But Wait, That Wasn’t In My Job Description!

767498_kids_listening_to_music“Welcome to education.”

“Deal with it!”

“Didn’t they teach you in college that you need to be flexible?”

‘What do you want me to do about it?”

“Wow, I wish I had it that good my first year!”

So you graduated and then spent all summer looking for a job. You got your job, get to the school, and suddenly the classes or students you have bear no real similarity to what they told you in the interview.

The good news is that you’re not alone. The bad news is that this is probably what you are going to be dealing with all year.

I recently got an email expressing a similar situation:

I’m a first year who was hired as a part-time choral director…I really didn’t want to start out in inner-city education, but it was all that was available. The principal seemed supportive though, and wants to see some great things…

The problem is that I was lied to in my interview and betrayed by my school. None of the students signed up for my class – I was given last names A-C for each of the grades. I went to start warm-ups for my “choirs” and got silence or “I’m not gonna sing!” These kids have no idea what a quarter note is, what the word melody means, and have absolutely no interest in making music. My choral curriculum has to be thrown out the window, and I’m really really hurting.

I’ve gone to my county’s music supervisor, and she gave me an almost derogatory speech about how this is the world of education – that I should have known what I was getting myself into. When I mentioned how an orchestral person wouldn’t be given 40 students who don’t know how to hold a violin, she replied that “chorus is just different, deal with it.”

So the question here is how do we extend some hope to this individual. First, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Your students can tell when you are frustrated
  • It’s not their fault that they don’t know how to read music
  • They probably don’t want to be in your class just as much as (if not more than) you want them to be in your class
  • Negativity must be avoided at all costs; seriously!
  • Quitting because of this situation will not bode well for future job placement, nor will it benefit you as much as fighting your way through this situationBECAUSE
  • When you get to the end of this year and look back on it, you will be amazed at the growth (both professionally and personally) that you see in yourself
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First things first
Here are the things I would commit to never do this year at all costs:

  • Complain about your students or administration to anyone…ever
  • Get frustrated at the students for not knowing what they have not been taught
  • Expect the students to do anything beyond the minimum that the administration expects of you (2-3 concerts)
  • Forget this is a totally low-key job and begin to experience any stress from your work

Now, let’s get started
Like you said, you need to throw out your entire curriculum. That may be solid advice for almost every teacher out there. Oops, was that out loud? The situation as it stands is:

  • You have a bunch of students who have minimal prior music experience
  • You have students in your class who did not choose to be put there
  • You are unhappy with your situation and feel that your administration lied to you

Select your music with your students in mind
Remember that your students sense any frustration that you have. If you are tired, they know. If you don’t like your principal, they know. If you don’t like them, they know. So right now, instead of preparing John Rutter’s Requiem, you are faced with a situation where you need to prepare them to sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat well. Maybe not that extreme, but what if you could find a few fun Christmas songs to do or maybe even a simple SAB (or even two-part) arrangement of a Hannah Montana or even some sort of 50s medley that you can find? You didn’t tell me the age group (or I overlooked it somehow) but gear your music selection to where they are.

I have never passed out music that someone didn’t complain about
If they complain that it’s too easy, tell them to sing it perfectly. If they complain that it’s too hard, tell them to try. If they complain that it’s boring, it probably is! Find something else. You said your administration is supportive, so get them to help you out in buying music that will work with the kids. If that means that you buy some music that you don’t perform, that’s perfectly fine. In fact, you need to go through a lot of music this year. Which leads me to my next point

Don’t expect everything to sound great
Don’t try to perform everything you possibly can at the concert. Perform what sounds good and makes you look like you’re doing a great job.

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But not of this can happen until…
You need to motivate the kids. Wait, we can’t motivate kids. They need to be motivated. We need to lead them well before they will do what we ask them to do. So how do you lead them well? Make your class fun. Relax and enjoy the fact that you are being paid to teach music to kids. In an inner city, you’re probably being paid pretty well since they often throw in “hazard pay” just for being there. Enjoy that.

The challenge of leadership
I was talking with some of the high school band’s Drill Instructors last week and I told them that the biggest challenge of leadership is dealing with the unmotivated people. There are always going to be unmotivated people. The challenge is to remain way more excited about what we are doing that the people we are leading. Excitement is contagious. Almost as contagious as negativity. Don’t let negativity control you. Root it out at all costs! When you find it seeking to control you (and it will try), fight fight fight fight fight. Then fight some more.

Music teachers have among the best jobs in the world. Get the kids to love you (nobody loved bitter old men!) and have fun with it. This is a great adventure for you, and could be the difference between a miserable year and a magnificent one!

Reader reactions
So to throw this out to my readers, what kind of “this wasn’t in my job description!” type stories do you have? Also, what advice can you offer to someone in this situation?

Further reading

About Joel Wagner 522 Articles
Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

6 Comments on But Wait, That Wasn’t In My Job Description!

  1. Very good advice. Go with the kind of music that the kids might know and like. Then you can ease them into the other stuff once you got them singing. You are so on target about not complaining. That is the fastest way to get everyone thinking you won’t succeed. Tell her to keep her head up and smile no matter what.

  2. I agree with everything you said except the “Quitting because of this situation will not bode well for future job placement.” Are you talking about quitting before the end of the school year or moving on to another school after that year? If it’s the former, I understand. If it’s the latter, I beg to differ.

    I had an interview for a band job this summer, and the principal criticized me for being at my first school for one year and being at my second school for two years. That principal is big on staying somewhere for a while, though I don’t know if it is a music teacher expectation or a general one for all teachers. At the first school, I was teaching remedial reading to make up for the all of the students whose schedules blocked them out of an elective. I only had 40 kids in a middle school with 1100 students. I had to everything else before or after school. In school #2, I was seeing kids every other day for 50 minutes because of the school’s honors magnet program. I had a ton of students, but many of them were required to do it for the magnet (whether or not they could afford it or if the school could pick up the tab). I don’t want to jump from school to school when there is a problem, but when things look like they are not going to change scheduling wise, do people really expect us to turn down other openings to stick it out at a school where their scheduling may keep us from succeeding?

    I had to come to the realization that I couldn’t produce the Eastman Wind Ensemble at school #2, so I had to adapt my curriculum to fit the time I was alloted. This chorus teacher will have to do the same. He/She may even have to take a general music class approach to things until she is able to get the students engaged. If he/she plans to return for a 2nd year, maybe he/she will be able to recruit students who are really interested to take her class.

    • Agreed. The reader had indicated the possibility of quitting in the next few weeks even. Obviously that would be akin to filing bankruptcy as far as job hunting goes.

      The sooner we come to realization that our university classes prepared us for major disappointment when faced with the reality of real classroom situations, the easier it is for us to adapt!

      I agree with your thoughts on moving to another school if the administrative isn’t supportive. Not every time, but I would be hard pressed to find a band director who would look down on a director for that kind of thing. In a situation where an administrator is interviewing you, perhaps using the terms “career growth” or “because I was not teaching music every period” might be better to use. :)

  3. Great suggestions. Pointed enough to help, but broad enough to glean from. I really, really appreciate the direct talk about not letting any of the angst bleed out onto the kids. They’re the customer, and you can’t sell a thing to someone you’ve pissed off, even if they need it. Especially middle through high school. They’d rather bleed to death than take a bandaid from you if they’re mad at ya.

    Mike

  4. This is terrific advice. I was particularly struck by your instruction to not “forget this is a totally low-key job and begin to experience any stress from your work.” This may be the most difficult yet most important of all your tips. I recently wrote a post on meditation for teachers and how it has helped me avoid being overwhelmed when things are not going according to plan:

    http://siobhancurious.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/how-i-saved-my-teaching-career-part-7-meditate/

  5. So true, Joel. A new teacher just HAS to make it through the first whole year if they expect to find another teaching job, ever. It’s not fair, and it’s not fun, and it’s not why you became a teacher….but it’s what you have to do to get where you want to be, and you need to learn as much from it as you can.

    You are also right to insist that your neophyte choir director focus on positive feelings and excise the negativity and complaining. Not only do the kids deserve better–even if they make it difficult for their teachers to keep it in mind–but you deserve better, too. Thinking positively, talking positively, forcing that first smile of the day onto your face, and avoiding the teachers who talk trash in the staff room are just as essential to completing your first year of teaching as they are to reaching your thirtieth year of teaching. In fact there is solid research evidence that positive attitude, verbal language and body language are highly correlated with positive medical benefits such as lower blood pressure, less tension, less disease and (to a lesser extent) longer lifespan.

    You might also point out to your friend that every administration in the world (and I’ve had something of a broad experience with schools around the world) claims to be supportive of music and will tell you so in the interview. They will even tell you that–and mean it–as they slash your budget and contact time. The problem is, most administrators have never studied music. Even fewer were Band or Choir members themselves. Most administrators truly have no clue what we do, no clue how music nurtures the students in ways far deeper than AP Calculus or state standardized testing, and no clue that music actually has measurable curricular objectives that must be met before each student can proceed to the next level of study. In her next interview, your friend would be well advised to smile at the interviewer and not believe a word; then, be pleasantly surprised upon arrival that some things have been done right.

    Be like the happy fish in that animated movie: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

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