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Not The Best Day Ever

Today was a pretty good day in parts. In fact, most of my classes went really well. Except for my percussion class. It has been bad since the middle of December. This is slightly abnormal for me, but the following post is a narrative with a question and plea for help at the end.

Why is my percussion class getting out of hand?
Because I have two different groups of students in there. Since the director I work with had a stroke, I have been the only band director at my school. This makes my work load heavier, but manageable for the most part. The percussion is the exception because it is a combination of percussionists from two different bands.

The problem comes when I try to rehearse music with them students. They are in two different bands, and so they have two different sets of music to work on. This means there is a whole lot of idle time for the kids. It comes right after the 7th graders have lunch, and right before the 8th graders have lunch, so focus is very hard to maintain.

As a band director in Texas, grades play a huge role in my preparation. State law mandates that students who do not pass all of their classes for the six weeks are ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities. This include band competitions. As a result, I try to stay on top of the grade situation pretty well.

I checked yesterday and found that 7 of the 13 percussionists in my band and 4 of the 8 percussionists in the other band are failing classes. They have now eight school days to get all of those class grades up to a passing level.

As we were going through assigning parts for the music that I passed out today, one of them got assigned the triangle part, and another one told me that she really wanted to play triangle. I noticed that she was playing something on the other two competition pieces, and some of them were only playing on one. I made an offhand comment to that, “you can play the triangle part when he fails.” As a band director, I have to do a whole lot of talking and performing for the class (as opposed to being able to have quiet reading time or whatever). That makes things a bit challenging as times.

See also  148th Carnival of Education

Admittedly, I should have used the word if instead of when.

I assumed that the whole class knew I was teasing, since I typically use slightly sarcastic humor (despite efforts to restrain myself) and I had just finished going on and on about the grades issue with them.

He obviously didn’t take it that way. He just walked out and went to the counselor’s office.

Admittedly, I should have used the word if instead of when
My principal saw me later and told me that one of my students had gone to the counselor complaining that I called him stupid. He didn’t have time to talk, but we are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon and discuss it.

Obviously I was wrong. I expect a phone call from his mother in the next day or two also.

So my question is, was I completely out of line, or did he overreact, or is it a combination of the two?

I have written a couple of follow-up articles to this one that I highly recommend you read. After reading them, join the discussion! They are:

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.

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) 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. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

10 thoughts on “Not The Best Day Ever

  1. Honestly, I understand the reaction of your student. Although you didn’t mean it that way, I can imagine your remarks offended the student.

    On the other hand, it won’t be hard to explain the situation to either the principal or the parent. You had been ranting about all the failing students in the band, so you made a joke that somehow connected to that. You can explain that you agree that it had been better not to say such a thing, but you would never call a student ‘stupid’.

  2. Uh oh, my last comment was lost in outer space somewhere. Here it is again: I can feel your frustration and experienced a lot of that when I coached cheerleaders. I would call the parent with the student in front of me and explain about his grades and the consequences. I would admit to being frustrated and fussing at him because I cared. If you call first, this might head off an angry parent. I would explain the same thing to my principal.

  3. Joel,

    Sorry to read of your problematic day. There are so many things to grab “a hold of” in your above post. First, I think it’s assinine that your school hasn’t assigned a temporary/substitute teacher to help you with the terrible medical problem your fellow music teacher has suffered. I think you should demand of your administrators or talk to your union rep(or whomever) about that. Is it me or does this seem typical of the “arts” administrator view/stance in schools? I certainly hope that they’ve advanced you some pay for your help…I won’t hold my breath for the reply.

    Sarcasm is a “tough game” to play with today’s students and the over-reactive nature of people today. Although it can be valuabe in some circumstances to make a quick point, we have to be mindful of how/if we should employ it as a regular part of our “stage persona” as teachers. -especially, with students. GRANTED, I know where you are coming from with these types of situations.

    All in all, it’s not that big of an offense and I’m sure it got your blood-pressure up but, I think you’ll end up having to jump through the proverbial administrational/apolegetical “hoops” with this one and of course, learn from it. We’ve all done something like this no matter how compassionate we all are as teachers.

    This brings to light, again, the whole other issue as to whether or not the performances we have as music departments are extra-curricular or not. If the performance is the end result of a music class education, emmersion in music, practice and work with music, and a concentrated working music experience over weeks… how then is it still considered a “fluff” activity?

    Best regards,
    J. Pisano

  4. Joel:

    First off, I’m new to your blog. I teach graphic communications and printing technology at a public technical high school in Pennsylvania. I’ve been teaching for about ten years and I really do love the job. I’ve read several of your back postings and have enjoyed them.

    Sounds like you had one of those “wanna get away?” moments. Been there, done that. Bad choice of words and tone on your part? Probably. You could have also said those exact words around some other student and receive nothing but a snappy teen retort in response. Some folks just don’t “get” sarcasm.

    I beat myself up pretty badly over a similar awkward exchange with a student and a colleague had the wisdom to try to get me to see a couple of things: We’re teachers – not gods – so sometimes we screw up and say stupid things to kids. This is probably a good thing in some respects – kids learn that we’re not infallible – not perfect.

    If we say stupid things to adults – we should apoligize and get on with life. Same with kids – apoligize to the student and get on with life and learning. Life’s too short.

  5. These things happen. When I do something like this, I promptly apologize. Since your principal is now involved, it sounds like it went a bit further than it should have. Otherwise I would have suggested simply calling the parent and apologizing.

    In any case, an apology is in order. No offense was meant, but offense was caused.

    Every teacher has done this, which doesn’t make it easier when you’re the one to do it. I get more worried about the ones that come out of the blue. It’s not nice when you don’t even realize you’ve caused offense.

  6. Thanks to all for the encouraging comments. I will write again tomorrow morning about what happened today. I appreciate all of you for reading and joining in the conversation.

    Waski_the_Squirrel says that pretty much every teacher has done silly stuff like this. I have plenty of stories about similar (though slightly less offensive) occasions. What about everyone else? Have you done stuff like this before where you realize too late that it’s impossible to un-say something? Care to share with us? :)

  7. Whoops. Colleague to colleague here, no, you didn’t call him stupid, but you apparently made him feel that way.

    At the advice of another colleague, I have completely eliminated sarcastic humor from my teaching modus operandi. Some students won’t understand sarcasm, and there is always the danger that someone will take it literally.

    The ONLY exception is when my sarcasm is totally ridiculous. For example, “Johnny, did you play an F natural?” “Yes.” “You’re grounded.” Or, “Maria, did you play with an upbow or downbow?” “Upbow.” “You’re not my best friend any more.”

    Hang in there. I’m sure your principal knows you’re a dedicated professional and that this was just a momentary lapse in judgement. Chalk it up to a learning experience, and it won’t happen again.

  8. I got a real pit in my stomach as I read your initial post. I have at times said the absolutely wrong thing (though not in the classroom… yet, I am still new to this, the potential is very much there). However, those times have spiraled me into some pretty productive self reflective moments and some great learning experiences. I am not advocating foot in mouth disease at all, but when it happens, we must learn from it.

    Sarcasm is very tricky in that not everyone gets it and it is easily misunderstood as I have found as a rather sarcastic person myself. That said, I can see how your comment may have hit a student pretty hard. It should be clear to your students that you want them there otherwise the subject of grades would never come up. It’s unfortunate that students so often confuse our passion for another “lecture”. I think an apology is in order and it is an invaluable example of humility and respect (though we are still reeling from frustration.)

  9. Hi,
    I am a music teacher who feels pretty confident with classroom management problems.

    Here is what I would do. I would go to the student that you said would fail and tell him you are sorry. Tell him that sometimes teachers have bad days and you should have chosen better words. Then make sure you do. You can remind him that you are human. Keep it short and sincere. Do the same with the parent if it gets to that. If you talk to the kid first it shouldn’t get to that. That is a preventive measure. If you screw up with a kid, you always have time to make it right before they go home and share with the parent. They are pretty forgiving when they know you are sincere. Then learn from the lesson. You can only make the mistake once with the class or kid. If it happens again, you’ve lost your one chance.

    As far as the two group problem with your percussionists, you need help. I would figure out how to empower students to help. Obviously, the school isn’t going to hire someone so this is what I would do. I would have the 8th graders teach the 7th graders, if that is how they are grouped. I would have the better students help the ones who need help. Pair them up. Give them the title of section leader or teacher assistant. Give them points for helping. Perhaps extra points for boosting grades. Is there a study hall going on with a teacher assistant in it that can be pulled to help out? My point is make it a win/win situation for you and them. Take the students who need help and get them the help. Also empower the students who have it by letting them help you teach.
    Give them an incentive to get better by a certain date and earn a better grade. Maybe it is a grade incentive attached to the deadline you mentioned above. Grades can be powerful motivators so make sure they are earned. It is okay to re-frame the grades to create success though.

    With some kids, this next idea will work. Students can work by themselves toward goals with the expectation that they are going to convince you of what they learned at a certain time. This can be individual or small groups. It doesn’t work with all kids though if they don’t have self-control.

    Now since I don’t know the specifics, these situations won’t fit exactly but be creative. It might trigger a new idea. If you tell me why these ideas won’t work, then I can figure out other solutions. If you’d like to talk to me personally, I would love to get the specifics and help you with this. I understand that percussionist CAN be rowdy groups so that can be a factor as well.
    Remember kids who give teacher hard days are just letting the teacher know what you still need to learn about teaching. I had many days like you! A successful teacher choses to learn from them! I believe in you!

    Teach like a champion! See my website for contact information.

  10. From these comments and the ones left on the follow-up, it would seem that a lot of us have messed up from time to time. As stengel99 and createyourfamilyheritage both point out, we are humans after all.

    I have apologized to the two students, and I even pulled the one who is failing 6 classes into my office to talk with him about his classes. He realizes that he isn’t doing his work. He said it’s not a family issue, he just isn’t doing homework. 7th grade boy. Go figure.

    Still haven’t heard from my principal on the issue — there was a conflict when we were supposed to meet — but I have seen him and he hasn’t brought it up again. It may be just one of those things that he can tell the parents that he talked with me, I take care of it in the class, and we go on our merry way.

    The assistant principal said that he had heard from the parents of one student (presumably either the one who left my class or the one who is failing 6 classes) about how I made him feel bad by calling out his grades in front of the class. I assured him that I don’t call out grades in front of the class.

    It saddens me because I am concerned about the students and want them to be able to participate with the band when we go to our competition in April. While I wouldn’t go as far as Linda, I do agree with the basic concept of what she’s saying. We have come to a place where we elevate self-esteem to a place much higher than it deserves. In fact, we must be careful lest we lift self-esteem above the feeling we get as a result of hard work.

    Ultimately, I am taking this situation, the apparent stress that I am under (evidenced by staying up late thinking about music), and my overall health into consideration. I plan to tone down my personality. I plan to slow down.

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