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Advice for the New Music Teacher

Twenty years!  It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was a nervous, newly wed, twenty-something that walked into her classroom for the first time.  I was excited and terrified at the same time.  I was a dreamer and a hard-worker, but I didn’t feel ready.  It didn’t matter.  The kids were coming regardless of how ready I felt.

After twenty first days of teaching, I’d like to offer my advice to those of you just starting out.  I’ve taught all grades, but really consider myself an elementary music person so this post may reflect that position.

 Make your room beautiful.  Go ahead.  Wallow around in the perfectly printed and laminated fruits of your labors.  No!  Curtains that match the dust ruffle on your desk aren’t too much.  Yes! Get the lamp that matches the new rug you found.  This is your space.  Love it.

And yes, other teachers, parents and even your students are kind of judging what you do.  They may not say it, but looking at your room is one way to get to know YOU.  Are you fun and funky?  Organized and awesome?  Is your room inviting?  Whatever your style is, make this space that you will spend your days in beautiful.  Check out my store for some ready to go bulletin board sets.  Many are print and post.

Make your room functional.  Nothing will ruin the first month of school like learning how your beautiful room doesn’t function for any of the needs of your students.  I like to plan out my room on paper and think about how students will enter and exit, how they will get supplies and the path they will take to get back to their chairs or their spot on the carpet.

Consider how you have your room arranged.  Do you have supplies or personal belongings that you don’t want students to touch?  Don’t put them on your desk right near their line up space.  Do you want to train students to move to the supply table and then back to their seats in one direction?  Plan it out.  Put your paper and clipboards in one spot and pencils about 6-10 feet away to help them move in the right direction.

Planning for functionality means thinking about transitions and how to reduce the amount of learning time you waste on them.    A group of 6th graders can make getting a pencil and worksheet stretch out for a good 10 minutes if you let them.  Heck, they could stretch it out to last all period!

If you’re setting up your room or are ready to rearrange it, check out the blog post Questions to Ponder when Setting Up Your MusicRoom.

Eat lunch with someone.  Of course, you are busy.  Do it anyway.  Make connections with other teachers.  Volunteer to help with a special event.  The art teacher?  Check in occasionally.  The PE teacher?  Chat over coffee before school.  The special education teachers?  Go to them and ask to see any IEPs that will help you connect with the special learners you’ll see in your classroom.  Seek out relationships in your building.  You don’t need to be BFFs, but you do need to create a support system.  One day you’ll need advice about dealing with a parent, need to learn the grading software, have a question about the dress code or something else.  Be friendly.

Make friends with the people who really know what’s going on at school.  You have probably already met them.  The secretaries are on the front line of communicating with parents and other professionals, know where EVERYTHING is in the building and are probably community members that know more about the kids and their families than you will ever have the time to learn.   Talk to them.

The “Ladies of Lunch” as I call them, are also probably community members and great allies.  You’ll need to work with them for field trips and possibly share a space for performances.  I’ve taught in schools with a cafegymatorium where kids ate, had class, performed concerts and a dozen other things.  Care for your cafeteria workers.  Learn their names.  Thank them for all they do for your students.  Eat school lunch occasionally.  You may not want to call them “Ladies of Lunch” unless they are a really fun group though.  Often they are!

The lady that sweeps your floor and the guy that moves stuff and fixes things when they break are probably the most important people at school.  Learn their names.  Tell them thank you.  Make their lives easier by having your kiddos pick up.  It’s good for the kids to learn to respect their learning space and it is good for your relationship with the maintenance and janitorial team.  Use glitter sparingly.  Don’t be a slob.  Buy them gifts at Christmas.  Seriously. 

Get your concerts on the calendar now.  No, really.  As soon as you finish reading this send the email, fill out the form or get yourself to the office and get your concerts, programs and field trips on the calendar.  Now.  This is going to make your life much easier. If you can’t do it for the whole year, do it for the first semester.  School calendars fill up quickly and you don’t want to create problems by waiting too late to get your amazing events scheduled.

Don’t worry about planning out the first semester.  I know.  You probably learned about scope and sequence in college and you’ve already perused your new curriculum.  Great!  We’ll get back to that.  Plan the first two class times with each group.  Adjust your expectations, throw in a few extension activities just in case you finish earlier than you thought and plan another class period.

The first day?  MAKE MUSIC.  You have so many things to cover this year and you are so excited to do it.  I know!  I feel like this every single year and I’ve been doing this for twenty years.  The kids?  They may be nervous, missing their family, a little overwhelmed or just anxious in general.  Go over the rules quickly.  Talk about safety quickly.  Do attendance quickly.  Then?  Become Captain Awesome.

Be an ambassador of joy.  Dance.  Sing.  Clap.  Make some music.

It won’t be perfect.  Don’t plan for it to be!  Plan something fun.  When they leave your class after their first day, make them leave looking forward to next week!   I like to start with something to get them moving.  Check out this post aboutnewspaper dancing.

Some classroom teachers have about 20-30 names to remember.  Maybe up to 80 or 100 if they rotate classes.  Special area teachers?  HUNDREDS!  The struggle is real, people.  Have a plan. 

Seating charts and name games are the most popular ways to learn names quickly. 

Seriously, label your stuff.  I’ve told myself that I would always remember the special book or resource or puppet or instrument or whatever that I purchased with money I scraped away from my grocery budget.  In reality I remembered SOME of the things that I bought a few years later.  Whip out your Sharpie.  Label your stuff.  Thank me later.

YOU are the strongest advocate for your program.  Use every opportunity you get to talk about the amazing things that are happening in your classroom.  Write for the newsletter.  Start a webpage.  Write articles for the local newspaper.  Send special invitations to board members to attend performances.  Get out in the community by singing at a mall, a local nursing home or at the mayor’s office.  Quit saying that music is “fun”.  Of course it is, but it is more than that.  What does music teach your students?  Talk about that.

Don’t overwhelm yourself with this, but when you see an opportunity seize it!

 In Missouri, first year teachers are assigned a mentor.  This person helps the new teacher with school procedures and protocol, gives advice about classroom management and answers questions.  I hope that it works like that in every state.  If you are the only music teacher in your building, you may be paired with a classroom teacher rather than a specialist.  If so or if you are not in a state that supports a new teacher mentoring program, seek out a mentor.  

  • -Contact your state music educator's organization and see if they offer a mentoring program.  
  • Seek out online opportunities like joining the Music Teachers Facebook group.  
  • -Check out Plank Road Publishing's music teacher discussion list.  It is like sitting in the world's greatest music teacher lounge!  Music education rock stars are on the list as well as thousands of music teachers around the world.
  • -Connect with me on social media.  I'd be more than happy to help you out if I can!
The Bulletin Board Lady - Tracy King on Facebook
@tracyking on Twitter
@thebulletinboardlady on Instagram

Smile.  Yes, even the first day.  Especially the first day.  Be happy. You have one of the greatest jobs in the world!

Share your tips for new teachers in the comments!
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 Advice for the New Music Teacher - A candid and humorous look at life as a music teacher.  Ideas for teaching elementary through high school, for your classroom, working with parents, activities, who to friend and more.
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  1. Tracy, I'm going into my 8th year of teaching music and even I learned something from this post! Thank you! My favorite quote from this article:
    Be an ambassador of joy. Dance. Sing. Clap. Make some music.
    Can I make that into a poster for my hallway bulletin board?

  2. This is my 10th year and all of these points are spot on! Great post :)

  3. Awesome advice! I am going on my 16th year of teaching and yes, it always feels like that first day every year! My advice would be do not expect students to know how to behave. Be clear what you expect from them, model it, and then have them practice it. For example: Getting the teachers attention: 1. Look at the teacher 2. Raise your hand and stay CALM 3. Wait under the teacher says your name, then you may talk - tie it to being respectful to the teacher and the whole class...I often reference the difference between having lunch with 1 or 2 people and just having a conversation compared to talking with twenty some people...

  4. Such a great post!! I totally agree with everything, but especially having them make MUSIC the first day. I just can't discuss rules the first day. I just can't. AND I just spent a little while last night writing down all of my calendar dates, so YES, great point! Thank you for writing so many great tips!

  5. I am in my last year of teaching music...40yrs...you are brilliant...it took me a long time to do all of the above. Thanks for my last day of summer reminder who and what I am...

    1. You are so welcome! And thank you! :-) We have the best job ever!

    2. Thank you for contributing to the September Music Education Blog Carnival! http://musicwithmrsdennis.blogspot.com/2015/09/music-education-blog-carnival-september.html

  6. I needed this even though I am entering my 23rd year! Thank you!

    1. I think sometimes I need these reminders too! Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Mrs. King,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and what might help to get on the right foot from the onset. I will be checking out your website regularly for inspiration and support.
    Thank you,

    1. Welcome Felicia! I am glad you stopped by!

  8. I am so glad I stumbled across your blog tonight! I just recently accepted my first position in an elementary school for next year and I am nervous (and excited, of course). I have been in a long term substitute position as a choir director in a middle school and am nervous about the transition to elementary. I just want to be prepared! So thank you for blogging about your experience. I plan on exploring your blog more this summer as I start preparing for the year!

    1. I love teaching elementary and hope that you will too! Check out some of my earlier posts for lesson ideas and more. Best wishes!

  9. Oh, my goodness! When I read the part about not having to honor line leaders and cabooses, it was like an epiphany! So hard to keep up with 54 different classroom lineup procedures! We have 9 classes of each grade - k-5.........and all are different in their lining up.

  10. Just finishing up my first month with middle school... I need to decorate

  11. I will be starting my 25th year this fall. These are simple and practical things for a new teacher (and old) to hear! Old teacher. . . clean out stuff!! :) Have a great school year!