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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Music Teachers' Guide to Fostering Mutual Respect

Raise your hand if you have ever been told, in words or in actions, that you are somehow less than a "real teacher" by administrators, colleagues, or both! I think most of us have at some point felt disrespected for being "just a music teacher". I know this feeling all too well, and I think it is one of the biggest sources of stress in our line of work today. So I decided to get an outside perspective on this problem: I spoke with two of my administrators to get their perspective on how music teachers can build respect for themselves and for their program within the broader school community, particularly amongst other staff and administration.

The perspectives you will read below are a compilation of the answers I got from two separate interviews: one with my building principal, and one with the director of the district fine arts department. Both of them are amazing administrators who are very supportive and insightful, but neither of them have ever been music teachers themselves. I think hearing their thoughts gives good insight into how we can "speak their language" so that administrators and colleagues better understand and value all of the work we're doing as music teachers.

So here's the question I posed to them:

How can music teachers advocate for themselves as professionals and for the importance of the music program?
  • Get yourself, your students, and your program out there! Public performances keep you and your students' work in music in everyone's minds in a positive way. And don't be afraid to think outside the box- often creative ideas beyond the standard concerts and programs are what capture colleagues', administrators', and the community's attention. 
  • No matter what type of performance you choose to do, make sure it is enjoyable for the audience, musically challenging, and logistically smooth. Present yourself, the director, as a professional. Taking the time to make sure you know how you plan to introduce each song, how each group will enter and exit the stage, etc can make a huge difference in how the performance is received and how professional you and your program appear.
  • Collaborating with non-music colleagues will demonstrate your expertise and professionalism, which in turn causes the broader school community to think more highly of the music curriculum and program as a whole. And that collaboration should be a 2-way street: as you look for ways to incorporate things students are learning in their other subjects into your class, you can and should be offering ideas for how teachers can incorporate music into theirs (in fact, that is often even more effective in advocating for the value of music because teachers and students will see and experience it for themselves)! You don't have to (and shouldn't) scrap your own content to teach another subject, but you can (and should!) make connections to other learning when it fits with what you're doing.
  • Get involved in school- and district-wide discussions on engagement, behavior management, and even IEP and other accommodations for individual students. Music has a unique role to play in these areas, and you can help colleagues and administrators to see the value of music in students' social-emotional lives and in meeting specific learning and academic needs by sharing your knowledge and expertise and sharing ideas of the unique role that music can play in each of those areas. Music teachers often will also see completely different sides of students who may struggle in other subjects but thrive in the music room. Sharing your perspective will help advocate for the importance of music in those students' lives.
  • Be proactive in going to administrators and colleagues with ideas for things you can do to help support work they are doing. Whether it's offering an idea of something that seems to work for a behaviorally challenging student in your class, or a musical spin you want to put on a school-wide initiative, it's important to get out of your own world, be involved with the rest of the building, and put yourself in front of administrators and colleagues.
  • Speak positively about your work, especially when you're talking to colleagues and administrators outside of the music department. Talk about all of the positive things that are happening in your classes, how excited you are for your concert, and those special moments when a particular student is able to shine for the first time. It's easy to get sucked into the endless complaining in the staff room- try not to fall into that trap.
  • Invite administrators to come into your class to see the work you're doing outside of public performances, especially when you know you'll be doing something exciting and rigorous in class that day. It helps them see the more "academic" side of what you're doing and gives them a broader perspective on everything that goes on within a typical music class.
Important note: reading all of this can make it seem like all of the responsibility for improving the level of respect for music education and music teachers rests solely on the shoulders of music teachers themselves. That is of course completely untrue, and please believe me when I say the administrators I interviewed do not feel that way either! I believe reflecting on what we ourselves can do is ultimately the most productive way to get the ball rolling, but if you are looking for concrete ways to encourage others to treat music teachers more respectfully, this post is a good start:

I hope you find some ideas here that will help you make positive changes in your relationships with your colleagues and administrators and promote the importance of music education! It takes effort from all of us to foster mutual respect and ultimately provide a better school experience for everyone.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Music Teacher Job Search: advice from administrators

Going through the job search process can be intimidating. No matter how confident you are in your qualifications for a position, the real mystery is in how to communicate that effectively to the people that can get you that job: administrators and others on the hiring committee who may or may not know much of anything about music teaching and most certainly don't know who you are and what you're like in the classroom!

Did you ever wish you could get some honest feedback from those administrators on the other side of the table and find out what they're really thinking when they sift through the stacks of resumes or listen to your answers in an interview? Well today we all get that chance! I sat down with two of my administrators- the fine arts department director and my building principal- and got their honest thoughts on how to handle everything from job search to resumes, interviews, and beyond.

First of all let's acknowledge that obviously not every administrator thinks the same way. I am lucky enough to have solid relationships with excellent, supportive administrators. Not everyone is so lucky, and even among the best administrators there are certainly a broad range of leadership styles, personalities, and philosophies that come into play in the job search process. But having seen both of them in action as they go through all of the steps of hiring a new teacher, I can confidently say that they are both insightful about what works and what doesn't, and they were also both very good about answering broadly for a range of administrative perspectives based on their interactions with others in similar administrative positions. This is the kind of insight that, at the very least, should help make the job search process a lot less mysterious and intimidating!

I interviewed each of the administrators- my department director and my building principal- separately about a broad range of topics (you'll be hearing more from them over the coming weeks!), and in this post I have compiled their responses on various aspects of the job search process by topic. If you have any follow-up questions for them, please leave them in the comments section below- I know they would be more than happy to answer!

1. Looking for jobs
  • Go ahead and apply for those jobs that may not be the "perfect fit" for you! You don't necessarily want your first interview to be for the job you most want- your interview skills will improve the more you interview.
  • If you have a break in your teaching career, stay involved in music somehow! It will show future potential employers your commitment and passion for music, and it will give you opportunities to network with others in the field. See if you can come in and accompany the local school choir, go to music teacher workshops and conventions, or participate in a community music ensemble!
  • If you find yourself in a less-than-ideal job, do everything you can to still do it to the best of your ability. If your administrators and coworkers can tell others what a fantastic teacher you are, it will serve you well when you're looking for other positions in the future. Don't go into the job thinking "oh well, I'm only going to do this for a year anyway". Go into the job thinking, "I'm going to do this job so well that they'll be begging me to stay and telling everyone what a great job I'm doing, and I'm going to have all of these accomplishments to share with future employers". You'll also just feel better about yourself if you do.
2. Resumes
  • For instrumental teachers, I'm looking for time spent focusing on a particular instrument and experience on the other instruments you would be teaching as well.
  • For general music, I'm looking for a reason you got into (or are hoping to get into) general music teaching- something that tells me this isn't "just a job".
  • For younger candidates, I do look at your grades, especially in your major- if you got consistently poor grades in your major area of study then I question how hard you were working and how much you care! If you do have some inconsistencies or low grades, be prepared with an explanation.
  • In the letters of recommendation, I look for statements beyond the standard- something specific that you did, a specific initiative or program that you were involved in, specific qualities or actions you took in your relationships with students and the community. I want to see something that set you apart in the eyes of the writer.
  • Your cover letter is important! Make sure to tailor your cover letter to the specific job you're applying for, and focus on communicating your passion for teaching, for music, and for students- there is plenty of space to talk about accomplishments and qualifications in the rest of your resume. 
  • Tailor your philosophy of education to the specific job you're applying for- it should be written differently if you're applying for an elementary general music class vs a high school band job. (For more tips on writing your philosophy of education, see this post.)
3. Interview: questions to expect
  • What do you love most about music? I'm looking for a spark in your eye, and I'm also looking to see that you have spent time working on your craft, especially if you are applying for an instrumental or choral music position- I want to know that you have been practicing and performing on a primary instrument/ voice if you are going to be teaching in that type of position!
  • What do you love most about teaching? I'm listening for something about children/students. If a love of children isn't part of your passion for teaching, I'm concerned about your ability to connect with students and your passion for student-centered learning.
  • How do you effectively assess all of your individual students without taking too much time away from teaching? This is particularly for general music teachers, as truly assessing all of the hundreds of students on all of the many areas general music covers can be a particular challenge.
  • How can you contribute to the school community beyond being a good teacher in the classroom? 
  • What are some programs outside of the standard curriculum that you have implemented in the past and/or would hope to implement in our school? This is your chance to highlight some of your specific interests, demonstrate your passion for teaching and for music, and your willingness to get involved in the school community. It could be things you do within the classroom, like a "composer of the month" program or specific unit of study, a performance or school-wide event, or an extracurricular program or ensemble. I'm looking for energy, creativity, passion, and team spirit.
  • If you current/ former students were asked to describe your teaching style, what adjectives would they use?
4. Interview: other advice
  • I'm looking for a spark in an interview- I want to see enthusiasm for your subject, for teaching, and for students! No matter how thoughtful you are in your answers, there needs to be some enthusiasm and energy to accompany your knowledge.
  • Arts teachers can often be somewhat scattered, and while some of that is understandable, I'm looking for a certain level of organization that is necessary for effective teaching. I'm looking for organization and thoughtfulness in your answers that shows me a certain deliberateness to organize/ plan/ reflect to go along with your passion and creativity.
  • Give specific answers to situational questions (like, "what would you do in this situation with a student?"), not just textbook/ buzzword answers. Explain the actual steps you would take in that situation- it helps me to visualize the kind of teacher you are.
  • Ask good questions in the interview yourself! You'll find out a lot about your future administrators and the job itself that will help you decide if it's a good fit for you. Questions like, "would you be open to such-and-such programs or teaching ideas for the music program?" will give you a good sense of how supportive your administrators are and also give you a chance to showcase some of your creative ideas. (For more tips and examples of good questions to ask of an interview panel, see this post.)
  • Talk about the creative or unique things you've done in your classes and/or extracurricular programs. Building principals in particular want to know how you will contribute to the broader school community and how you'll engage students in a unique way. I'm looking for music teachers who can think "outside the box" and bring something special to my school!
  • I want to know that you're willing to collaborate with other teachers- give some examples of ways you have (or hope to) worked with teachers in other subject areas and within your department. I want someone who is going to be a team player!
I hope you find these insights from administrators' perspectives helpful in demystifying the job search and interview process- I know I found it helpful and interesting myself! If you are in the process of looking for a new position, best wishes in your job search! And if you have any further questions on this topic, please leave them in the comments section below- you'll help all of us learn more!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

First Day of Music Lesson Ideas

The beginning of the school year is full of excitement and hope. But it can also be overwhelming and stressful! As elementary music teachers there is so much we need to introduce in such a short period of time on that first day with each of our classes. And of course we don't want to bore the students by preaching at them the whole time with rules and procedures and seating arrangements- we want to get them excited about their year in music! Here are some of my favorite ways to kick off the school year in elementary general music.

1. Names and seats

I always use assigned seating in class. Not only does it help me to learn names, but it allows me to do some proactive "behavior management" by putting students in strategic places, and it gives students the structure that most of them need. One of the first things I do on the first day of music is to give students their assigned seats and asking them to say their name.

Note: I do NOT call their names out from an attendance sheet. I ask the homeroom teacher when they bring their class if anyone is absent or if they know of any changes to their roster, and then I put that list away. I tell students I want them to say their name for me so I can hear how they say it. For returning students that I already know, I tell them that they're welcome to let me know if they are hoping to go by a different name than they did before- sometimes as kids get older they get stuck with a nickname they don't want to keep, and this gives them a chance to change it!

As each student says their name, I look them in the eye and then say their name back, like, "OK Jayden, I'm going to have you sit right here, OK?". This gives me a chance to practice saying their name, make sure I'm attaching a face to the name, and make a small personal connection with them from the beginning. I do this even for students I know well from previous years- it's amazing how out of practice we become over summer break, and this helps to re-establish my relationships with each student.

2. Tour the room

After everyone knows where their assigned spot is, I like to take students on a tour of the classroom by having them physically follow me around the space. I don't spend a lot of time talking but I like to point out a few things like tissues, trash cans, bathroom exit, etc and give a quick explanation of those procedures, as well as pointing out some of the instruments and other equipment that they'll be using this year.

The tour serves 2 purposes: 1) it gives me a chance to go over some of those little details that I want to address while making it a little more fun than just lecturing, and 2) it gets students out of their seats and in mixed-up order, which gives me the opportunity to practice our first procedure: getting to their assigned spots!

3. Practicing procedures / expectations

At the end of the tour I tell students I want to test them to see if they remember where to sit, and then I ask them to quietly walk back to their assigned seats as if it was the beginning of class. This gives students a chance to make sure they remember their seat, and it also gives me a chance to make sure they're not running etc and go over my expectations for entering the room.

With procedures, the key is to point out the students who are modeling appropriate behavior rather than lecturing the class on your expectations: "Awesome, I'm glad to see everyone walking safely to their seats" communicates your expectations just as well as, "When you enter the music room, I expect you to walk safely to your seats" but is a lot more positive and much less intimidating.

Once they get back to their seats, I do my best to run quickly through procedures of transitioning between different types of activities to get them excited about everything that they'll be doing in music class this year and give everyone a chance to practice those procedures:

a) Instruments

I will usually pick one instrument that's easy to get out and put away, like rhythm sticks or hand drums, and have everyone get one out, have them echo a couple of 4-beat patterns after me, and then practice putting them away. It's quick, and we probably spend more time getting out and putting away instruments properly than actually playing, but they still get an instrument in their hands!

b) Singing

I have hand signals that I use to cue students to sit up in their chairs and stand, so I use a quick singing activity to practice those. First I have them echo after me and learn a short, fun song like one of these while sitting up in their chairs, then we sing it all together standing up.

c) Movement

For the older ones especially, I like to practice 2 different movement activity formations: circle and scattered. We practice how to get into a circle, then I'll do a quick circle discussion- either something like "tell me something you did this summer" or a silly this or that question like "doughnuts or ice cream"? To get students talking and get them used to the expectations for listening. Then I'll have them practice getting into scattered formation in the open area of the classroom, and I get them moving with a few rounds of freeze dance!

That usually gets us to the end of class. Not once did I stand at the front of the class and talk to them at length about my expectations, but everyone was able to practice and see the expectations in action, and most importantly, everyone has fun making music in lots of different ways!

4. Beyond the first day

Sometimes I can't fit all of the above into one lesson- kindergarten takes almost the whole class just to get in their assigned spots sometimes!- so in that case I just go through the rest of the list in the next class period. Once we've covered the basics, here are a few other ideas to get the year started on the right foot:

For kindergarten and lower elementary, I love using these books:

For upper elementary, there are a lot of great ideas in this free download:

If you want even more ideas for the beginning of the school year (and beyond), be sure you're signed up for the Organized Chaos Newsletter! I'll be sending out another lesson plan for the beginning of the school year, complete with visuals to use with it, and there's also a giveaway exclusively for subscribers at the end of July! I always send out timely resources and exclusive content so it's worth the subscription, I promise :)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ace the Interview: questions to ask

It's job interview season and with that comes all the stress of maneuvering your way through job applications and interviews. In every interview in which I have ever participated (on either side of the table), the candidate was given the opportunity to ask the interviewers any questions they may have. After going through the grueling process of selling yourself without sounding like you're bragging and struggling to stay calm under pressure, the last thing you have mental energy for is coming up with thoughtful questions! But this portion of the interview can often be the most critical component in helping you find the job that's best for you, as well as give you a final opportunity to communicate your skill and passion for the job to the panel. Today I want to focus on some possible questions you can prepare to ask at the end of your interview to help make the most of this opportunity.

Before we get into specific questions, it's important to remember the key to any question you may choose to ask at the end of your interview:

Do your homework first.

I think it is commonly understood that it's important to do your research on the district/school/job for which you're applying before you go into the interview at all. The question time at the end is where your preparation, or lack thereof, can become most apparent! You don't want to ask a question that can easily be answered through an internet search. For all of the suggested questions below, see if you can get the answer before you go into the interview by looking at the school website and job posting. If you can get the answer that way, there's no reason to ask again in the interview! If you find it difficult to find the answer or the answer is unclear, let the interviewers know what you did to try to find the answer and ask for clarification. But don't ask any questions that you haven't done some work to try to answer on your own first!

1. What will my contact time with each class be?

I like this question better than "what will my schedule be like?" because it suggests that you're wanting to know how much time you'll have with each class to cover everything, rather than wondering what your workload will be like. You can do the math later on to figure out what your own schedule will look like and decide if the work demands are reasonable, but this question gives you a chance to find out how much time you'll get with each class- make sure to ask about class length, frequency, and whether it is year-long or only part of the year!

2. Does the department/ school focus on/ favor a specific teaching methodology?

This is a great opportunity to showcase your knowledge about different teaching methodologies (like Orff, Kodaly, MLT etc) even if the interviewers don't know what you're asking! But it's also a genuinely good way to start an important conversation that will help you determine if you're a good fit for the position. Even if you don't have specific training in the methodology they use (or any methodology at all), this is a chance to show what you do know about that methodology, express your interest/ excitement in using it and learning more about it, and talk about some specific elements of your own practice that you can bring to the department to further enhance student learning.

3. What curricular / professional development resources and equipment / space can I expect to have available to me in this position?

This is a great way to get a feeling for the kind of support you'll have from the school or district. What textbooks do they have and how old are they? Do they have a district curriculum and if so, on what standards is it based? Do they offer any PD that is specific to music teachers? If it is a large enough district, are there opportunities to collaborate with other music teachers? Do you have a music room, and is it shared with anyone? What kinds of instruments and other equipment will you have to use? If they are a new school or have little funding, asking follow-up questions about possibilities for the future will help you know if they're looking to grow the program (and support you in doing so) or not. For example, if they say they don't have any textbooks, do they have a budget to get something for you to use? If they don't have an official curriculum, are they open to having you write one based on the state/ national standards? This is, again, a chance to showcase your knowledge by bringing up specific resources that you've used in the past or with which you are familiar.

4. What are the extracurricular/ performance expectations?

Whether it's after or before school rehearsals, lunch clubs, assemblies, school concerts, or performances in the community, it's helpful to know what else you'll be responsible for outside of the "official" job description! And if the interviewers indicate that there aren't many things going on presently, you'll open up the possibility of mentioning some of the things you've done in the past, or areas of interest, that you could potentially introduce to the school.

There are plenty more great questions to ask, of course, but you definitely don't want to take up too much of the interview time asking tons of questions either! These would be my top choices. What questions would be at the top of your list? Share your ideas in the comments!

Applying for music teaching jobs right now? Here's my recent post with advice on crafting a philosophy statement, and here are all my posts for starting a new job!

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Helping Kids (and grownups too) In Transition

Transitions are hard for everyone. Whether it's a move across the country, a new job, or even just a move to the next grade level each school year, transitions always bring some level of excitement, stress, fear, sadness, and anticipation. For children transitions can be even more challenging because they can't look far enough ahead to prepare themselves for the change, and are left confused and upset in the aftermath. Today I want to share some helpful strategies for helping kids (and us adults too) make it through transitions more smoothly, whether it's a cross-country move or just a transition from one class activity to the next.

This post contains affiliate links.

I'm a veteran when it comes to transitions. With 6 years under my belt, I have officially been in my current town longer than any other city I have ever been in my life. But that doesn't mean I'm good at transitions! I started doing a lot of reading and research on transitions, especially cross-cultural moves, as a teenager, mostly because I was not handling the transitions I was experiencing very well! As a teacher I have been very focused on helping students who move in and out of my school, and helping the school community and families to support them in those transitions.

But the more I study and think about this topic, the more I realize that the strategies I have learned to handle moving houses also apply to many other types of transitions as well. Some transitions are more life-altering than others, but the principles still apply. Whether you're a parent getting ready to move your family around the world, a new teacher starting your first job, or a teacher looking for ways to help students with transitions within the school day, these strategies can help you support your students through all different kinds of transitions.

1. Keep them in the loop

I see so many children get ripped away from their friends, their school, and their home with very little advance warning. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but often the parents choose not to tell their children because they don't want to unnecessarily upset them (because the move may or may not happen) or because they think it will be easier if they don't have too much time to get worked up about it. This just isn't reality. One of the most important things you can do as an adult is to help children anticipate transitions as far in advance as possible.

For big life events like moving to a new house, tell kids as soon as it seems like a real possibility that a move might be coming. It's OK to be honest with them- if plans change, you can address that change of plan with them as well. With the rest of the strategies on my list, you will give them the time they need to properly process the transition.

For smaller, everyday transitions, preparation is still key. As teachers there are a lot of things we can do to help students transition more smoothly: establishing a class routine so students know what to expect next, creating a visual calendar/ schedule somewhere in the room for students to see, or even just verbally telling students when the last turn is coming in a game, or when class is almost over and they need to prepare to leave the class.

Being mindful of transitions and helping students anticipate them can make a huge difference in how well children handle transitions big and small.

2. Build a RAFT

A big part of my research on transitions has been dealing with cross-cultural moves, and one of the best reads on this topic is the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C Pollock and Ruth E Van Reken. If you have moved across countries yourself or deal regularly with others who do, I highly recommend getting your hands on this book! One of the ideas I took from that book that can apply to any transition is the acronym Pollock and Van Reken present for preparing for transitions: RAFT.

Reconciliation is the first component- making amends and repairing any broken relationships before you leave. If you're anticipating the end of the school year and moving to a new grade level or moving houses, it's important to make sure children are thinking through any people they need to seek forgiveness from or offer forgiveness to. In the classroom, this means doing our best not to leave arguments unresolved- even if it means you're a couple of minutes late to your next class or activity, taking the time to talk to students about anything that is upsetting them will help them transition more smoothly.

Affirmation is the second component of the RAFT, and this step involves affirming people who have played positive roles in our lives by thanking them and telling them what they have meant to us. It may seem like a lot of extra work in an already busy time, but if children are preparing to move, having them write thank you cards, or at least taking the time to go around to all of their teachers and friends and tell them thank you in person, is a very important step in the transition process! The same can be done on a smaller scale with everyday transitions within the classroom. Often as teachers we are thinking ahead to the next thing and forget to stop and acknowledge the activity that is ending! Taking a minute to stop and recognize the beautiful singing they just did, or recognize the hard work students put into an assignment before moving onto the next activity can help give students closure and be more mentally prepared for the next task.

Farewells are the third part of a smooth transition. When you're moving on to a new grade or moving houses, saying goodbye is obviously important! But don't forget to think through not just the people we need to say goodbye to, but also places, things, and activities. Whether it's a favorite restaurant, toys you're leaving behind, or a child's last piano lesson, it's important to consciously say goodbye to things you won't be seeing or doing again. This component is less important in small everyday transitions, but this goes back to the first point: make sure students have enough time to anticipate transitions! They need time to process, even if it's just the end of their time playing the hand drum :)

Thinking destination is the final component of the RAFT, and it's the part that helps us move forward! Along with thinking about and addressing the people, places, and things that you're leaving, it's important to think ahead and anticipate what is coming next. Finding things to look forward to can definitely make the transition easier and a whole lot more exciting!

No matter what the transition is, all of us can benefit from being more mindful of how we approach and process them. For children, this is even more important! I hope these ideas will spark further thought for parents and teachers on how we can better support children in learning how to handle transitions with more confidence.

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