Back-to-School

By Dr. Scott Watson

One of the best things about being a teacher is the fresh start we get to make each new school year. With the smell of fall in the air, I’d like to explore eight ways in which teachers can refresh their minds and be prepared to take on another school year.

1. You Make the Difference

Many factors affect student performance and the success of our music programs, but research suggests that teachers matter most. Reflecting on three decades of teaching, observing programs near and far, I must agree. Some teachers build excellence wherever they go, regardless of community demographics, funding, and scheduling. Each one of us can probably think of a particular music teacher whose positive influence led us to careers in education ourselves. Of course our teacher-mentors were fine musicians, but when I ask colleagues to name what meant the most to them about these “influencers,” they invariably cite things such as: “He was caring and modeled a great work ethic,” or “She had high standards but gave of her time to help me meet them,” or “He wasn’t just a great music teacher, he was a great human being.” Maya Angelou sums it up best: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

2. Be Grateful

Each morning on my walk back from signing in at the main office, I pass students lugging their large instruments—cellos, tenor saxophones, etc.—through the hallways. When I think of the mental toughness these kids possess I am humbled. Band and orchestra are not required; these students could easily jettison our ensembles along with their heavy instruments. But they don’t, and we should be grateful they choose to be with us.

3. Be Authentic

Some remarkable teachers possess a charismatic demeanor sprinkled with humor, while others are known for profound reflection and a reverent approach to music-making. As composer-director, Andrew Boysen (himself a fairly low-key, quiet person), said in a recent interview (Everything Band podcast, episode 19), “There’s not [just] one way to be a great teacher.” Emulating the best qualities of teachers we admire can be helpful in finding out what works for us, but ultimately our teaching is more powerful when we are confident and comfortable in our own skin. Trying to be someone we’re not can sap the joy from teaching, and—in the end—kids can spot a “poser” anyway. I urge you especially to share with students any particular musical passion. Whether you’re in love with the euphonium, think Bach’s music is the bee’s knees, or you’re a hard core music theory geek, kids respond when they see your eyes light up!

4. Be Positive

You’ve all heard the saying, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Students and colleagues simply respond better to optimistic/joyful people versus pessimistic/cranky ones. In her book, Grit, author Angela Duckworth posits that having a hopeful, “growth mindset” is a trait common to people who succeed in the face of tough endeavors. Seeing the glass half full, rather than half empty, means viewing failures as learning opportunities, rather than assuming the disappointments are predestined and completely out of our control. I should mention, especially in light of the above admonition to be authentic: I am not advocating we become saccharine Pollyannas whose plastic smiles blithely ignore times of appropriate concern and empathy. But even those times can be viewed with hope, as happening for a reason. I was guest conducting a middle school group a while back and just before introducing me to the ensemble my host pulled me aside to warn me that the mother of one of the students in the ensemble had been killed in a car accident a few days before. When I began rehearsal, I acknowledged the tragedy and expressed my sympathy. I pointed out that musicians often use the language of music to express the ineffable, what cannot be expressed in words. We were playing a beautiful and emotive piece, so I began the rehearsal asking students to use that music to express how they felt about this woman they knew and loved.

5. Each Student Is Important

Smart kids with supportive parents are easiest to teach. It’s easy to give these students our very best. I’ve been as guilty as anyone of giving disproportionate attention to a high flying clarinet player who practices her butt off, takes private lessons, and makes me look good when she performs in my band. But we are paid to teach all our students and it’s the kids in the middle and bottom of our sections that need our creativity most to teach and motivate them. In addition, you never know which students will ultimately contribute more to a program in the long run. Many first and second year band/strings “stars” end up quitting by high school to focus more on one of the many other things—sports, drama, etc.—they are good at. Meanwhile, there are quite a few students whose playing abilities seem modest during their first few years, but who then blossom into very valuable members of their high school ensembles.

6. Be Diligent and Prepared

Doing a good job in our profession requires us to roll up our sleeves and dig into the hard work of scheduling, lesson and rehearsal planning, recruiting, score study, advocating, communicating with parents, and more. With experience we can get more efficient and work smarter, but there really are no shortcuts to success. Three of my favorite quotes on the topic speak for themselves:

“Every battle is won before the war.”—The Art of War

“Chance favors the prepared.”—Louis Pasteur.

“If I was given an axe and eight hours to cut down a tree, I would spend the first six hours sharpening the axe.”—Abraham Lincoln.

7. Be Demanding and Supportive

I list these two together because it is important we possess both, and not emphasize one over the other. Having high musical and behavioral expectations is a form of respect for students, demonstrating to them that we believe they are capable of much. But we also have to be willing to walk the walk, spending time with those who need help getting there. Demanding directors who aren’t there for their students are seen as tough, but after a while very few kids want to work for them. Directors who are super supportive, but whose expectations are very low, enable their students and tend to get taken advantage of. Musical support might come in the form of sacrificing prep periods (or before or after school time) to drill scales or repertoire, making phone calls to parents to encourage and challenge, or using Finale to create custom exercises to deal with a student’s particular issue. With regard to discipline and classroom management, author Josh McDowell sums up the idea of balance succinctly: “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.”

8. Keep Honing Your Craft

A new year is a good time to reflect on your strengths and strategize ways to improve skills that need sharpening. Do you have a “professional learning network” (PLN)? Having trusted colleagues you can approach for judgement-free insight on teaching strategies, classroom management, repertoire selection, etc.—especially for younger teachers—is invaluable. Online educator groups on Twitter (i.e. #musedchat, #musiced, etc.) and Facebook can provide help as well. When I was young, a mentor urged me to always have 1-, 5- and 10-year goals. It’s a healthy practice and is probably, in part, responsible for some significant moves forward in my career and for my program. Other great ways to hone one’s craft include attending a professional conference, taking a grad course, playing in an ensemble (experiencing again what it’s like to be on the other side of the baton), spending a day visiting/observing the program of a colleague you admire, having a clinician come to work with your students (live or via Skype), or composing/arranging music for your students to play.

Our students need strong, positive role models now more than ever. I hope you’ll be able to glean something useful from this “mental checklist” to help you be just that. Best wishes for a wonderful school year!

Watson_ScottScott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music for 30 years in the Parkland School District (Allentown, PA) and is an award-winning and frequently commissioned composer. Many of Watson’s published works at all levels for concert band and orchestra have been named J.W. Pepper Editor’s Choice and appear on various state lists; he is a contributor to Alfred’s Sound Innovations Ensemble Development Series. His music has been performed at prestigious venues around the world, including the Midwest Clinic, and received recognition from the American Composers Forum, the American Music Center, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the Percussive Arts Society, and others.

Watson has presented numerous sessions and professional development workshops for music educators and frequently serves as guest conductor for honor band festivals. Additionally, Dr. Watson is an adjunct professor for Cairn University, the University of the Arts, and Central Connecticut State University, and the author of the highly regarded music education text, Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity (©2011, Oxford University Press). To learn more, visit www.scottwatsonmusic.com.

Everything Band podcast, Episode 19, interview by host, Mark Connor, http://www.markjconnor.com/eb-podcast/everything-band-episode-19-andrew-boysen-jr
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