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The 10 Commandments for New Music Teachers

The writing of this post has lead to many interesting conversations with my friends and colleagues.  The commandments are not in order of importance.  Breaking any of them will land you in a circle of educational Hell!  These commandments represent over 100 years of teachers' experience.  Ignore them at your peril.  
I  Thou shalt have sub plans ready the first day of school
No matter what, you WILL get sick, hard and often, during the first weeks of school.  You are entering a petri dish of disease.  Students are not known for religious hand washing, infection control, or staying home from school when their siblings are ill.  They attend school when they are most contagious.  They touch all the door knobs, window latches, pencils, papers, and instruments.  They hug you and you really can't stop them from holding your hand during games.

Since your kids have not learned repertoire yet, have some videos ready for them to enjoy.  Fantasia, Wynton Marsalis' jazz series, and even Leonard Bernstein's lectures are good for a variety of age groups.

As the year progresses, redo your plans.  Incorporate games and songs that the students can teach the sub. Have a student in charge in each class.  That person will help the sub learn the games.
DO NOT use word jumbles or crosswords for plans.
DO NOT force students, even older ones, to stay in a seated position for the whole time.

Expect another wave of sickness in the late winter and spring.  You may even use up all of your sick days those first couple of years.  This sickness adjustment is also common when switching schools or districts.

II  Thou shalt know the person who is your boss and treat them well.
A friend recently told me, "I was working in my district for 3 years before I figured out who my boss was."  Indeed, many districts have Byzantine structures of leadership.

In many larger districts, the person who hires you is NOT the person who determines how long you stay employed.  Where there is an arts coordinator or music head or the like, that person will usually be the one who chairs the committee to hire you.  They will look for musical expertise, professional development, and perhaps watch you teach a sample lesson.  The principal of the school may or MAY NOT be on your hiring committee, but that principal will determine your evaluation and renewal status.  Principals are monarchs over their schools, they are responsible for what happens there and they have the authority to determine who works in their school.  It is your principal's impression of you that matters, not the parents, other music teachers, or your arts administrator.

Until you acquire tenure in your fourth year of teaching, the principal could not renew your contract and give no reason for it.  The teacher's union cannot protect you from this.  The principal can reject you simply because they don't like something trivial about you.  If you can prove racial, gender, sexual orientation, or other illegal discrimination, you might have a chance to appeal your status, but this is very very rarely successful unless the teacher is tenured.  The fate of your career at the school rests with the principal.  If you do not get along well with your principal, act accordingly.  Get transferred to another school where you've developed a good relationship with the principal, change districts, or otherwise find a new position.   If you think your principal does not like you based on an illegal discrimination, document all contact with your principal and include witnesses and quotes.

The best course of action is to develop a cordial and friendly relationship with your principal from the first day of your employment.  Don't wait for them to introduce themselves to you, seek them out.  Act as though meeting them is the highlight of your day.  Take interest in them as an educator, colleague, and person.  Ask them questions about themselves.  If the interest is genuine, it will come across well.  This is not kissing up, this is emotional intelligence!  Be smart!  People matter!

III  Thou shalt learn (and embrace) the traditions of thy school.
Every school has quirky traditions that effect the music teacher and her curriculum.  Are you expected to do a percussion parade during the Chinese New Year celebration in January?  Is the winter concert in January?  Is there a Thanksgiving feast where Native American and colonial music is expected?  Does the school celebrate Earth Day with an all-school sing-along outdoors?  Is there an extra curricular activity that is really the heart of your job, but on paper is an ad-on like a musical, show choir, jazz band, or marching band?  Sit down with the principal, a veteran teacher in that building, and a parent and go through the calendar month-by-month.  Do this at separate, informal meetings and figure out what the expectations are.

YOU WILL NOT CHANGE THE EXPECTATIONS!!!!!  If you cannot tolerate the expectations, don't take the job.  MAKE NO MAJOR CHANGES IN YOUR FIRST YEAR.  Make the foundational changes in your curriculum so that you can implement changes in years to come.  Get the faculty and staff on your side first. 

If you teach in a building where there is a stark difference between student age groups, meet with veteran teachers from all the age groups.  For instance, if your school is K-8, meet with a veteran Kindergarten, third, and seventh grade teacher.  If the principal is new beware.  He/she doesn't know the traditions.  In this case, meet with the principal last and inform him/her of the traditions you learned.  Be that principal's ally and helper.  In this way you will show your competence and help ensure renewal of your contract!

Discipline: Some schools have a universal silent signal, weekly assemblies, and jargon for discipline and positive reinforcement.  You NEED to learn this.  It will help you manage your classroom better and it will help your students behave better.  Better behavior makes everyone feel more successful.

IV. Thou shalt care for thyself
Sleep, good nutrition, exercise, time with family and friends, prayer, and fun give your life balance.  Without balance, you will be unable to bring your best to the classroom.  

Exercise helps transition you from work to home.
Transition time: Many educators need to "decompress" or "transition" from school to home.  Activities like a long commute with books on tape, exercise classes, walking the dog, or meeting a friend for coffee can all serve as transition.  

It's easy to overwork at the beginning of your first year.  But please listen to me, overwork leads to burnout.  You want a long and productive career.  Set working hours for yourself.  Start off with 50-60 hours per week.  Make sure you get 24 hours a week of NO WORK AT ALL.  

Mental Health:  You are about to be part of some amazing lives, not all of them happy ones.  Encountering the stress of your students' lives can be very difficult and stressful for you.  Don't underestimate the impact that your students will have on your life.  Without good plans for your health, you will lose lots of sleep, gain lots of weight, and otherwise make yourself sick.  Good nutrition and exercise have been proven to improve mood and bring mental stability in stressful times. 

Sometimes you just need a day off to go to the movies, take in a museum, go fishing, or otherwise get away.  That's when you take a personal day.  You can also take days for closing on a house, doctor's appointments, caring for family members, or whatever else comes your way.  USE THESE DAYS.  They don't roll over from year to year and you only get 2-3 of them.  Taking a half-day can feel like taking a full one.  If you're hesitant to take a full day, try taking the morning or afternoon instead.  Some districts give legal days that don't count as personal days.  You can use these for house closings or other legal issues.  

Sick Days: You can get 10-15 sick days each year if you are a full-time employee.  These days roll over from year to year.  This is a fantastic resource and one you should definitely use when you need it.  When I first started teaching I never imagined I'd need half the days I was given, much less all of them.  I thought I'd never marry or have children, but I was mistaken.  I mentioned your ability to get mighty sick in your first years of teaching in Commandment #1, but there are other reasons to use these days.  Here are a few.
  • your child is ill with a cold or something more serious
  • your spouse is ill with a cold or something more serious
  • you become very ill and need some months off in year 10 of teaching
  • your parent becomes ill and needs you to care for them 
  • maternity leave
If you are sick, stay home!
The family and medical leave act does not allow for paid time off, it just prevents you from being fired for taking the time.  It's amazing how quickly a cancer diagnosis or sick parent can take several sick days from your bank.  Without that bank of days, your family might be in serious financial distress if you take time from work.  Some employers have supplemental insurance for medical and family leave.  If you have the option, GET IT. 

Going to school with the flu does nobody a favor.  You will only spread the virus and lower the quality of life for everybody around you.  You will also do some lousy teaching.  Stay home and take care of yourself.  Hey, if you get your flu shot and eat right and exercise, maybe you won't get sick in the first place!

Bereavement: If you lose a close family relative, you will be eligible for a week of bereavement leave. You will need this time to arrange for funeral and memorial services, comfort family members, and attend services.  Take the full week, even if you feel fine.  Sometimes this week can feel like a vacation if it comes after a long and difficult death process.  Give yourself some rest to recover from the death.  You may be surprised at how good your sleep is.  After my mother died, I was so released from the stress of her death that I slept really well.  I was able to be stronger for other family members.  NEVER, EVER, EVER BE A HERO AT WORK AT THE EXPENSE OF YOUR FAMILY.  Especially when death is concerned.  You only die once! 

V. Thou shalt plan and document thy professional development
Without certification, you can't teach in a public school, nor can you demand a the highest salaries at a private one.  Getting and keeping certification will be a goal for you for the rest of your career.  It's not that difficult, but it can seem complicated.  Most states have levels of teacher certification.  Each stage aims to deepen teachers' understanding and competency so that they become the best veteran teachers.  Most districts have teacher induction programs.  This means that you will have a veteran teacher who will be your mentor and sometimes a committee of teachers who will make sure you satisfy all the requirements for your next level of licensure.   If you are at the end of September and have yet to meet with your mentor or committee, SPEAK WITH YOUR PRINCIPAL and make it happen!

Save your workshop certificates
In Massachusetts, where I live, teachers need 150 PDPs (professional development points) to renew their Initial or Professional level licenses.  A PDP is usually one hour of development.  If you practice piano for an hour, take a voice lesson, observe another teacher or attend a workshop, document the attendance or practice and keep that in a file.  Most workshops and courses have official documents that are distributed after the course or workshop is complete with all the PDP information on it.  If you take a college class out of state, an online course, or other development that makes you unsure of your PDPs, ask your mentor(s).

All public and most private schools allow for "professional days" each year.  These are days for you to attend conferences or observe other teachers.  TAKE THESE DAYS.  Visit a veteran teacher in another district or school within your district.  Take notes on what you learn.  Write the date and number of hours that you observed the teacher for your development file.  You may also use this procedure for attending NEMC, Kodaly, Orff, Dalcrose, or other conventions.

The development you document need not be music related.  A class on bullying, performance assessment, Responsive Classroom, or any other building-wide or district-wide development will count toward your PDP hours.

Here's a video from Arizona about a course offering for teachers.  Please note the jargon she uses "continuing education units."  As mentioned above, each state has their own jargon for professional development.

A level of Kodaly or Orff usually earns between 40-80 PDPs, depending on the course location and rules in the state the course is offered. If you travel to Hungary or Austria to take classes there, you might earn all 150 hours in one fell swoop.  Not only will you have all the time in classes like the one below, but you'll be out learning about the local culture, picking the brains of master teachers at each meal, and otherwise learning every moment you are awake.  Document everything outside of class that you wish to add to your PDP folder.  It need not be elaborate, just a note "saw Ring Cycle in Bayreuth, 30 hours, OMG AMAZING!" will suffice.

Both public and private schools offer money for professional development.  USE IT.  It does not roll over from year to year and is usually quite generous.  I've worked in situations varying from $300-$2000 of annual professional development money for each teacher. 

VI. Thou shalt map thy curriculum
Most Kodaly level courses are taught on the Hungarian model.  This model assumes music instruction 3 times per week.  If you follow the Lamar Robertson curriculum, this is what you are following.  It is unrealistic to assume that you can fit 120 lessons into 40 lessons!   Set modest goals for yourself.  If there will be a swath of weeks dedicated to a school festival, intense concert rehearsal, or vacation, take that into account when mapping your curriculum.  Also keep in mind how many days your classes might be canceled or postponed because of Monday or Friday holidays.  It's easy for your Monday students to fall months behind other classes by the end of the year because of Monday holidays.

Don't forget to map performance skills too.  How do you want the children's conducting to progress?  What about expressive singing?  How will movement be incorporated in performance and rehearsal?  How many consecutive lessons can you do in the fall to facilitate your first composition-intensive lesson?

Don't forget that you WILL be sick for a few lessons.  Keep that in mind when you plan.  What skills can a substitute work on?  Assume that students can do everything better than the sub.  Students lead the substitute in the most successful lessons. 

VII. Thou shalt be flexible
The Kindergarten teacher needs metal percussion instruments for a Chinese New Year parade, give her a nice selection of them.   The physical education teacher needs to team teach with you on a dance unit in the upper elementary grades, coordinate with her.  Parents would like a group of 4th graders to play a recorder song at the next PTA meeting, arrange it with their teacher and the principal.  There are loads of times when you will be asked to change your routine, put off a unit to do something else, or loan your space or equipment to other departments within the school.  As a general rule, you should say "yes" to these requests.

Sometimes, however, the request would really effect the music education or safety of the children in a negative way.  In these cases, negotiation and discussion are necessary.  Here are some request challenges that I and some of my colleagues have negotiated and discussed.

A. The school sale
Request: We need to lock 3 of the 4 doors to your room because we will be storing items for the school garage sale in the auditorium.
Discussion: "I can't let that happen, by law I need at least 2 entrances to my room to be open in case of an emergency.  Is there some way to keep one of those exits clear during school hours and I can agree to lock it when I use the bathroom or go to lunch?"

B. Earth Day
Request: Can you have the kids sing a couple of songs to celebrate Earth Day next Friday?
Discussion: Normally I would accommodate your request, but I've already taught the children for this week, so I'd need to introduce a song to the children just a few days before they would have to perform it.  Putting the children in that position makes me uncomfortable.  I have already been suspending my curriculum to fulfill your request for the Mother's Day performance and that is going really well.  Here are a couple of ideas.  We could sing one of the Mother's Day songs to "mother earth" for the celebration or perhaps we could ask Mrs. Smith for that great poem about conservation.  The kids could recite or act out the poem.  I could work on it during their music class and Mrs. Smith sees them every day.  I think those two options are the best bet for a successful performance by the children.  What do you prefer?
If a request annoys you, cool off first, then discuss calmly

C. Math facts song
Request: Can you teach the kids this song about fractions?  It's to the tune of Yankee Doodle!
Discussion:  I've got some free time between 11:00 and 11:30, what are you doing then?  (The teacher can talk to you during silent reading time at 11:20.  Meanwhile you fume a bit that there are so many mathematical concepts in the structure and sound of music yet this teacher wants you to show math via lyrics.  You take the intervening time to get over yourself and phrase your persuasion so that you are speaking to an equal.  Don't ever talk to a teacher or administrator in frustration or anger.  Cool down and get over yourself first.  Focus on the kids and find an answer to the request that suits their education!)  {later that day you meet with him} I've thought about this and I think the best way to reinforce your curriculum is by both of us stressing fractions in our disciplines and using similar language to explain the concepts.  I just introduced your students to 6/8 time, triplets, and they already know sixteenth notes.  I think we could do some amazing things if we scored this 60 second youtube film.  The kids would have to figure out measures, tempo, subdivision, and timbre.  What do you think?  (The teacher is so amazed at the true mathematical applications of music that he becomes an awesome collaborator.)

VIII. Thou shalt learn thy students 
Classroom management:  If you cannot manage your class' behavior, you cannot teach anything!  I like Harry Wong's Responsive Classroom model.  I know that it has been adopted by many schools in name, but I've never experienced any school adopting it in practice.  Learn these techniques!  They will serve you well.  It is very important that you STEAL EVERYTHING YOU CAN FROM OTHER TEACHERS.  Learn how they teach a particular song and how classroom management is handled in that teaching technique.  Structure is everything.  Have an opening activity.  Have a structured way for each lesson to unfold.  Have a closing activity that sums up what was learned today.  Make expectations clear for progress to be made between lessons.  Be clear in all things!  
Name: If you've never learned 500-1000 new names in a month, you soon will.  It's not easy the first time and you need to ask for forgiveness many times before you master the names.  Every teacher has tricks and short cuts to help them learn the names.  Seating charts are very helpful and you need to write them out and keep them.  Play games  that use children's names during the first weeks of school to help you and the children learn all the names in their class.  

Every business success course will tell you that people find their own names to be very beautiful.  Children need you to know them.  If you struggle with a child's name, learn more about them and it will cover any future memory loss.  Here's an example:
"Oh gee, I know who you are, but I can't remember your name.  I know you want to be a veterinarian, you love blue, and you had the most awesome socks last week.  Hmmmmm, I give up, does it begin with a "K"?"

If you remember them but forget their name, they are more likely to forgive your error.  

Special Needs: You will be privy to a list of special needs students in your classes.  Discuss this with teachers who already know the students and formulate your seating charts accordingly.  Sometimes these students are discussed before the year begins and strategies for dealing with their needs and behaviors are shared.  Be careful not to judge students or expect poor behavior as a result of these meetings.  Students have a remarkable ability to reinvent themselves.
  • Dave has an anxiety disorder and needs to sit in the back corner so that he can separate himself from the class when he needs to decompress
  • Suzie is distracted by room decorations and other children's faces, she needs a seat in the front row
  • Jack has a hearing aid, he needs to be near the front
  • Corey has an aid for specialists because he can be unsafe with aggression, he needs to be separate from Dave and does well when he's near Jenny
  • Sam has an allergy to bees, make a note of that
IX. Thou shalt say only positive things about thy school
There is no perfect school.  There is no perfect administrator.  There is no perfect student.  And, most importantly, There is no perfect music teacher.
Gossip ain't cool
I guarantee that, during the course of your career, you will do things to annoy, inconvenience, and possibly even anger your colleagues.  You may not know the error of your ways for days or even years after you commit the misstep.  Do you really want that colleague to bad-mouth you?  Even if what they say is true?  Gossip, innuendo, information swapping, or bad-mouthing is not becoming to the person who says it.  These utterances create enmity between staff members and color their impressions of one another in a negative way.  If you say negative things about your school, it just reflects poorly on you, and it can easily cost you your job, your reputation, and your livelihood!

Saying what you think is unwise unless there is an educational reason for you to do so.  Will the students be positively impacted by your opinion being given right now?  Why does this person need to know my opinion?  Why does this person care about my impression of (administrator, colleague, parent, etc).

Gossip leads to lack of trust.  It also hardens you to your peers and dehumanizes them in your eyes.  Don't get in the habit!  If you cannot avoid gossip in the faculty room, eat with the students or quietly in your personal space.  If you cannot change the topic in a conversation from gossip, remove yourself from the conversation.  This is the best thing for you as a person and a professional.  Here are some examples.
Athena, goddess of wisdom

Athena (chose her name because she's the goddess of wisdom) is a specialist between two schools.  One school has a principal who always wanted her to be there, the other has a principal who needed her to justify the need for that kind of specialist in the system at all.  Both principals were always cordial to Athena, but Athena knew that, since both were needed to keep her employed, she'd have to win over the second principal to hold onto her job.  

Athena made herself so visible to both principals and caused such a difference in her special needs students' quality of education and ability to perform in class, that now both schools want a full-time specialist and Athena has to choose which school she will work in.  

What should Athena say when the principals or staff ask her, "which school will you choose?"  

Athena is wise.  "I love them the same.  I might flip a coin or draw a name from a hat," say she.  

Does she have an opinion about her choice?  Sure!  Is she going to share that until it is absolutely necessary?  NO!  Maybe there will be budget cuts or a change in fiscal thinking and her option could be taken away before the end of the year.  School budgets are capricious.  If that happened and she had made a choice or bad-mouthed the second principal, her life would become quite difficult afterward.  Be like Athena!
You may ask, "what if the most veteran teachers in my school got that way because they knew the most and therefore knew how to play the game?"  My answer is simple.  If you are in a school where simply doing your job, treating others really well, being fair, and looking out for the kids is not enough to maintain employment and status, get another job or find another school.  Sure, these schools exist, but they are the minority.  If you keep going from school to school and encounter this "politics" and never fit in, perhaps the problem is you.  You are the common denominator in your life experiences, so if you keep getting the same treatment everywhere and it is unfair, perhaps you are the problem.  In the absence of illegal and unfair discrimination, your exercise of The Golden Rule should be enough to sustain your career.  The teachers who gossip in order to get by are not trusted by other teachers and ultimately don't engender the love and respect from their peers and their students that you would like to cultivate for yourself.
Should he write about the slings and arrows of outrageous persecution?

You will not find unflattering information about any of the schools I have worked for in this blog.  Sure, it's a forum where I could vent and get a load of stuff off my chest.  I have hundreds of readers every day.  Why not take advantage of that soap box?  Well, the truth is that my resentments tend to be the product of my own failings and character flaws that I don't want to face.  I try to assume that my negative feelings will subside with time and ultimately won't last.  This blog is a permanent fixture of the web.  It is something that any future employer will be able to access and I don't want to have to go back and edit out my moodiness every few months.  Instead, I've kept a pretty even keel.  Frustration is still part of my life at work from time to time, but I don't use this or any other public forum to vent my negative feelings.

If you are at a workshop, district meeting, or on the web, keep you negative opinions to yourself.  Words can hurt, and the one they will probably hurt is you!
 Here's a cautionary tale.  One that as relayed to me when I told a colleague that I was writing these commandments.  

Judy was a new teacher.  She had "issues" with some conditions in her room and with her administrator.  She was at a district workshop at the administrative offices and was the only one at her school at that meeting.  She privately told a new acquaintance about her frustrations.  Her words got back to her building.  She was not renewed for employment the following year.  
X. Thou shalt find joy in each day and share that joy with everyone you encounter
You are blessed!  You get to sing every day at work!  You get to giggle and laugh with little ones and sometimes bigger kids.  You get to share our rich and vibrant culture with the people who will carry it on to the next generation.  You get to show children that they are smarter than they thought they were.  

Having and keeping a cheerful disposition is crucial to your effectiveness as a teacher.  When you start to have problems controlling your class (and you will,)  when you find yourself dreading certain students (and you will,) when you are at a loss for dealing with a colleague or a parent (and you will be,) have a support system in place to discuss these issues and find resolution so you don't lose sleep and break commandments.  The best person to help is your college professor, spouse, veteran teacher who inspired you to teach in the first place, or other discrete mentor.  Frustration, anger, feelings of failure, and anxiety are all wonderful gifts for your teaching.  These feelings tell you that you are doing something wrong.  Without them, you don't change for the better.  Embrace your many failures in your first years of teaching.  Don't plan on making mistakes, but forgive yourself quickly and always have a plan to address a problem.  

With a solid support system, good self-care, keeping up with paper work, building relationships at school, and positive talk, I'm sure you will find joy and peace in your new profession.  

Good Luck and God Bless You!!!!! 


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