Sunday, March 10, 2013

When the going gets tough...

I'll admit right now that this blog post is more of a reminder to myself than to anyone else.
There are no "teaching music gems" in this post, please check back later and thanks for stopping by! 

OK. If you're still with me, I'll be honest about something.
Many things have shifted at my school in the past couple of years and I am adjusting to the changes. Of course, the wonderful thing about teaching is that I always have the opportunity to grow and learn with new challenges. (Even when I'd rather coast along!)

Some new challenges are a change in student and parent behaviors and attitudes. I have been teaching music at the same school for the last 14 years. The students I teach today are very different from the students I taught 4 years ago. There is a lack of personal responsibility on the part of many students and a lack of respect for others. So, I find myself spending more time teaching procedures, reviewing my classroom management plan, and  documenting extreme negative behaviors. Musical concepts and skills take longer to grasp and require more review. I once believed that if I taught excellent quality repertoire and crafted active lessons which alternated concentration with relaxation, student behavior would not be an issue. (I contribute that belief to either optimism or naivety, depending on my mood!)  I wish all my energy could go towards teaching children music and focusing on their growth as musicians.  The most well-planned music lesson armed with excellent materials, instruments, technology, and fabulous manipulatives will fail to make an impact if there are 4 or more students who are determined to sabotage the class because they are in need of attention. 
Here are a few ideas I continue to return to when I start to feel negative:

I can't control others, I can only control my actions and reactions.
Stopping to breathe slows down knee-jerk reactions and reminds me to think rationally.

Be Joyful
Why do you teach music? Do you love music and want to share it with others?
Don't forget to include joyful music making, (even if it doesn't exactly relate to preparing low la, or ti tika!)

Have a Disipline Philosophy and Review it Often
I am a big fan of Love and Logic. The basic cornerstone of Love and Logic is to help children solve their own problems and take owner-ship of their actions. I want to help students make positive choices and develop resiliency. There are several Love and Logic books, DVDs, and audio recordings that detail specific action plans for classroom teachers and parents.

Scaffold/Break it down/Back up the train
So, the students bombed the assessment you set up. You may need to re-teach some very basic concepts to ensure their success. There's no shame in breaking things down further and further still until students can really digest the information. That is what good teachers do.

Have a "worst-case-senario" Plan
Have you ever had a student throw a temper tantrum in class, become a danger to others, throw things, and refuse to leave the room? What did you do? What would you do? Make a plan and share it with another teacher who's room is near yours. Better yet, enlist that teacher's promise to help if the situation arrises. (Still better, marry him. Just kidding! But that's what I did...) I calmly asked a class to line up, gathered my laptop and 3 picture singing books and led them to the library where we continued class while the troubled student raged on without an audience. Once in the library, I called the principal and let him know what was happening. During another similar situation, the library was in use and I led the class into the hallway. We sat criss-cross and continued singing and hand-signing. Frankly, the other students enjoyed the change of venue and reveled in  the attention they received from a kindergarten class traveling down the hall on their way to recess.

Give Positive Attention 
Everyone hungers for positive attention, even those who act as though negativity is the only fuel they can ingest. Give honest, positive feedback to students when they deserve it. Kids know the difference between real and false praise. Additionally, if you praise Bobby for in-tune singing and turn around and lavish praise on Johnny for kind-of participating, it cheapens your encouragement. Johnny's thinking, "Wow, I must be stupid if she thinks doing the minimum is a big achievement for me", Bobby's thinking, "My singing must not be that great, how can I trust her judgment if she thinks that kid deserves the same praise?" 

Stay Positive Yourself
There are children whose lives are enhanced by being in your music class, remember that. 
Exercise, eat right, plan a happy hour with the art teacher, hug your own children, get a massage, buy a new pair of cute shoes, drink wine. Enjoy life outside of school.

Have Integrity
Do the right thing, go that extra mile, be the change you want to see.
If you're not feeling positive, fake it. Act as if  you can make a difference, (and really, you can, you just need reminding.) My Kodály level 1 teacher was Jo Kirk, one of the most dynamic, energetic, positive, and inspiring music educators I've ever known. I often find myself saying, "WWJD?" ("What Would Jo Do?") I'm not Jo, but borrowing a Jo mentality often leads me to a solution. 

It's late and tomorrow's the start of a new week! 
Go forward, share music, and brighten a child's day, (or several children!)


  1. I've been at my school for 7 years and I can say the exact same thing. I spend more time on the behaviorally related things than anything musical. I teach at a school that is a center for Emotionally and Behaviorally Disabled children (who are all mainstreamed for Music & Art) and find my role as music therapist more than music teacher. I often feel that I am watering down so much simply to make it doable when 5 out of 6 classes in that grade have 3 or more kids with significant issues... not including the ones mainstreamed in from the special program.

    You are NOT alone. I have started reading Love and Logic because the old standard of rewards are just not working any more. I have been taking a hard look at my program this year and determining what is working and what "traditions" in music ed need to be retired for a while.

    Did you know a bass xylophone will fly across a portable classroom when a child does not get to play it first?

    It does.

  2. The first time I read this, I thought I was reading one of my own posts. I can relate to so many of the same issues. You are not alone in your fight against these challenges as a music teacher!

    I am also a big fan of love and logic and I am trying to incorporate more of the philosophy into my teaching. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Thank you for chiming in, Gwenn and Marisa. I've been reviewing my Love and Logic materials a lot lately and that has been helpful. Building relationships with students is so important and like anything worth doing, it takes time and effort. It's good to know that I'm not alone!

  4. Great blog. I find this trade as one of the most important when it comes to teaching. Music has been a big part of my life and has given me confidence through out my life.

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  5. Tanya,

    I had a little bit of a crisis the other day, feeling so frustrated at the emotional and behavioral state of my 6th graders and feeling like society has failed them. It is my first year of teaching and I am starting to feel burnt out because of this exact issue. Thank you so much, this couldn't have come at a better time for me!

    Bailey Barnes-Fagg (Kendrick Lakes Elementary)

  6. Thank you and hang in there, Bailey! Our district is one of the only ones I know of that includes 6th graders in elementary school and it's a tough time for them developmentally. They will be leaving elementary school soon and they are excited but scared. Remember to have fun with them; they are still children who love to play. It might be helpful to pull out some of their favorite activities from the year and start each class re-visiting their favorites. (I have several requests from 6th graders to re-visit some of the puppets they met years ago!)

  7. Just ran across your blog this morning! Thanks for your upfront sense of honesty Tanya! Life in the music room is full of ups and downs, isn't it? It's a good thing we all have each other to keep working away at bringing our kids the healing balm of music in today's society. I keep believing it will make a difference in the end for many of our kids!!! Thanks for the reminder to read up on Love and Logic. I think I will make that some of my summer reading :) Julianna Gylseth

  8. Thanks so much, Julianna! Yes, it is a wonderful thing that we all have each other. As the year winds down and some behaviors intensify, it's important to remember to stay connected to supportive friends. Deep breathes. Summer is just around the corner

  9. Thank you for this post! I pinned one of your ideas and was going back to it tonight, and found this! Very timely for me! PS- Bought some foam pumpkins and leaves at Target tonight :) I teach middle school choir, and I am going to use it for matching note values I think and also solfege to the written melodies! Thank you!

  10. This is a fabulous post that I completely relate to. Thank you for posting it.