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Shut Up And Teach!

292373_shut_upI get so tired of hearing teachers complaining about No Child Left Behind. I get so tired of hearing teachers complain about administration. I get so tired of hearing teachers complain about parents.

Shut up and teach!
It’s a simple concept, but some teachers seem to derive greater joy from feeling victimized than they do from feeling victorious. After all, it’s much simpler to complain than it is to create solutions. I am convinced that if I took the skills that I use in teaching beginning band, that my students would excel.

I want to share a few things that really seem to help my students learn the material well. Keep in mind that as they enter 6th grade, many of them essentially know nothing about music or playing an instrument. Our district has music class one day a week for 45 minutes from the time they are in kindergarten until they finish 5th grade. Talk about a retention nightmare! So they get to us as fresh beginners. What do we do?

Begin with the end in mind
Stephen Covey would be proud. This is habit 2. You are in this thing to bring the students a taste of success. There is a fine line between teaching to the test and teaching for success. As much as we deride competition in many educational circles, most of the students I have met see competition in a positive light. Success that is philosophical is not as important to kids as success that is tangible. For that reason, and since there is a test at the end of the year, it is important to teach the students those skills that are necessary for passing the test at the end of the year.

Lay a foundation of success
If there is no foundation, a building will have major problems throughout its life. Similarly, a successful school year must begin with a solid classroom management foundation. Additionally, you need to establish a solid knowledge foundation. This may be difficult because of varied backgrounds for the students, but success is vital on starting where you are, establishing some common grounds, and building from there.

The tortoise beats the hare
This is no race. Your goal is to win the race (ie. have a higher percentage of students passing the test than the other teachers). Do not rush through fundamentals. Just as I don’t try to get my trumpet players to play too high too fast, you don’t need to rush progress. Having the goal before you, take one day at a time. Realize that progress happens much faster in the second semester than it does in the first semester. Slow and steady wins. Every time.

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Eliminate every error
Practicing something with mistakes is simply reinforcing bad habits. I listen to students individually. Not enough, but more than I used to. I am getting better. As I hear individuals, I am able to hear problems, point them out to the class (not in a critical way), and we are able as a class to make corrections to eliminate that problem.

Repetition is the key to consistency
If I want my students to learn to play scales, we do them over and over in class. If we are learning a line in the book, we do it over and over in class. Once we have eliminated bad habits, we reinforce good habits. We do that by repetition. Do the same thing over and over again. Why do you think that math books have so math problems? But how many math teachers are there who skip this unnecessary problems and complain about their students not passing the class or the test? Go through a page of math problems in class. You don’t have to assign it as homework. Homework just gives you extra paperwork and headaches, anyway. Call one by one and have them solve the problem. Then come back to those who miss them. Similar techniques could be done for social studies or language arts.

Don’t expect practice outside of class time
Do I assign daily practice? You bet I do. But I don’t expect the students to practice daily. I am realistic. I expect that any progress they make will be the things that they do while sitting in my class. I made this mistake in my first couple of years of teaching. I figured they would all practice, and so I just got upset when they didn’t. That wasn’t productive. I now get more work done because I assume they don’t practice, and push them hard. When they practice, they get better faster. When they don’t, they get bored of doing the repetition. Similarly, I had English teachers who expected me to read books outside of class. I don’t think I completed a SINGLE assigned reading after 7th grade, and yet I was still in honors and AP English classes. I just knew how to work the system well enough to pass.

Talk less
The less you talk, the more they have to work. The more they are working, the more they are learning.

Make success rewarding
We took the beginning band to a competition this spring. They were looking forward to it. Make learning fun, and make testing fun. It’s the performance. It’s all a game. Learn the rules, learn which rules you can break, play the game, and shut up and teach.

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As an aside, this will probably be my last article of the week. I would love to read your comments. I’m going to the Texas Bandmaster Association convention in San Antonio this weekend and will attend some really good clinics. I’ll pass more information along when I return.

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 “Shut Up And Teach!

  1. Joel, these are *excellent* points, for new and veteran teachers alike. As a language teacher, virtually every one of your points resonated with me.

    BTW: Have a *great* time at the convention, and a safe trip. San Antonio is one of my favorite U.S. cities.:)

  2. Joel,

    Just wanted to let you know that while I don’t teach, your blog certainly inspires me to do so. You’ve got some really good articles- thank you.

  3. Over at, I have gotten a few more comments on this article. These are valid arguments that I had not addressed and I thought I might share on this end of the world and see what others might have to say.

    First of all, Mr. Heffner writes:

    I’m a little puzzled. :(

    No Child Left Behind has nothing to do with the suggestions that you are making! Actually, No Child Left Behind, in many ways, prevents the suggestions that you are making because many school systems feel that statistics (i.e. percentage of students passing tests) are all that is important. In New York City, for example, teachers have been told where their desks are to be placed, how much time must be spent on specific tasks, and on and on. If these tasks weren’t mandated they could do a much better job. Your music classroom is not affected by No Child Left Behind nearly as much, if at all, as other classrooms in the United States.

    Perhaps it would be a better idea to listen and not tell folks to shut up. :)

    I responded with:

    While I don’t agree with the concept of telling teachers how they are specifically to run their classes, I also don’t agree with the concepts of teachers complaining loudly about these things. I have not had a faculty meeting in the last three years that didn’t include people complaining about NCLB’s standards and telling us how bad things are about to become.

    I get sick of that. The districts want to have a certain percentage meet the standard. I think that’s a wonderful goal. Why not waste less of our time complaining and start playing the game to win? The district says have 62% (or whatever) of the kids pass is the goal. So exceed that goal.

    On days when I leave early, I get out of the parking lot around 5. The parking lot is virtually empty. And those who remain are amazingly not those teachers who are most vocal about their disagreements with the laws. My contention is that they just don’t want to work very hard to achieve a goal.

    Next, jtspencer said:

    I think that’s what we are asking for when we complain: the chance to teach! NCLB violates that right by an intrusive, top-down, beauractic formula that prevents me from using best practices. Telling teachers to shut up and teach is like telling Martin Luther King to shut up and preach. It is the job of those within the system to fight to reform it. No Child Left Behind is an injustice and I make no apologies for railing against it.


  4. I hear so much complaining, but see so little changing. Your remarks are on target — shut up and teach. I would add one more thought here: lock the administrators in their respective offices first! The politics that come with teaching and leaving children behind make it difficult to “shut up and teach” because we have to make sure we keep every plate spinning. I “quit” teaching a few weeks ago (we go year-round at my school) and have found it to be the most productive educational experience ever. We actually hit quite a few of your points under the “non-teaching teaching” approach. Great blog — keep it up!

  5. Yes, we are a talk generation. We don’t act enough. I like what you said here and let’s be action oriented and TEACH.

  6. The more time I spend in the schools as a sub and parent, the more I am impressed by any teacher who is able to engage a child to learn. I also understand why so many are tired and bitter. Some would tell you administration. Nope – they’re overstressed too. It is the trickle down affect. The schools of today are expected to feed kids healthy lunches – not their job; be part-time psychologists – not their job; look for abuse and cater to absentee parents schedules – not their job; teach, without assistance 30 kids all at different levels, efficeintly, to state and federal standards – unrealistic. Teachers are set up to fail. They need more help, more money and until they get it, more comprehensive mental health benefits. To all those who are dedicated and do it anyways – I thank you.

  7. I’m tired of hearing teachers complain about salaries. I’ve had about 3 good teachers in my lifetime. I have had a couple teachers that should have been sued for child abuse. Recently I heard teachers complaining about the gifts they receive from students “Not what they wanted” , how about a gift card instead? What jerks. What other job do people have that they are thought of enough to get gifts? I am sick of it. Take your gift graciously and stop complaining, You chose this profession, you know about the salary. Give us all a break.

  8. Hey ya’ll. Don’t shut up. Just teach in private school, where you get results for your efforts 100 times what you get in a public.

    Sure it’s less money, but if you are on this website, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

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