Navigating Your First Year as a Secondary Teacher
Jointly authored by contributors Dr. Anthony Rivera and Rachel Zephir
Congratulations on your new secondary teaching job! Along with the excitement, there are sure to be some anxious thoughts. There isn’t one specific recipe to follow, and each situation has its own challenges, perks, and idiosyncrasies that in time will reveal themselves as you become more familiar with your new musical community. If the previous director is still in town and can show you around the school or help locate programs, recordings, and other resources, that would be ideal. If not, you must take some time to explore the school and your room. We have put together some information based on our experiences that you may not have encountered during your undergraduate curriculum to help you transition from student to teacher.
Your Musical Vision
Your recent performing experiences will most likely have been more advanced than the ensembles you were just hired to conduct. You bring a certain musical perspective from those rehearsals and performances. These perspectives were shaped by the goals set for rehearsal, the atmosphere in which they are achieved, the musical direction of the conductor, and the responsibilities expected of each performer. Recall some of your most valuable musical memories. What made them such a valuable experience towards your musical growth? Was it the people you performed with? The medium or repertoire? A special venue? A connection with an audience member that was unexpected?
Music education programs provide you skills to function in the classroom as a teacher of the fundamental aspects of music; but not always of the art of music. Fundamentals and the technique of performing are essential, but exploring the shapes of phrases, the timbre and color of the ensemble, and the heart of what the repertoire is trying to convey, that comes from you. The first step is to form your musical vision. Forming your musical vision allows you to use your experiences and beliefs to transform into the musician, educator, and conductor that can function at the highest level. As you continue to have different musical experiences, your vision will expand to incorporate additional values.
From the very beginning it is important to be uncompromising in your musical vision. The musical ideals you hold to be true can not be sacrificed. They may be altered or adapted to fit your students’ needs or limitations, but your students must see evidence of them on a daily basis. Here are three things that can help guide your teaching:
Enlighten - Share your musical experiences or favorite pieces with your students so they can understand how these experiences have shaped you.
Passion - Show them your love and appreciation for the music and performers that have had a profound effect on you.
Diversity - Share with them the different ensembles you have performed with such as concert bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles etc. Modeling how to perform in multiple genres will help them understand the importance of becoming a well-rounded musician.
Before the school year starts...
If you are fortunate to be hired during the summer, there are several tasks that can help ease the beginning of your first year. Schedule an appointment to visit your school to get acquainted with your new work environment.
Meet the front office staff, including secretaries, bookkeeper, and guidance counselors. These staff members are vital to overall management of the school and your program. They can help with obstacles such as field trip forms, ordering supplies, and many other organizational components that will arise. Guidance can provide information including current and past enrollment, students entering the school with a music background, contact information, and students' individual schedules. Please, thank you, and smiles, along with understanding and patience will go a long way.
There are other staff members that are vital to the success of your program. Building supervisors and their staff offer assistance by cleaning, moving equipment, or preparing for your musical events. They are familiar with the inner workings of your building. You never know when you need a door unlocked or a place to store equipment. Be kind and work with them to help the organization of your events flow smoothly.
Fostering good relationships within your department can be an asset to your program.
Email your colleagues and ask if they are available for lunch. Begin to develop a working relationship and show your enthusiasm and commitment to the musical well-being of your students. Your colleagues can help you understand how the program was run in the past. Be open to sharing your goals for the coming year so they can support your vision. Once the school year starts, reach out to them if you are having difficulties. We all need help throughout our careers… so don’t be afraid to ask.
After gathering information, start contacting students and families. Introduce yourself and share how excited you are to be a part of the community and your musical vision. Be engaging with the parents and students. If there are summer band camp dates, make them aware and encourage their participation. It is important for them to hear how committed you are to making the best quality music and creating an active and safe musical environment. It may seem like a lot to do thus far, but these steps are incredibly important to building your musical community.
The first nine weeks of your first job will be hectic; it might feel like running the next leg of a relay race blindfolded. There won’t be many other people inside your building who will understand what it's like to be you. If you are following someone who has been successful, the current students and parents will be interested in how you will continue to maintain a high achieving program. If you are following someone who was not successful, or if you are starting from scratch, you will have another set of issues that include creating a culture of excellence and setting performance expectations. Here are some guidelines that can help you make some of those tough decisions that will invariably crop up in those first nine weeks. Identify the following…
THE THINGS THAT SHOULD “NEVER” CHANGE
Things that should never change are defined as things that are already working well or long-standing traditions that will cause major upheaval with your parents and students. Entering a new program you will see many policies or rules have been in place that already work. Don’t reinvent the wheel just for the sake of putting your name next to it.
One of the biggest mistakes young directors make is wanting to put their stamp on the program too soon; eradicating everything that came before them. This strategy can make you seem unfeeling towards the efforts and traditions that existed before you stepped onto the scene. These can be both musical and nonmusical items. After you have gathered information about them, take the time to talk through these items with your students, parents, and administration. You may find that some of these events were treasured, while others were more of a bother for students and parents. For the average student in a music program, the music may not be the number one focus. Don’t forget that they enjoy the camaraderie with their peers and socialization as much (if not more!) than putting on great performances.
Some situations you might think are trivial may, in fact, turn out to be very important to the students. My first year at my current school, I changed the layout of the room from facing towards the shared orchestra wall to facing our instrument storage room wall. A few weeks later I had students filing a petition to turn the room back to the way it had been- so you never know what small items can turn into a BIG thing for students and parents. As always, communication is important and it’s better to let them know sooner rather than later, your vision for change.
Keeping some of the small day to day details in place will bring a sense of comfort to the students - and will make your life a whole lot easier! The bathroom policy, room setup, attendance, and warm-ups are a few examples. If you change too many things too soon, students will feel like their space has been invaded by a stranger.
You want to make sure you are working together as much as possible. The term I use is “A Benevolent Dictatorship.” The director will ultimately have the final say, but listening to your students' concerns will make them feel more involved in the process. Some programs have long-standing traditions such as alumni bands, special awards and banquets, or marching band trips/parades/community events. Carefully gauge the importance of these events both to the school and the community. At some point you will want to decide for yourself whether or not these events should continue, but the first year might not be the best time to change them. There may be factors preventing you from continuing some or all programs as the majority of them will be extracurricular in nature. Consult with all parties to communicate your vision moving forward.
THINGS THAT “MUST” CHANGE
The system you inherit from the previous director is always a mixed bag. Some things
may work just fine and others need immediate attention. The things that must change fall into a few different categories:
Those which go against your core musical values.
Those which interfere with your delivery of instruction.
Those which impede the students’ ability to learn.
Most of the time these decisions will be no-brainers like no cell phones during rehearsal
or no hats in class. You might find a lot of opposition to new policies if they have never
been enforced before. If it’s something you believe strongly in, stick with it. One of
the worst things you can do is institute a new policy and then backtrack on it.
Your ability to exert your authority will be compromised and the students and
parents will see that they can push you around. You might even have some students get
mom or dad to call or email you telling you how important it is that they always have their phone with them for emergency purposes. Be patient, stick to your convictions, and make sure your administration is backing you up before and after you make these
If you are not a confrontational person or someone who isn’t that wild about change
because you fear the repercussions, remember what the late author Jim Rohn said, “You can’t make progress without making decisions.” Someone has to be making them in order for any organization to succeed. And that person is you! The parents and
students will try to circumvent you if they feel there is an absence of leadership. It’s
helpful to make a list of things that are the big-ticket items for you that need to be
changed. Timely and effective communication can ease any transition.
THINGS THAT “COULD” CHANGE
As a young director, you want to put your stamp on a program and prove to the students, parents, and administration that you are the right person for the job. During the first year you will be doing more accepting what is already in place rather than blazing your own trail. “Could” is full of possibilities! For example, you may not like that the holiday concert is always the last day before winter break. There may be a few parents on the booster board with some personal agendas that need to be refocused.
Almost all situations could over time be reworked into a system that fits more with your style and comfort level. Would your new option considerably increase or decrease productivity? Are there repercussions that could only be felt several years down the road? It is a never-ending process, but one that gets easier over time!
From job to job, this category tends to be the one that is the most troubling to figure out. Those key people who we outlined previously are the people you can look to for guidance and support. Your colleagues in your department are a good sounding board for ideas. Administration can help with the logistics if it has to do with scheduling or extracurricular events. It’s a good idea to seek out other directors in your area who have similar programs to yours. Ultimately the choices you make will shape the program in the direction you desire.
As with anything in life, it’s important to surround yourself with a team that is knowledgeable, supportive, and eager to help. The most important skills to focus on in your rookie year are fostering good relationships with the most influential people and improving your communication skills with students and parents. It’s more important to ask questions and listen than to always voice your opinion. People want to feel important and that their contributions are being noticed. Make sure to communicate your gratitude on a regular basis to everyone who assists you along the way. This will pay larger dividends than you think. As the legendary college basketball coach John Wooden said, ”The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own example.” Or in other words...practice what you preach!
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series chronicling your first year of your new secondary gig!