*Excerpted from You Want Me to Teach What? by Mari Schay and Michael Tolon
Picture this: you’re a secondary instrumental or choral specialist newly assigned to the general music classroom. What now? If you find yourself in this position—essentially teaching elementary music despite your preference or intention—you may need help adjusting to new attitudes (yours, your new students’, and those of the adults around you), the school environment, classroom management, curriculum and assessment, and performance.
Transitioning from Director/Conductor to Teacher
Many middle and high school music educators refer to themselves as “director” or “conductor” as in, “I’m a high school band director” or “I am a middle school choral conductor.” When you move to elementary school, though, you become a teacher. The key difference between a director/conductor and a teacher is that a director is refining existing skills and working toward beautiful performances, while a teacher is developing new skills so a director can eventually take over.
Elementary music is not just pre-band, pre-orchestra, or pre-choir training. Your primary job is to instill a love of music, as well as to develop musical skills, in kids who may walk in the door with no musical experience whatsoever. Singing a simple song may be a completely new experience. Keeping a steady beat may take time. This can feel overwhelmingly slow to a teacher used to conducting nuanced ensemble literature; however, if you plan well and deliver lessons with joy and enthusiasm, the kids will love music . . . and, as their music teacher, you will begin to see the necessity of a great teacher in the early years.
For kids, music is defined by the teacher who teaches it. “I don’t like music” really translates into “I don’t like my music teacher.” By watching and listening, you can assume a lot about the previous teacher. This doesn’t mean you should blame them if the kids seem negative, but it is something to be aware of as you go forward.
Conversely, you may hear, “That’s not how we do it!” or some variation of the same. That may mean the kids were very connected with their music teacher and loved the class, but they don’t trust you to do a good job.
Either way, establish your authority immediately by acknowledging their concerns, letting them know you are excited to be here, and giving them a great music lesson. If their first lesson with you is engaging, the trust will gradually build. You want your classroom to be a safe place to take risks, make mistakes, and create music.
In elementary school, you see every kid. It’s called “general” music because you see the general population. That means you are dealing with the whole gamut of abilities, attitudes, and behaviors. You may have non-verbal kids in your choir or kids in wheelchairs doing folk dances, and you may see kids with autism every day. You might have kindergarteners who can read and fifth graders who cannot. You will have kids who follow all the expectations and kids who go against them. Each of these kids deserves the same musical opportunities as the next.
The Importance of Professional Development
When a secondary music teacher is sent down to elementary school, it can be tough to find the positives, but it is essential to do so. If you project negative thoughts about your job to your kids, they are likely to respond negatively, thereby making your job more difficult—a vicious cycle, which is likely to get more monstrous with time.
The importance of professional development cannot be stressed enough. The ability to attend a conference, find professional development opportunities, or simply sit and share with another colleague will become vitally important in helping you gain new skills, sharpen old ones, and meet fellow music teachers.
Grow Into the Position
Growing into this (new) position will take determination, perseverance, persistence, risk, patience, and time. That last sentence may sound like a Hallmark card, but it is filled with a lot of sweat equity and hard work. This is the investment you are making in yourself. Determination, perseverance, persistence, risk, and patience—these words are all action words and will require serious effort on your part.
- Time: A force unto itself that marches on with us and without us.
- Determination: Set your mind to embrace your position, set your path, and begin the journey.
- Persistence: Make a plan and go for it. This is the direction you are going. 101
- Perseverance: When the path is rough and the plan is working, stay with it. Make the necessary adjustments and keep moving forward.
- Patience: As you go and grow, it will take time and maybe a bit of practice.
- Risk: Believe in the direction you choose. Don’t be afraid to adjust or move on if something isn’t working.
Never let anyone, especially other music teachers, look down on you as an elementary music specialist. Your work is the key to the survival of music at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. You are all great teachers!
You’re a secondary instrumental or choral specialist, newly assigned to the general music classroom. What now? First, take a breath, calm down, and then read You Want Me to Teach What?. Two experienced teachers who conquered this challenge offer practical advice with great care and wit. Chapters of the book address attitude, school environment, classroom management, curriculum and assessment, and student performance. In addition, concrete lesson plans are provided for each grade level. This book covers pre-K through sixth grade.