. Don’t take this personally, just accept it as part of the transition. Although the traditional wisdom is to start the new year stern and strict, and then ease up later, this approach is not advised when it is your first year in a school. Students already are disposed to not liking you because they want their previous teacher back; you will only make the transition worse by coming across as a heavy. Of course you must establish classroom rules and procedures, and stick to them consistently and fairly, but don’t be afraid to smile now and then, give a work of encouragement, and take an interest in the students’ interests outside of your classroom. If some of them play on an athletic team, go to some of the games and cheer them on. Find out when they are doing something outside of school, and then the next day ask them how it went. These kinds of attention to students will endear you to them, and they will more quickly willingly accept you.

Of course, one of the most important things you can do as a music teacher new in a building is to learn all of your students’ names, and address them by their names as soon as possible. Kids really appreciate music teachers who know their names soon after first meeting them. As music teachers, we may see 500-700 different children every week. Everyone understands that is a lot of names to learn. Just mention that you have 500 names to learn, but that you will learn all of theirs as soon as you can. Generally, kids will give you about four weeks to get it right, so work hard on it that first month you are there. Many ideas for learning names quickly have been advanced by others, and you can search them out. For example, Teacher Vision has this list. For me, the most effective way was to make a seating chart and refer to it constantly. I use the chart to call on students by name. Also, when I am speaking and I notice a child is distracted, I will insert their name into the sentence. This redirects their attention, and gives me practice remembering the child’s name.

Like just about anything else, learning names can be made into a fun game you play together. For example, you might make a scoreboard with you as one team and the class as the other. You begin by correctly naming 3 students. If you get the 3 names right, you get a point. If you make a mistake, the class gets a point. You do round one with everyone sitting according to the seating chart. For round two, you count to 10 and while you count, the students get up and change their seating. Then, you have to correctly name 3 students to earn a point. As the game goes on, the number of students you need to name increases. It’s fun to challenge yourself and see how many names you can get right.

Other things you might do to build relationships with students is eat lunch at a table in the lunchroom with students, rotating around to different tables different days. This is a good idea if the kids like it, but you should not intrude on their time together if that is how they see it. During your preparation period, you can go to gym and play whatever game the class in there is playing, or go out and join a class at recess. These kinds of things show that you are not just their teacher, but that you are a friendly human being too!

If you have done a good job at relationship building and managing change carefully and slowly, you will get to your first concert in good shape. Once you have done your first concert together, I find things will go normally and smoothly from that point on. There’s something about doing that first concert together that binds them and you together, finally settling things down so that you and they can proceed together for the rest of the school year and beyond. Let me hear from experienced teachers who have been through changing schools, and share what has worked well for you. Maybe you’ve been in the same district your whole career, but have changed schools. It’s still all new for you and the students. If you are moving into a new school this school year, let me know how it’s going. And as always, if you would like me to come to your district for some professional development, you can reach me on the contact page.

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