Starting your career as a music educator is an exciting time! Who better to offer some words of wisdom than the Yamaha “40 Under 40” music educators for 2023?
Below are 122 tips that will help you navigate your first year of teaching.
1. Find an encouraging and wise mentor — this can be life-changing! A mentor will keep you abreast of current teaching trends while also helping you keep your head above water with all the other ‘minutia’ required in education. You are so valuable, and students need YOU! To the world you may be one person, but you truly have an opportunity to change the world, one student at a time.
2. Whenever you can, go watch a successful teacher. This teacher doesn’t have to be another music educator. Take your planning period and go observe the teacher of the year within your building. Watch the conductors at your Region Event and All-State and glean every rehearsal technique you can.
3. Be vulnerable – video tape yourself teaching. Watch it and reflect and, if you can, share it with your mentor to receive feedback.
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1. Be organized and create a plan. This will help you stay on top of all the tasks that come with being a music educator.
2. Get to know your students and their interests. This will help you create lesson plans that are engaging and relevant to them.
3. Connect with other music educators in your area. This is a great way to get advice, ideas and support from those who have been in your shoes before.
1. It is not always about what you like or even want. Example: Just because you may really like a song, it may not be a good fit for your group at that particular time. Not every kid who comes into the band room is going to be a band director one day. You will have students come to you with a variety of different interests, levels, backgrounds and needs. Make sure that the decisions you make are what is best for the band and the program as a whole. Every school, every program and every situation is a little different.
2. Know the repertoire for the level you are teaching. Picking the correct repertoire can be the make or break for so many things for the program and band member retention. If the band learned fundamental musical concepts playing the repertoire, and the band had fun and continues to play at the next level — then you did your job. Plaques, trophies and awards are not the reason we do what we do, period.
3. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other band directors. As band directors, we are often on an island. Most schools have one band director (unlike the English and Math departments where there are multiple other teachers teaching the same content). There will likely be no department head (or if there is, it is not uncommon for them to have a totally different specialty.)
1. Get to know the community, as well as the individual students who you serve. They are each unique humans who bring so much to the table in the music-making process, and every community and student is unique.
2. Always look to foster relationships with your colleagues as well as other music/performing arts professionals. Not only does this open up pathways for potential collaborations, but it is also a great way to demonstrate respect, inclusion, and love for others to our students.
3. Cut yourself some slack. “Rome was not built in a day,” and your music program won’t be either. Have an ambitious and hopeful vision for the current year, the upcoming year, the next five years, even the next 10 years. Having a vision for your program, and a dedication to an excellent execution of that vision, will help you begin to develop and shape your program into something really wonderful. Take on one thing at a time but do it excellently, and it will grow!
1. Become the BEST musician you can possibly be. Listen to great music, STUDY your music and perform as much as possible.
2. Focus on communication. There is no such thing as overcommunication. Most people only get to know you through email, so make the craft of writing a priority.
3. Take time for yourself. This profession is hard, but worthwhile. Make sure you are taking every opportunity to lengthen the sustainability of your career.
1. Listen to your students, and respond to them like humans, not children who must obey! If you bring respect to the table, the students will follow suit.
2. Admit when you don’t know something, and model looking it up!
3. Build relationships first through structure, routine and consistency.
1. Go above and beyond. Being a music educator to high schoolers means that you not only need to be a strong musician/conductor/producer but you must also be emotionally available for your students. A level of mutual trust must be built.
2. If you are an instrumentalist or vocalist, continue to perform and develop your own craft. Find ways to still be on stage and hone your own performance rituals that you can pass on to your students. If you are asking your students to perform, you also need to remain a performing artist.
3. No matter your age, stay up to date with all current music from every genre.
1. Perseverance: This has been my word since I started teaching. I kept hearing that “it gets better,” and I finally figured out that we, as educators, get better! I remember going home crying during my first year and feeling exhausted from all the extra hours and weekends I would put in. But I always remembered that it took my teacher six years of not giving up before I finally joined her mariachi class, and I cannot express how grateful I am that she persevered because I would not be where I am today if she had given up.
2. Self-Care: Yes, your program needs lots of attention, but we tend to forget about ourselves. Sleeping, eating and even things as simple as setting a specific time when work ends are important in ensuring long-term success and sustainability, not only for the program but also for the teacher. Students notice self-care. And we need to care for ourselves in order to be more present for our students.
3. Always remember your WHY: As we continue with our busy lives, schedules and performances, and as our music programs start to run like well-oiled machines, things can become stagnant, where the focus is on the result, rather than the process. The process is the why — taking students from not knowing anything about music to being national performers — and all of the meaning that students take out of that process — makes what we do vitally important. We cannot simply focus on the student outcome of “learning an instrument,” “performing for whomever” or even “Keller Middle School — Superior.” The sense of community is why we do what we do, and we must remember that.
1. The structure of learning cannot be built without the foundation of relationships
2. You can’t pour into your students if you are empty
3. You absolutely deserve to be where you are, if you put in the work
1. Have a plan. Plan out your goals for the school year and how you’ll implement them (dream big but be realistic). Plan out how much time it’ll take to get your students where you want them to be. Plan to take time for yourself! Teacher burnout is real and doesn’t help anyone.
2. Remember, everything you do must be for your students. If you try something and it doesn’t work out, that’s OK. The key is to always keep the students in mind.
3. Be honest. Students appreciate transparency. We tell our students that making mistakes is OK, but sometimes we as teachers don’t give ourselves the same grace. Own it, learn from it and move on.
1. Be curious, be brave and ask as many questions as possible that come to your mind. There’s someone there to help you who has been there before. They certainly helped me.
2. Give yourself grace. You will make some mistakes. Just try not to make the same ones. Also, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Students will value your honesty with them and your honesty with yourself.
3. Join your local and national professional music organizations (NAfME, ACDA, BOA, etc.). Networking with fellow music educators is extremely valuable in our professional development.
1. Keep high standards. Students will rise to your expectations and will be thankful in the long run for being held to them.
2. Don’t be afraid to take risks and chances. Your students will surprise you and learn things you didn’t think were possible.
3. Ask for help. If you’re struggling to figure out everything it takes to run a music program, you’re not the only one! Other educators have their tricks that work for them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those in your community with more experience. They want to help!
1. Pace yourself and accept your reality. So many times, we envision our perfect ensemble. Work the ensemble in front of you to progress to be the desired ensemble that you envision. It takes day-by-day building. Give yourself and your students grace; it takes time.
2. Become a connected educator. Advocate for your program by building relationships with students, parents, faculty, alumni, administration and the community. Remember that you are not alone. Communicate with your ensemble’s village.
3. Be passionate. Continuously show love for your discipline. Always be at your best. Demonstrate love for your craft. It will become contagious. This contagious spirit will become enjoyable for all.
1. Find your tribe. Surround yourself with a community of support and people who you can go to for help when you’re stuck. It’s so important to have people who can help you work through a problem, remind you of upcoming deadlines or calm you down when you’re in a panic. It’s okay to ask for help — you’re not in this alone!
2. You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK. We’ve all been there — we have all forgotten to turn in grades, respond to that parent email or remind students about their concert attire. These are all learning experiences, and you will learn from them. It doesn’t mean you “failed,” it means you’re growing!
3. Take time for reflection. It’s going to be hectic and you’re going to be overwhelmed sometimes, but take time to reflect on what you’re doing correctly and celebrate those small victories. Likewise, reflect on things that could use some improvement and get creative about ways to address those situations. Use your tribe to celebrate and help you!
1. Video record your teaching and conducting on a weekly basis. This will urgently refine your own delivery/tone, pacing of information, ear training, etc.
2. Find a positive mentor teacher in your life who is dedicated to your students’ growth, dedicated to your growth as an educator and constructively honest in conversation. (Thank you, Dr. Joshua Boyd, Ryan Murrell and countless others, for being my mentors.)
3. Develop curricula through Understanding by Design (UbD) / Backward Design. Begin with the end in mind with all things.
1. Always remember the music and people. If your college training was anything like mine, the things that matter most are not discussed as much as they should be. The most important things about this job are music and people. If you wake up on fire to make music every day, and you care about your students deeply as people, then everything else about the job will come with time. If you aren’t passionate about music and/or you don’t care about your students, there is nothing you can learn that will make up for that.
2. To do this job well requires about 300 hours of work a week. You must get comfortable with the fact that there will ALWAYS be more work to do than can be done. Once you figure that out, then learn how to get better at delegating, training, asking for help and prioritizing your time.
3. The truth is in the score. This somewhat cryptic saying comes from Elizabeth Green and it is a way of saying that we are not the source of energy when you conduct. We are the conduit through which the music passes, and it is our job to do everything we can to communicate the music that wants to pass through us to the musicians in your ensemble and then ultimately to the audience. When you make it about you, whether it’s your ego, your pride or your competitiveness, you are missing the point. The more you make it about the music and what your students need, the more powerful your music-making powers will become
1. Make sure you are organized, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
2. We call it “playing music” for a good reason, so remember to make sure that you and your students get to have some fun doing music stuff in your class. If you don’t think it is important, if you don’t enjoy it, then it isn’t realistic to think that your students will, too.
3. Discipline and respect are essential to good music-making in the classroom, so be sure to find an approach that fits your personality and demeanor. It may be difficult at first — maybe you are concerned that the students won’t like you — but in the long run, they will lose respect for you and stop liking you anyway if you aren’t able to respect everyone’s time by decisively addressing disciplinary issues.
1. Don’t overlook middle school and middle schoolers! It is a great place with fantastic students. Be open to jobs at the middle school level, it’s a very special place where you can make a huge impact.
2. Give yourself five years! A fantastic mentor told me this at the beginning of my career, and it’s been a game changer. The first five years are when you are experimenting and figuring it all out — and these first years are tough! But around year five, you start to feel settled, and you have the confidence that you know what you are doing. Never stop improving and give yourself some grace those first years.
3. Create an organized system for all your digital and physical files from day one! You will save yourself so much time if you always know where things are. Even if you change it later, at least you have somewhere to start.
1. Keep your desk clean. The entire enterprise runs through your office.
2. Keep your due dates and your deadlines from being too close to each other. For example, field trip forms are due to the office on Friday, so they are due to the director on Tuesday, NOT Thursday.
3. Record yourself teaching. Monitor your talking versus teaching ratio. Feedback is one of the most significant drivers of growth.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I felt like I could barely keep my head above the water my first year, and that’s OK! Being a new teacher is scary sometimes and there are a lot of things you don’t learn about in college.
2. Growth takes time. When you try new things or try to turn a program around, you won’t see results right away. In fact, you may see things get worse before they get better. Stay the course, and be patient. You will see those changes, but it can take years to turn a program around.
3. Set boundaries. Being a music teacher is hard work. We oftentimes provide the only safe space our students have and that leads to a lot of sharing. It’s important to be there for your students, while also setting boundaries to protect your own emotional well-being and mental health. Boundaries are important.
1. Connect with your community. Whether it’s your school district, state or somewhere else, find experienced teachers who you can turn to with questions and gain insights from. Music teachers often feel isolated, but in building your network, you will know you are supported and have a team of cheerleaders behind you!
2. Set boundaries. There’s so much pressure in the professional world, especially in the teaching sphere, to go above and beyond. There is nothing wrong with having high expectations, but burnout is not a badge of honor. Do everything in your power to leave work at work and find something truly recreational or relaxing to include in your routine.
3. It’s just music! Mistakes happen and the first year of teaching certainly has a huge learning curve, but remember that your job is to make music with children — never lose sight of the joy that music brought you, and enjoy the wonderful opportunity you have to bring joy, wonder and success to your students!
1. Routines and structure are key.
2. Give your students reasonable opportunities to make responsible choices.
3. Work hard but have fun doing it.
1. Learn the names of your office staff, counselors and custodians. Treat them with kindness. They hold the walls together. Music programs demand more than other subjects and having a good relationship with these people will make a difference.
2. Ask, beg and borrow. All those great ideas, activities and assignments your colleagues have? Chances are they got them from someone else. We are here to support one another. So, ask for a copy, ask for their thoughts, ask if you can use it. I bet they’ll say yes.
3. Never forget that your students are in your class by choice. The students in front of you choose to participate in music, for one reason or another. It is your responsibility to create an environment in which they want to stay, and an experience in which they thrive.
1. Give yourself GRACE! There will be trial and error and moments that you don’t “get it right.” Realize you aren’t the first and won’t be the last to experience those feelings, learn from them and give yourself grace as you move forward.
2. Plan ahead and be prepared but be ready to PIVOT. Proper preparation allows you to be confident in your instruction but always be prepared to pivot and try something else if need be in order to best serve the needs of your students.
3. Remember that “there’s more.” Think outside the box. Allow your students to think outside the box. All great innovations started with an idea!
1. Be a good human, be patient and allow yourself some grace.
2. Continue to learn and improve your teaching and performance skills so that you can teach students at every level.
3. Create an inclusive and diverse learning environment that is welcoming for all students!
1. It’s OK not to know everything. Even now, I will still get asked about a fancy fingering or music history question that I don’t know the answer to right away. Just go do your homework and share your findings. Those questions may knock your “but I’m a musician!” pride down a notch, but they will make you a better teacher.
2. Take risks! Want to try something you saw online? Have a weird idea to teach a musical concept? Try it! The worst thing that will happen is that it doesn’t give you the results you were hoping for, and you move on to try something else.
3. Be empathetic. If I could compare my first year to now, the amount of empathy I have for my students and their families has grown exponentially. People are dealing with so many outside and uncontrollable factors that sometimes music is their only saving grace, or alternatively, it gets pushed to the side. Instead of taking offense, find out how you can help.
Pick any three from below:
1. Don’t be afraid of mistakes, just try not to repeat the big ones.
2. Go for it! Don’t wait until you know all the steps to join the dance.
3. You’ll never forget your first year, so enjoy it the best you can.
4. The hard part about your first year is the psychoanalysis that follows every rehearsal. You spend so much time thinking about the ins, outs and what ifs that occurred or didn’t occur. This tip is simple: Only spend time thinking about what you can fix in the next rehearsal, everything else is folly.
5. Don’t let the stuff you can’t control rent space in your brain.
1. Ask many questions! The first year of teaching is difficult for everyone.
2. Think outside the box. There is a world of music to explore across multiple cultures and races.
3. Talk to your students. Ask them how their day or weekend was. Ask about their baseball games, dance competitions, etc. Make your students know that they belong and that you care about what’s going on in their lives.
1. Find a mentor who you trust and admire. There is always a teacher with more experience waiting and willing to help guide you in the right direction. No teacher worth their salt wants to see you fail!
2. Get out of your band hall and see master teachers work their craft. Go to all types of conferences, camps and other schools to absorb all the information you can!
3. Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods. Just because a plan is not working the first time (or ever) does not mean the goal should be trashed. That is the beauty of the alphabet … if Plan A will not work, there are 25 more letters from which to choose! Be flexible enough not to panic and destroy the momentum you’ve created!
1. Find places where you have safe opportunities to teach and implement what you learned in school, ideally with role models around where you can learn real teaching experiences and techniques.
2. Design and plan → Implement → Self-reflect → Improve. Do this for the rest of your life! We need to be constant thinkers and be the first person to give feedback to ourselves.
3. Be meaningful all the time. We are changing the world, and it takes a lot! Show your students that there is always a pathway and that you’re willing to guide and support them
1. Find your people and collaborate on everything
2. Get organized. Otherwise, you won’t have enough time to do anything but stay afloat, which is bad for students
3. Have a clear sense of your learning objectives. Are the things you are doing actually addressing those objectives? Constantly ask yourself constantly “why are we doing this?”
1. Embrace the process of becoming a better teacher. You won’t always get it right, so embrace those mistakes and grow from them.
2. In the great words of one of my many mentors, Jeffrey A. Murdock: “Teach the kids in front of you, not the kids you wish you had.”
3. When students feel confident, that they belong, that can be their authentic selves, and that they are being pushed to a high level of excellence, you have created “The Ultimate Classroom Culture.”
1. Trust your abilities as a musician, educator and director. Your students are capable of so much, so don’t be afraid to challenge them to sound musical — you know what that sounds like. Don’t feel obligated to say yes to every request for your group. You know what is reasonable and possible — don’t get pushed around.
2. Make connections with both music and non-music colleagues. They share the same students and can offer a lot of advice. There are a lot of times when you can feel isolated because of how busy you are, so it is helpful to know you’re not.
3. This may sound scary, but your students notice everything. They notice if you’re having a good day or a bad day (my students notice when I don’t end rehearsal by saying have a great day!), they notice how you interact with and support (or don’t support) them, their peers or your colleagues. So, treat everyone with fairness and kindness. Along those same lines, this is a thankless job, so even if you don’t feel appreciated, know that you are.
1. Exemplify a growth mindset. The best teachers are constantly learning and adapting.
2. Put your students first. Often, this means questioning the status quo, being skeptical of things that “have always been done this way,” prioritizing student choice over compliance, and leaning into discomfort in order to advance systemic change.
3. Schools are learning institutions, not entertainment venues. Music education should be about liberating students’ creative voices and seeking musical growth for all, not just about progression of technical skills and competitions. In my opinion, concerts should be an optional component of a curriculum, not the primary way of demonstrating learning outcomes. “Teaching to the concert” is akin to “teaching to the test” and does not result in well-rounded, literate or imaginative musicians.
1. Find your voice and encourage your students to find theirs as well.
2. Never be afraid to say you don’t have the answer. I think when we show up in certain spaces there is a misunderstanding that educators must have all the answers. The moment I was able to celebrate that I am a life-long learner, I was able to realize how incredible my network of scholars on any area was — and they were at my disposal! I celebrate not having all the answers for my students because it allows me to open up my network to them as well.
3. You can love what you do and still be burnt out. I don’t believe the saying, “If you choose what you love to do, you never have to work a day in your life.” Sometimes, the work is hard and draining. Having a good work/life balance is important so that you never lose sight of why we are in this profession in the first place
1. Teach beginners early in your career. Nothing strengthens your pedagogy like teaching a child to play an instrument from square one. They only know what you’ve taught them. It’s the ultimate litmus test of your ability as a teacher. Furthermore, you’ll intimately learn the instruments, making you a better ensemble teacher!
2. Learn to play every instrument you teach. The best decision I ever made for my pedagogy was to learn how to play a new instrument every summer when I was young and still had the time. I can still remember the summer I spent practicing clarinet. I gained a strong appreciation for what it feels like to be a beginner again, and I figured out how to troubleshoot all the strange sounds I was hearing in class but wasn’t sure how to address.
3. The first three years are the hardest. One of my mentors once told me that your first year you’ll be drowning. Your second year you’ll tread water. The third year you’ll start to swim but be unsure of the destination. Once you hit the fourth year, you’ll start to swim with purpose. This couldn’t have been more accurate for me, and I’ve seen it ring true for so many of my former student teachers over the years.
1. Everything you know matters — your experiences, your pedagogical and musical knowledge. However, you must remember that you are teaching humans in front of you, each of whom have hopes and dreams about “what band is,” what they hope to accomplish and what it means to be a part of an ensemble. Additionally, they have worries and stressors in other areas of their lives that will affect their performance in your class. I think it is important that as music educators, we address the entire individual and be a positive force for good in their lives.
2. Students will feed off of your genuine joy of music-making. They will mimic your stress and frustration if you show those emotions, but they will also mimic your vulnerability, technique and passion. Lead by example and demonstrate sensitive and encouraging musical energy.
3. Get students to buy in to what you are doing through building genuine relationships, showing them that you care and fostering trust. Especially if you are stepping into a high school band program, I strongly recommend not changing about 90% of the program norms for the first year. The 9th graders in front of you likely never encountered your predecessor, but to the 12th graders, you are the teacher who took the job of “their” band director. Show them you are on the same team and want the same thing through honoring their band experience and add new things where you can.
1. Utilize all the resources available to you. It’s important to take advantage of any grant, partnership or help from the community to enhance your program. Students will notice how much you are investing in them and their success.
2. Celebrate the growth of your students as much as possible, no matter how big or small. Students want to be seen and heard. They need positive reinforcement in their lives to provide them with motivation to achieve excellence.
3. Collaborate with your department and seek help when needed. Do not try to do everything on your own. We can grow and support each other and our programs.
1. The first year was hard for all of us — keep showing up and asking for help. It will get easier! Just remember to be YOU! You’re the only you there is on this planet, so be yourself and don’t try to be like anyone else (it’s OK to not follow the imaginary ruler or yardstick of life — just do you!)
2. Make sure you’re eating well and sleeping enough — you can’t rock a classroom full of folks if your engine isn’t running correctly
3. It’s OK to say no, and it is more than OK to ask for help — not only in year one but forever. I wouldn’t be able to do anything I do today without my mentors. Collaboration is one of the keys to loving life!
1. Document everything! Your first year will always be the year in which you lay the groundwork/foundation for the rest of your career. Keep every physical/digital file that you use and store it for future reference. They will come in handy later!
2. Ask lots of questions and seek lots of answers. Let your mind be inquisitive. You never know where those generated ideas will take you and your students!
3. Enjoy each moment and take time to care for yourself whenever you can. Try to not bring the work home as much as possible. If you are great with your students, strive to be even greater with your family, friends, spouse, children, pets, etc. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance will give you longevity and energy in this field of work.
Check out tips for first-year music teachers from the 2022 “40 Under 40” and 2021 “40 Under 40” educators for more invaluable advice!
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