Advice to a new teacher.


I have been teaching middle school students music for 17 years and this past weekend I was asked by a friend to give some advice to a first year teacher who has been having trouble keeping students in the music program.

Where to start???

First (#1) – If you are new (whether it is your first year ever or new to the school/program)


there will probably be a natural attrition rate as students who “loved” the previous teacher leave your class because you have a different style and they don’t like it.

Yes, it is your program. Yes, it is your room. Yes, these are your rules. However, it used to be someone else’s and the kids remember this. They will compare you. It should be taken seriously. You need to develop your own “cred” and reputation while honoring the traditions that came before you. Understanding student complaints is a great way to gain insight into how to hook them.

When you teach a subject that is elective, like music, you need to make your class “the place to be”. Numbers count. Your reputation will precede you – classmates and older siblings will talk, parents will talk, these are your best advocates and advertisers, you want them on your side. Word spreads fast in both directions about a teacher. Remember, the last place anyone wants to be is on a sinking ship.

 Second (#2) – Kids need to know you care about them before they care about what you know.


This is somewhat of a twist on Theodore Roosevelt’s saying but it is true. Make a point of learning names and get them down as soon as you can. I make a big deal at the beginning of each school year out of saying names correctly and making sure I have their nicknames spelled right in my book. Say hello to them as they enter your class, in the hallways, and in town if you happen to see your students while you’re out and about. When we are ignored by someone we know, we feel hurt and that translates into “they don’t care”. So this is one simple way to show that you do care.

Third (#3) – Teaching is all about delivery and improvisation.


All teachers are performers. Some are better at it than others. If you watch another teacher and they seem to have it all together – the class is in the palm of their hand, jokes, stories, discussion, rapt attention – ask yourself “What are they doing?” Did they practice this? How come they seem so at ease?

You need to know your lessons/subject so well that you can improvise on the material as necessary. Your demeanor counts. Are you confident? If students are not getting something, you need to feel when it is right to keep working at it, and when it is time to move on. Little successes go a long way and build stamina for the hard work. Capitalize on them. I call this “going for the low hanging fruit”. This ability comes with time and not necessarily because you wrote the lesson down in a beautiful planner with all of the learning objectives mapped out. So many times I have scrapped a lesson plan in the first 5 minutes because it was clear that it was not going to work. Have plan B, C, and D ready. And you wont necessarily use them in that order! So when you change gears, do so confidently!

Teaching is a highly personal art (yes, its an art) and everyone has their own unique style with a toolbox of tricks.

I’ll share one of mine – I play a game called “Fact or Fiction” – I come up with some piece of trivia before class and develop a little story around it. Once I’ve told the story, I ask the kids – “Fact or Fiction”…..They raise their hands for either choice and then I tell them the answer. Usually, this has nothing to do with music, but it gives me a vehicle to show kids a little bit about my interests outside of music and it gives a necessary break within the period for the students to reset their attention. Kids actually request this. Often, after class kids will talk to me about the subject. In these moments, I get to know them better (remember #2).

 What advice would you give to a new teacher?


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