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Laying Out A Legacy

1213866_bugle_callA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how my friend Junior had posted on his blog calling for people to write about what kind of a legacy we wanted to leave. I have been thinking a whole lot over the past few months about my progression as a teacher, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to really flesh out some about what kinds of things I have been through.

I’ve sort of broken things down by year and I would be interested to know how many other teachers could say their progress as a teacher has been similar. Clearly I have not yet arrived, but I have learned a handful of things along the way, and it’s been an exciting (though challenging) journey. With all of these introductory formalities, here goes:

So I’ve been thinking a whole lot this summer and into this school year about how people will remember me. I recently had my 31st birthday and while I am still considered young in most eyes, it brought back memories of my first few years of teaching.

I remember distinctly a conversation I had with one of the veteran English teachers during my second year where I was lamenting how old the students made me feel. I made some pop culture reference and it was met with absolute silence. They weren’t even alive whenever the TV show aired. It hit me hard. She told me that I wasn’t old until I was 30. Well, that number came and went. Ha.

I also remember a conversation I had with my mentor teacher while I was student teaching. She told me that she didn’t even begin to feel like she had a clue how to teach until she started her 8th year. I heard that and went on my merry way thinking I had a clue.

Then my first year came and crashed into a brick wall. Yet it was still August. I continued holding my foot on the gas and driving into the metaphorical wall for the next year and a half until I was suddenly struck with a “new revelation” that I didn’t really have much of a clue. So I spent the remainder of the year asking questions like crazy from anyone and everyone I could possibly think of to ask questions to.

I started my third year in a brand new district and I really had much better control of the classroom management aspect of teaching. My students at the 6th grade knew what I expected them to do, and they knew that failure to do that would result is consequences. Things were much better as far as getting things accomplished, but I was still relying too heavily on fear and manipulation (oops, I mean extrinsic rewards).

After that year, I thought I had a real clue. My beginners suffered the following year because I didn’t really do a whole lot of growing professionally. I just kind of coasted by the whole year and tried to see how much less work I could get away with doing while still keeping up a reasonable level of proficiency from the band. There were some students who didn’t participate, and there were some who didn’t follow directions well. I didn’t push myself too much, and I just tried to coerce or intimidate them into participating/behaving. If it worked, great. If not, then I inadvertantly blamed them and left them behind. Of course I didn’t see it that way, but I think it could easily be argued that I in fact did do that.

My fifth year was quite a bit better in that I spent the summer before doing a lot of reading (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Total Money Makeover, Fish!). I approached the year with more of a customer-service type take, and really wanted to make the band experience better for the students. Not only in having fun and being able to play some cool music, but I really tried to reach out and bond with the students more.

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It paid off as I moved to the 7th & 8th grade campus the next year, so I got to move up with those 6th graders and ended up spending three years with them, guiding them on in their musical development. My sixth year was unique in that it started out more peaceful than anything I had ever experienced. Both of the band directors at the campus noticed that things were running remarkably smoothly throughout the whole year. Until…my co-worker had a stroke in December and was out for three weeks. My workload was immediately more than doubled as I not only had to take on his classload, but also had to deal with all of the administrative tasks that I had been doing as well as the ones he had been doing.

It was probably the most emotionally challenging three months of my life, but it presented some remarkably eye-opening teaching opportunities, as well as learning opportunities for me. My teaching after those three months will never again be like it was before those three months. I worked with both bands for most of the time, and when we went to UIL Concert & Sight Reading, both bands earned Sweepstakes ratings. That was a huge victory for the bands, as well as for me personally.

It was at this time, and especially after he came back and stress levels lowered, that I began to strive to move away from any sort of intimidation or power play in my teaching. It’s difficult, and I honestly do not believe I could be where I am at this point if I had not spent 3 1/2 years doing what I did. But now, I will never go back to that man. He scares me. It hurts me to realize that a lot of students remember that band director. If they walked into my rehearsals now, they would be amazed.

Then came my seventh year (and my fifth year in my current district). After the stroke year, I was burned out. Even during summer band before my seventh year, I was talking with some other teachers I saw up there and asking them if it was a bad sign that I just didn’t want to be there. I told them that it was my seventh year, and they said it was pretty much normal. So I persevered.

Throughout the entire school year, I experienced a whole bunch of emotional darkness (I never went to a doctor, but it probably bordered on depression). I felt as if I were simply watching my life on TV. When I went to visit my family on holidays, or when I went to San Antonio for conventions or whatever, I felt so detached from everything. That took a toll on my teaching no doubt. On top of that, a number of factors contributed to keep me from focusing on much of anything all year long. My band did well at contest, but I wasn’t aware enough to realize I should have changed the music. I was just going through the motions. As a result, my band did not do as well as I had hoped. We got 2s in Concert and 1s in Sight Reading. At times, I found myself reverting back to yelling a little bit, but things were by and large much better than they had been before.

When the school year came to a close, I was ready to get out. I wanted to move. I wanted to get back closer to the Fort Worth area where my family lives. When I visited that area in mid-June, I went to my old church up there and talked with my pastor there. I also spent some good time with my parents and some friends. I came back home with a new vision for things. I was once again inspired to stay here and really push to make things better for the band program. Sometimes, you just need to get away for a little bit!

It was at this point that I made a few major decisions. I decided to quit the mariachi I had been playing with for over a year. I decided to begin leading worship at a different church here on Sunday mornings. I still attend Bible studies at my other church here on Wednesday nights, and both of the pastors are friends and we’ve played golf together some. I also began to travel out of town almost every weekend to just enjoy spending time with friends and getting away while I have the chance to.

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So in July, the High School band director called me up and asked me if I wanted to teach marching fundamentals with the high school band some this year. We’d talked about it some before, but didn’t know if it would come to pass. I told him that I would love to. So I went up in the second week of July and began working some with the freshmen on basic fundamentals. That weekend, I went to San Antonio and watched the Phantom Regiment Drum & Bugle Corps rehearse. I watched about five hours of rehearsal there. As I was watching, I was reminded of my drumcorps experience. Additionally, I took some notes.

  • In the entire five hours I watched, nobody yelled or addressed discipline problems
  • The directors did not waste the corps members’ time
  • The brass did a TON of warm-up/fundamentals
  • They stretched for the first hour
  • 102 degree day; no complaints
  • There were no comments about last night or other corps, the show was the focus
  • Everyone had their own water bottle; water breaks were 5 minutes or less and happened every 15-25 minutes (usually during transitions)
  • The director gave instructions once and the students responded
  • No horns-up/horns-down commands were given, whatsoever (1 3, UP 2 3 4)
  • After running each segment on the field, the Drum Major gave “Adjust” command
  • No distractions; they practiced FOCUSED INTENSITY all over the place

A lot of these are things I have known, but our band hasn’t consistently done them since I came here five years ago. Now that I was given some opportunities to run things, I was able to implement a few of them and really focus on them. The fact that nobody yelled was huge to me. It impacted me in a way that I cannot really describe. That one fact has absolutely transformed everything that I have done since then.

The following week, I spent a few hours with the drill instructors and drum majors. The cool thing about that is that my first class of beginners are now in 11th grade, and so most of the drill instructors (and most of the entire high school band) had me in 6th grade. I shared with them this exact list of observations and we talked about a few things. My real focus has been to be totally positive and controlled as I’m running rehearsals. After our time together, they seemed excited and happy about the direction I was going to begin taking things.

We started summer band about a week later, and every time I have the microphone to run marching fundamentals, I have been sure to point out lots of good things. I also don’t point out something wrong without providing a solution. Too often, I see student leaders and even adults telling people they aren’t doing something right, but they forget to tell them what to fix or how to fix it. As I’ve been working with the student leaders, I continue emphasizing that with them. I ask them “how many positive things did you say to your section today?” I’m honestly surprised at how often the answer has been 20 or more.

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It’s working!

I’ve had high school students come up to me and thank me for running the rehearsals the way I have been. All this to say, the change in my teaching style has become evident even to these kids who had me back in 6th grade a few years ago. That’s immensely satisfying to me.

So now what am I doing at the middle school? A whole lot of the same things. Somewhere last year, I found myself at the point where I would let the classes come in and warm up some on their own before we started class. When I got to the podium at the front of the room, they would all get quiet. It was the weirdest thing! I didn’t yell, I didn’t even give them the look. It just sort of happened. Until you’ve done that, you have no idea how calming it is! :)

So even now when I walk through the band hall when the top band is in class, a lot of the kids just start cheering. It’s honestly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. I don’t want it to stop! Not because I need the little ego boost that 12-15 year old give me for cheering, but because it means that they respect me and they actually like me as a teacher.

As I look back on where I came from, I feel sorry for the students I taught my first year. I have found some of them on Facebook, and ya know what? Even despite how bad I was, they still generally seem to have good memories from their middle school band years. They forgive my ineptitude and understand that I was just learning and trying to do the best I could.

This past weekend, I visited Fort Worth again and saw the middle school choir teacher who taught at the school where I student taught. She said that my mentor had talked with her recently about me and said that I was becoming a really great teacher. It’s amazing and humbling to hear this kind of stuff!

So why do I share all of this with you? It’s not to shine my own apple or make you think I’m all that great. I think more than anything, it’s to give you hope. No matter how good you are (or how good you think you are), you can get better. No matter how bad you are, kids are resiliant and they will probably forgive you as long as you are trying to get better. If you would have asked me five years ago about what kind of legacy I would leave, the picture would have been quite bleak. Now, it seems much brighter. And the brightest days are yet to come!

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.

6 thoughts on “Laying Out A Legacy

  1. thanks for posting this. i was really excited to see that it was about a music teacher as well! I am in my 3rd year right now as an elementary general music teacher. My first two years, similar to you, was all about keeping control with rules and consequences. This past summer I did a lot of reading by alfie kohn, johnathon kozol and a positive discipline book (my new bible). I told the kids that things didnt work last year, so I’m trying something new, instead of just sitting them in the corner if they get on my nerves, I’m going to be talking with them one on one after class and really getting to know them, well as much as i can with 400 students. So anyways, I really appreciated your post and it showed me that i’m not the only one to just suddenly change things when i see that they’re not working. thats the process that we need to go through to get where we want.

  2. As much as a Legacy that is i believe you will have one defining moment in life where you will do something that you and those around you will never forget. Although telling your life online helps leave a small Legacy they will never know the real you. The only ones who will are family, friends and colleges.

  3. Yup, I remember 30. I put my foot in the shower that morning and suddenly wondered if I could be 30, you know, pull it off, or fall apart. Then I put in my other foot and the sensation was gone. I remember saying, “The Beatles” in my general education class twenty years ago and the seventh graders just staring at me.

    I love Drum and Bugle Corps, but never played in one.


  4. “Bloom where you’re planted” says the Mary Englebreit art. Or maybe it should be “Bloom” in reference to education’s revered taxonomy inventor. (Both meanings seem to be true for you.) Well said, sir.

  5. You truly are not shining your apple, Joel – your words are so inspiring and they help me so much. I’m in my 2nd year teaching band and music (thank God last year is over!), and it’s so relieving to read your posts. Your thoughts, feelings, and reflections are very familiar to me, and it’s good to know that they are a normal part of becoming a great teacher!

    Keep ’em coming!


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