My first year teaching middle school choral music in public schools was awful.
I have no idea how I made it through. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was armed with a master’s degree from a very good music school, and I was not good at teaching choral music to beginners.
I was ready to quit in December.
That was in 1989.
I showed up to school daily and did the best I could partly out of necessity and partly because I don’t like to give up.
I didn’t take my students to North Carolina Music Educator’s Association’s adjudicated festival in the first year because I knew my students would have a bad experience. It wasn’t their fault…it was mine. I had no idea how to help my beginners learn what they needed to know to succeed at this sort of event.
In year 2, I did my best to prepare them for the event, and we went!
They sang better than they’d ever sung. They brought their best, and so did I.
They got a 3…which is “good”.
The teacher I replaced had always achieved superior.
We got on the bus to return to our school, and a student said to me: “We did ‘good’ Mr. Duncan”.
She was trying to make me laugh.
To make matters worse…Annually in North Carolina where I taught at that time, it was a tradition for the publishers of the state NCMEA magazine to share the names of the directors who achieved superior.
That year, NCMEA made an error and published ALL of the ratings.
Our “good” was published.
They published a retraction and apology to all of the teachers like me of course. I’m sure the editors felt terrible.
I was devastated and so were my students. Fortunately, now, many of those students and I are Facebook friends, so apparently, that experience didn’t damage them too badly!
…But, after we received that rating along with the public embarrassment of having it published, I thought of all of the teachers I’d met over the years who said, “I have never gotten anything but superiors at any of the state adjudications”, and I felt like such a failure.
By year four, I started to feel like I had started to figure some things out about how to teach my urban public school beginners. My philosophy had always been “teach everyone who walks into your room”. I didn’t want to screen or audition. If they showed me they wanted to be there, I had to figure out how to reach them and how to teach them regardless of whether they had an IEP or whether they could sing in tune.
I still live by that philosophy today.
In the beginning, I felt so alone in my classroom as I tried to improve. My evaluators weren’t musicians. For the most part, they were simply following the latest state and federal guidelines and checking boxes to do my evaluations.
I find that is still true today, and I have learned to work through the realities it brings.
What really matters is the students who are going to sit in my classroom each and every day. Each day, I ask myself, “Am I ready for them, and are they going to have a musical learning experience they’ll enjoy and remember?”
Soon, I began to have some success at the adjudicated festivals, and my students began to make real music.
Once I began to figure things as I taught my beginners, I promised myself that I would share my ideas with other teachers.
At the time, writing a book was the way to share, but now, that isn’t the only way. Large publishers are still sharing some great things with all of us, but many of them are struggling to keep up with the changing technologies. Now, all of us who teach in choral music classrooms across the globe have many more possibilities.
Today, I want to encourage music educators to find ways to share your incredible and innovative ideas using those 21st century technologies. Create a YouTube Channel. Record your excellent ideas using your phones. Post the videos in groups on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat so that teachers who are frustrated on a Friday night can go to “google” and find out how you successfully taught the same stuff to your beginners in your classroom.
Help all of us get better at what we do.
When you do it, be respectful and know that, while your ideas are awesome, there are so many super ways to achieve the same result. Let’s help each other and uplift each other.
We are all in the same boat.
We all need it.
Let’s help each other be better for the students.
…And tag me! I want to learn from you and so do music educators around the world.
With the internet, the world has shrunk, and it is easy.
Step into the ring.