Being a first-year music teacher is challenging. A big hurdle is applying the knowledge you gained during your formal education while building practical knowledge, which is usually learned on-the-fly once you enter the workforce.
Below are 10 helpful tips from my experience that I hope will help make your first year of teaching a little easier, more effective and more time efficient, so that you will not have to figure things out “the hard way” as I did.
Eat healthy, sleep at least six to eight hours every night and exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself takes time, but the time you put into keeping yourself healthy will allow you to stay more mentally focused and physically energized throughout your day.
Make time for yourself. Plan free time and vacations the way you schedule your rehearsals. Free time helps you recharge and re-energize, and it will help you avoid burnout at your job.
Learn which way students and parents receive communication best (GroupMe, Remind, etc.) and use it. Take the time to become proficient in whatever method of parent/student communication your school uses, and use it consistently – whether it is weekly Charms emails, regular Google Classroom announcements or nightly Remind101s. Always remember that group communication is much safer for you as an instructor than one-on-one messages, which can lead to the appearance of inappropriate communication or behavior. A good rule of thumb for any written communication is to never write anything you would not feel comfortable discussing in a deposition.
Use calendars (and calendar apps) constantly, consistently and effectively. Your iCal/Google Calendar/Fantastical 2/Calendars 5/Outlook/Timepage should look like a piece of art. Schedule in classes, rehearsals, meetings and travel times. Color coordinate your calendars (personal vs. professional vs. school-related), and put in deadlines for submissions to your local music education association, deadlines for competitions, grant/funding deadlines, etc. Many calendar apps can be shared with students/parents/administrators/colleagues to help avoid rehearsal/performance conflicts.
Use a list-making or task-management app or program (Evernote/Trello/Todoist/Microsoft To Do) that you can access on your computer and phone and create separate categories to keep track of your various responsibilities. I have separate categories for current concert repertoire, future concert repertoire, future chamber ensemble repertoire, conference clinic topics, article topics, possible future clinicians, potential students (with all their contact information and family names), instrument needs, to-do lists and ensemble goals (1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year). Having your lists organized and easily available at all times will allow you to record ideas and any “ah-ha” moments no matter where you may be. Tracking ideas, goals and tasks will help you and your ensemble progress more quickly. The more you can plan ahead for your ensembles and yourself, the more direction and focus you and your program will have.
In the beginning of your job/career, you will need to do a lot of things yourself, but the more you can delegate small tasks (restringing marimbas, loading cases, setting up chairs and stands, etc.), the more attention and energy you can give to big-picture items. Establish easy-to-follow systems for how you want your program to work. Also, relying on student leaders can be an effective way of getting tons of small tasks accomplished while giving students a hierarchy that allows them to advance among their peers.
Always try to learn what you could have done better from negative situations, but do not bring your work home (especially the negative aspects) because this will only hurt you and your relationships. Everyone needs to vent and doing so in small amounts infrequently can be healthy. However, try to avoid consistently discussing only the negative aspects of your job. This will result in you having a negative outlook on your job. Use friends and family as a healthy sounding board, but then move forward. Focusing on the negative can easily become a living feedback loop of self-pity.
Students need a mentor much more than another friend. It is difficult to put students’ long-term goals over their immediate need for validation and attention, especially if they are having problems at home or in their personal lives. Focus on helping your students/young adults learn how to be dedicated, have a consistent work ethic and overcome hurdles (emotionally, mentally and physically) so they can become successful, independent adults.
Never give out your personal phone number or email to students and be aware of your school and district’s rules regarding text messaging and social media contact with students. This is important to protect you from any damaging ramifications.
If you do not promote your group, who will? Use all the available types of media (newspapers, local radio/cable stations, blogs) and social media (your band’s or school’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) to get your program noticed in the public’s eyes and ears. Make sure you are an advocate to all shareholders. Reach out to administration, colleagues, parents, and past and future students to share news of the growth, success and accomplishments of your program. Many schools/districts have media outlets that can be harnessed for your program’s benefit as well.
It is easy to keep in mind the people you are directly involved with – students, parents, colleagues, administrators, etc. However, some of the most important people to your program’s success are the ones who work behind the scenes, sometimes known as “support staff.” Be kind and show respect to the transportation director, custodial staff, maintenance department, IT people, administrative assistants, etc. These people are the backbone of any great organization and can either make your day run smoothly so you can stay focused on music-related aspects of your job, or they can make your day a logistical nightmare. Being kind to everyone is just a good rule of thumb for life, but it can be easy to overlook the support staff who make your day-to-day life easier.
Almost every young ensemble director has huge aspirations, and it can be easy to let your personal goals overshadow the actual needs of your program. Find an older, knowledgeable mentor, a seasoned veteran music educator who can advise you and help you avoid obstacles. Not only can you toss ideas around with your mentor, but you can get advice about practical things like how to juggle deadlines for marching competitions, find funding for band trips and schedule marching band rehearsals (that often involve numerous administrators and athletic coaches). Fortunately, most musicians and music educators enjoy helping each other. Your “rival band” might have a director who could be your most helpful mentor because “rival programs” often do similar activities because you are in the same district with the same deadlines and policies.