Like many other educators, a High School teacher inspired me to join the profession. He was the chorus teacher, and I was an awkward teenager looking for a place to belong. I spent lunches and free periods in the choir room with other friends. When looking at my college and career paths, it was obvious; I wanted to be a music teacher and give kids a place to be safe and comfortable, a place to love music the way I had. Four years in undergrad and two great student teaching placements reinforced this notion.
I landed my first job at an urban Charter School teaching middle school music classes and a large 7-8 choir. I was excited but problems quickly arose. The first warning sign was the high turnover among the teachers. The longest-tenured teacher was there for 10 years. At least half the instructors changed from year to year.
I’d like to say that I handled things well but that’s simply untrue. I started with them halfway through the year when the much-beloved teacher moved out of state. I tried to do what their old teacher had done and so it felt like a third student teaching placement instead of my own class.
My colleagues were great, especially within my department. The administration, however, was unhelpful. At my first faculty meeting, an English teacher questioned why so many students were involved in music. Why were these struggling writers going off to voice lab? There is no standardized test for music so what’s the point of music class, he argued.
Years spent with professors discussing the importance of music instruction and oodles of data flashed through my brain but nothing came out of my mouth. The administration didn’t say anything either. I took the non-confrontational, I’m-the-new-guy-in-the-room stance and it was humiliating.
I cannot blame the kids for my failures in my first year. They’re just kids after all. Every day was rough. I distinctly remember walking through Target on Sunday nights, with a gnawing pain in my stomach thinking about the week ahead. Sports radio on my way to and from work was a much-needed distraction. When one of the hosts was leaving the station, I texted him to let him know exactly how much his work meant to me.
I almost left the profession. In between radio segments, advertisements for a local insurance company hiring initiative played. It was tempting. Now that I’m a decade removed from it, I better understand the existential crisis I had fallen into. I was going to be the inspirational music teacher after all! What had happened and how had I become so ill-prepared for this?
During that time, a retired teacher at a local Catholic High School reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in his old job. I practically jumped through the computer screen to grab the opportunity. I knew it was a school whose philosophies aligned with mine, with parents who supported the mission of the school. I interviewed and landed the job.
On the first day, the kids came in, sat down, and I gave directions. An amazing thing then happened; the kids quieted down and we got started! My jaw hit the floor. This began a year-long honeymoon period where I learned the school, taught classes, and became a music teacher again. I recall crying tears of joy on the way home from work on one of those early days.
My first year left scars but provided valuable lessons that I needed moving forward. For one, I was not prepared for my first job. I needed twice the amount of lesson planning than I actually did. I learned early on that idle hands created a wealth of problems, but kids who are engaged with interesting material have too much to focus on to cause interruptions.
Similarly, classroom management was not something I learned in teacher prep. We studied education theories, learning styles, pedagogy, and even how to stage a puppet properly in the classroom so it wouldn’t be hunched over. I’m sure classroom management was covered but not nearly enough for me! Maybe it wasn’t the college’s fault. Maybe the only way to truly learn to teach is to get into a classroom. In my first school, the administration was so focused on test results that little else mattered. Mentoring new people just wasn’t in the cards.
I should have asked better questions in the interview. What’s the average tenure of teachers? What percentage of teachers have been here 25+ years? Regarding teachers who don’t stay long, what’s the reason? Truthfully I was so excited just to get an interview and an offer I wouldn’t have asked these, and I suspect most new teachers are like that too, but these are questions I would ask if I ever looked for a new position.
I don’t regret my experiences though. They provide perspective in my current job. When you have a group of students who are naturally agreeable, the temptation to coast is tremendous. I learned enough techniques from my first job to push them past their comfort zone, and I’m grateful for that.
Looking back, not all the emotions are positive. I regret that I didn’t provide the experience the kids deserved. Sometimes I still have dreams that I’m back in that classroom, rectifying past mistakes. Knowing what I know now, after 10 years of teaching, I’m confident I could make it work.
Nonetheless, I’m so grateful to be where I am, in a school where I can provide students that safe environment, where they are free to express themselves through music. It’s much like the environment my High School Music Teacher gave to me. Ultimately, I’m very glad that I stuck through the difficulty that so many face in their first year and stayed in the profession.