Canyon Creek Elementary, Austin, TX
Teaching Elementary General Music provides a music educator with many challenges and countless rewards. While there are many issues we deal with as music educators, one topic that seems to come up year after year is the feeling of isolation and low morale that many music educators experience, especially in the first years of their careers. I have been fortunate to teach at the same elementary school for the past nineteen years. I am hopeful that the ideas shared below will help a new music educator, or even an experienced teacher, bloom where they are planted!
Weave yourself into the fabric of your school and your community. Be visible at all school events. Volunteer to help at the carnival, the fun run, the book fair, etc. For many years, I have been the Teacher Representative on our schools PTA Executive Board. This is a great way to involve yourself in your school and community. Many schools coordinate grade level music programs with PTA meetings. This is a win-win situation, as your music program will bring a ready-made audience for your PTA. Serve on committees with classroom teachers. Communicate with your school community through a newsletter or website to spread the word about all of the wonderful things you’re doing in the Music Room! Take performing groups out into the community. My 4th and 5th grade choir performs the National Anthem at minor league hockey and baseball games each year. We also have an annual holiday caroling night with the choir and their families. You’re creating life-long memories for your students and their families.
Form strong relationships with your Administrators, School Secretary and Custodians. Be sure you know what is expected of you, and then do everything you can to meet, and when you can, exceed those expectations! Plan ahead, ask questions, and try to avoid last minute requests of your custodian and secretary. Honor their time.
Look for ways to build relationships with your teammates. Many of us are the only music educator on our campuses. We are teamed up with other “Special Area” teachers with whom we may seem to have little in common except our schedules. (Note: We call Music, Art and PE/Wellness “Essential Areas” at my school.) I believe it is extremely important to develop a strong bond with your teammates. Your students deserve a teaching team that works well together and collaborates whenever possible. My Essentials team meets for lunch in our Art room everyday. During our quick 20-25 minutes for lunch, we are able to discuss student concerns, needs and plans. Both the Art and PE/Wellness teachers are new at my campus this year, and our lunches have really helped us to build a good relationship. You need to be able to depend upon your teammates, and vice versa. You will need extra rehearsal time before programs. They will need your flexibility for their events as well. A little give-and-take goes a long way in building successful teams.
Make good classroom management a priority. Be sure you do the work it takes to be prepared and organized with your lessons. Downtime is your enemy. Routines are your friend. Be sure your students know what you expect of them. Be consistent and fair. Be joyful. Be kind. Show that you care about your students, and show that you love making music.
Reach out to other music educators in your feeder pattern and/or district. About five years ago, our district started doing an annual Vertical Choir Concert. The six elementary schools, two middle schools and our high school join for a vocal music concert each fall. Several years ago, we also started a tradition of doing a joint Veterans Day performance with my 5th graders and the middle school band, orchestra and choir. There are countless benefits to this collaboration, but I found that working together with my colleagues was one of the biggest benefits. Having a colleague to call or email with a question or for advice is so important. I try to attend my colleagues performances whenever possible, especially those that include my former elementary students! If you are a new music teacher, ask for an experienced teacher in your district to serve as your mentor!
Recognize students and give them ownership in their learning and performances. The sign outside my classroom door says “Welcome to YOUR Music Room”. Do whatever you can to make your classroom a place your students want to be! Establish routines, and have high expectations of your students. We recognize student birthdays once each month with a “Birthday Gong” and a special song. I have a Musician of the Month banner outside my classroom for students to post photos during their birthday month. While I haven’t tried this yet, I have heard of music teachers giving out stickers saying “I sang a solo today in Music.” Many years ago, I had a colleague who was bemoaning the fact that she only had about 50-60% attendance at her evening music programs. I rarely have any absences from my evening programs, and I believe it is because the students have ownership in their program. Be sure to communicate your expectations with families. Reserve front row seats for their grade level teachers at performances!
Collaborate with grade level teachers and your school counselor whenever possible. Of course, your first priority is to teach your music curriculum, but many times you can choose song material that makes connections to the classroom or other school-wide activities. My 5th graders perform the DARE Song at our Red Ribbon Week Assembly each fall. Our counselor chooses a character word to focus on, and I teach a song to the whole school for that assembly as well. We do an All-School Sing Along just before the holiday break in December at which the teachers sing two songs. We do a school-wide song for Earth Day, and I teach a school-wide song for Teacher Appreciation week too. All of these things help build community, and they also help you, as the music educator, fight that feeling of isolation.
Attend professional development offered by your district, by TMEA, and by local Orff and Kodaly chapters. Whenever possible, choose sessions that provide resources you can put to use right away. I always find these sessions re-energize my teaching. Your students will love trying out new resources too. Reach out to your colleagues to share these experiences. It’s always fun to bounce ideas off a colleague after attending a great session.
Show appreciation! Send thank you notes! Spread kindness! Set realistic goals for yourself! Try to write at least one thank you note or happy note to a fellow teacher, student or parent each week. Know all of your students’ names and something special about each one. Consider taking class photos at the beginning of the school year and create a photo book that you can refer to throughout the year. This has been a lifesaver to me and my Essential Areas teammates!
If there’s one thing my years of experience have taught me, it is that I am responsible for my own happiness and for the fulfillment and satisfaction I feel when I know I’ve done my job well. Don’t wait for a pat on the back … it may not come, even when it is deserved. What we do as music educators IS important to the students and families we serve.
Many years ago, a student gave me a card that said “Don’t count the day done until you’ve made the day count!” That is my wish for music educators who may be feeling discouraged or isolated. Find a way to make the days count, for yourself, your family and for your students. Our classroom should be a place our students want to be. They learn to sing, read and play music, but they will also learn about life. They will learn to be curious about the world around them. They will learn to be creative and take risks. And we will be learning right along with them! Be the teacher you wanted to have back when you were a student! Keep making music!
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