I just finished my fifth year as a music teacher. This feels like a significant accomplishment because I’ve beat the alarming statistics on high teacher turnover rates within the first five years. According to the well-known Ingersoll and Smith study of 2003, approximately 40 to 50% of teachers leave within the first five years and half of those leave the field of teaching entirely. Other studies indicate that the rate of attrition may be even worse for music teachers than for other teachers.
This is not encouraging for those newly licensed music teachers preparing for their first jobs or those who are still in their first years of teaching. These new teachers are motivated to share their passion for music with students, but teacher training programs, especially for music education majors, are so packed with requirements for licensing that many new teachers are entering the profession without an understanding of the realities and challenges that face music teachers. Many of these are out of the teacher’s control, but how a teacher reacts is not. Here are five lessons I’ve learned about dealing with the realities of music teaching that have helped me make it to five years.
I’ve never had a lesson go exactly as I planned. For new teachers who don’t have the “bag of tricks” that those with more experience have, this can be extremely frustrating. There are changes in schedule (that you may or may not be informed of in advance), individual students being pulled out of your class for various reasons, behaviors that disrupt class, and a million other things that will change your plans in small and huge ways. You can prepare yourself by considering different teaching methods to match different levels of student energy, by adding extension activities to your lesson plans, or by having a variety of activities ready to use if your lesson plans have to be completely thrown out. But there are many situations teachers encounter that they can’t be prepared for. In those cases, accept the situation and be creative. To avoid burnout, you must develop ways to be flexible in your teaching without being paralyzed by frustration.
Understand your role.
It’s easy for music teachers to become possessive of their programs. Most of us teach multiple grades, so we are able to see and take credit for how the students grow over the years. It can be easy to feel that we have complete authority and control over our programs, but dangerous and frustrating for a new teacher (or any teacher) to think that he or she owns a program. We are custodians of our programs, maintaining and gently improving them for the school and the community. There will always be demands from the administration and the community that you must listen to. As a trained music educator, you have the right to stand up for what you see as being best for students and the program, but you must do so collaboratively rather than defensively. Be willing to make your own changes gradually out of respect for the traditions that predate your involvement with the school. The more you can present yourself as a team player, the more autonomy you will be given.
Listening is essential for learning, building relationships, finding support, and becoming a successful teacher. For new teachers, it’s even more vital. Two of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving music teaching are isolation and classroom management challenges. Listening can be the best treatment for both of these problems.
Make an effort to seek out advice (in person, not email) from other teachers in your building. If you’re offered advice that you don’t agree with, use it as a catalyst to start a discussion and respectfully share ideas. Find opportunities to collaborate and help other teachers. Some new teachers worry about being taken advantage of if they volunteer too much of their time. However, it’s a lot easier to explain to a colleague with whom you’ve built a respectful relationship that you can’t take on an extra project than it is to recover from giving a first impression of being unhelpful and defensive.
Listening to students is equally important. It builds trust, helps you find the root of behavior problems, and builds a collaborative classroom culture. Listen to what students have to say about their previous teacher to show them that you honor the relationship and memories they had with him or her. You’ll learn what the students expect of their music class and teacher. When behavior problems arise, listen to the individuals involved whenever possible to learn their perspectives and motivations. When the whole class is having behavior problems, ask for the students’ ideas to improve the situation. The more you hear your students, the more you will understand them.
Teach like yourself.
One of the greatest and most important challenges of the first years of teaching is figuring out who you are as a teacher. If you had a host teacher or mentor whose teaching you admire, take what you can from their example, but don’t try to become them. Teaching is hard enough without the added task of acting like someone you’re not. The one thing you can always do better than anyone else, even at the beginning of your career, is teach like yourself. There are a million different ways to teach, and although each comes with challenges, the easiest way is your own.
Always put students first.
Music teachers face countless difficult decisions in their work. It can feel overwhelming to try to balance the pressures of administrators, colleagues, the community, and others. Whatever your decision–programming a concert, recruiting students for an ensemble, choosing a curriculum, etc.–let it be guided by what’s best for students. When you make mistakes (and every teacher does), nobody can fault you for trying to do what you believed was best for your students.
Teachers learn to be teachers by teaching. There will always be challenges and bad days, but the more quickly you can learn to handle and learn from them, the more resilient, successful, and fulfilled you will be.