Sunday, January 5, 2014

A note to a frustrated new Choral Music teacher

Today, I was reading a forum for choral music teachers, and I saw a note from a very frustrated new teacher. She described a program that was shrinking fast. The children who were still left in the class were not interested in being there and were giving about 50% effort on the good days. Here is what I wrote in response:

Rachel, 

Sorry to hear that you are experiencing such a difficult time. It's awful and stressful in ways that people who haven't experienced it cannot possibly imagine. 

What you wrote above reminded me of my first three years teaching. I was teaching middle school in an inner city school, and I had replaced a legendary teacher whom the students, parents and faculty loved dearly. It was a demoralizing time for me, and it sounds like you are experiencing something similar. The daily experiences make you feel like a complete and inept failure. 

I am now in year number 22 of my career, and I am grateful beyond measure that I continued teaching.

Moments like these define our character. 

During those rough first years, I did some serious soul searching. I decided that I either needed to figure it out or quit teaching altogether. 

Below, I have listed a few of the questions I asked of myself. I would urge you to dig deep within yourself during some quiet time and really think about these questions over the next several months. You will not find easy, quick answers. You will not solve this overnight or even by the end of this school year....but you can begin taking steps toward solutions that serve you over the long haul. When you start moving toward real solutions based on your answers, I believe that you will be on your way to finding your own, individual and wonderful path toward becoming a master teacher who enjoys her work and thrives in it. 

Here are a few things that I asked myself during this difficult time: 

a) Why am I teaching? 
b) Am I willing to take full, 100% responsibility for where my program is and find solutions? 
c) What type of music am I most passionate about teaching? Then, find a song or two in that genre and share your incredible love and passion for that music with your children. Don't follow the path of other teachers because you believe you have to teach a certain style of music. Find what YOU love...then share it with your students. Because you love it, they are more likely to love learning it. Your passion for it will show while you teach it and they are likely to respond to that passion over time as you build your program. 
d) Can I be ok with losing some students and creating my own "thing"? It's part of the process of becoming the best version of yourself as a teacher, so the answer needs to be yes. We all must have children in the room who are there because they want to be there, and then we must work toward creating that in our classrooms. No excuses (counselors/adminstrators/parents....). Just work toward finding the solution in THAT building with THOSE students. It is our job to give our students something that is fun, interesting, powerful and valuable and to work with our administrators to help them buy into our vision of what our program should be. 
e) Have I looked into a child's eyes today and asked how he is doing today? We've all heard this before, but it's important to remember: Students don't care how much we know until they know how much we care. 
f) At the end of any given school day, ask yourself....What worked really well today? ....Why did it work? ...How can I create more moments like that? 
g) At the end of any given school day, ask yourself...Where did I fail today? ....Why did I fail in that moment? ...How can I avoid moments like that? 
h) Identify 2 or 3 of the most passionate, successful choral teachers in your area. Take a day off school and go watch them. Now that you've taught for 2 years, you will learn much more than you did when you observed teachers during your student teaching. It's different than going to a workshop. Seeing a real teacher in real time working with real students...nothing like it. 

We change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change...and not a moment before. 

My own personal moment of change began to occur when two events happened within a one week period during those early years: 

a) One day, I had been incredibly negative with the students because I was so frustrated with my own inability to reach them. As the children left the room, one child said "I hate that teacher. Anybody got a gun?" 
b) Then, the following Monday, as I rounded the corner to go open my classroom door to begin the day, I found a pile of human feces in front of my door. These events were horrible and vial....and I decided to dig within myself to find how I had brought them into my life. I can look back and laugh at those events now, but they were horribly painful at the time, and I can tell that you, too, are in quite a bit of pain. 

Honest reflection is difficult and necessary. You can survive this. You can be a master teacher who enjoys her work, thrives and builds a wonderful, large choral program at her school. 

You are already working towards that by reaching out to your peers in this forum. 

Hang in there. 

Warm regards, Dale Duncan

Tomorrow is a big day! I think of it as the true beginning of 2014 because we go back to school! Hope it is a great one for you!

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