Whether you are a first-year teacher stepping into your new job or a veteran director who just wanted a change, there are several critical moments in those first few months that can make for a smooth transition or can make each day a Tums-ingesting stress-fest. Having experienced the trials and tribulations as a middle school, high school, and college director, I would be happy to help colleagues learn from my early career “learning experiences.” While this list is by no means comprehensive, it does hit upon some of the more common issues that arise in a new gig.
1. Avoid the temptation to change/fix everything RIGHT NOW!
Ray Cramer, Director of Bands Emeritus at Indiana University, always used to tell us not to change the course of the Ohio River our first year in a new place, and he was spot on with this advice. Many of us have seen the results of drastic, quick changes to band programs, and rarely do these circumstances end well. Students, colleagues, administrators, and parents need time. Even if one were to change absolutely nothing about a program, folks would still need time to adjust. Sometimes we forget this need, understandably so. We deal with unexpected issues on a daily basis–change is part of our lives, so we (band directors) expect it. However, sometimes we can forget that other people do not experience life in this way, and even the smallest change can seem like a gigantic reform. So, as you consider jumping in and making what might seem like a minor tweak in the program, take a moment to remember that there could actually be a good reason for the status quo, and in time, you may find out what that reason is. Only after having all of the information at hand can one make a truly justifiable change in a program.
Think of your communication line as a road that must be built with every new group you encounter. Yes, you can drive from A to B without a road, but you will probably get a few dents, flat tires, and you might even end up in a lake. Give enough time for a path to take shape before driving on it, so that when you do finally open up the throttle and tweak your program, the ride is much smoother!
2. DO NOT keep your plans and goals a secret!
After the road is built, use it!
I have seen situations where directors have specific ideas about what a band should be doing and how they should do it (weather or not to add marching band props, how long practices last in the evening,how many contests are best for the band, what style of concert music will be used, where the band should travel, etc.). However, when directors do not clearly articulate these goals to kids, parents, and MOST importantly, administrators, every day brings them a sense of insecurity and potential unwelcome surprises for these folks.
Some directors prefer to not keep the updates flowing because of the fear that the students/parents/principals will constantly be questioning the director’s decisions; as though a door might be opened that cannot be closed. The opposite is usually true-when people understand the waypoints you have in mind en route to the final performance, they are more likely to move with you as you make the day-to-day decisions that get them there.
Stop by and say a quick “hello” to that overly worked principal every couple of weeks…then, when you do have a special circumstance that really needs their support, they already have familiarity with you and your general direction with the group. The road is paved, and the ride is smoooooth!
Maestro Fennell used to say that conductors have a tough job. They must have armor that is strong enough to deflect the arrows, but permeable enough to let emotion and expression pass through to our students. We must both be thick- and thin-skinned, and this can be a challenge early on. Even seasoned teachers face the challenges of starting a new job, finding that when they use some of the same teaching techniques that made their previous band successful, it is suddenly less successful in the new place. This does not mean you are wrong in what you do, it just means you need MORE information. So, while some will not agree with the your decisions and may voice this disagreement in ways that can sting, remember that you can evaluate and adapt until you find the right key for the lock. It’s there, but it often takes a solid TWO years (even three) before the keys fit properly.
I have seen many, many directors take new jobs–some students embrace them immediately, some take a couple of years, and some simply never accept them. Remember this! If you try to please every person, you please nobody in the end. Besides, pleasing folks is a nice side benefit in our jobs, but we are here to educate first, and as long as you can clearly justify yourself in regards to proven educational methodology, you are moving in a good direction.
If you feel hurt by comments, know that responding with anger almost never achieves a desirable result, and frequently results in unfortunate consequences. Yes, you can feel anger, but respond to a situation after carefully evaluating what the real problem is and what you can do you to resolve it.
In other words, sit on your hands for a full minute before replying to that nasty email. Once you click send, there is no taking it back! This comes from my own hard lessons as a first- and second-year teacher. If someone is being rude or hurtful to you and your anger comes through as part of your regular educational strategy for resolving conflict, you may find yourself in a very challenging work environment.
4. Praise like it is going out of style.
The flip side of dealing with criticism is forgetting to praise when something goes well. I remember as an early teacher having to really think to remember to praise students–it takes a while to develop the skill. At first, you may have 1,000 different points of information coming at you simultaneously, so when something actually goes well, the tendency might be to move on without passing along your approval to the students. In time, young students will start to feel that anytime you stop, it is to “gripe” at them–even though we know that correcting a B-natural is not a personal attack, kids may get that impression if you are not balancing your comments.
Some folks endorse the “sandwich” approach–start with a compliment, give the criticism/problem identification, then finish with another compliment. If this works, go with it. However, I have found that it can: 1) seem artificial, 2) train students to expect something negative to follow every compliment, and 3) result in a net loss of rehearsal flow and productivity. Keep it genuine, polite, and centered on musical goals, and students will gain trust in your teaching skills.
You are new to them (but old to yourself!). While you know how you react in certain situations, every rehearsal is a new experience for the students. So, consider ways to establish trust early on. This goes back to the “learn every name as soon as possible” comment above.
I would advise against saying “trust me,” by the way. It sounds too much like a movie villain (or Han Solo, which is close.)
SHOW, don’t TELL. When you say you will be at X place at X time, be there. If you require students to perform with specific criteria, hold them to those exact criteria (no surprises, right?). If you tell them they need to have the music memorized from letters C-D to set the drill on Wednesday, you need to be sure you set that drill. Everything you say and do early on carries more weight because students do not have many experience with you yet. Make those experiences positive–engage in conversation outside of class, even if you are busy. Offer to help a student with musical or non-musical problems. Use those names! If you do not know, ASK! It is far less awkward to ask in the first week of school or band camp then to get to the spring concert and still be calling the 4th trombone player, “Hey, you…guy!”
Starting a job is exciting and challenging. I know it is tough because you will have those 1,000 different things happening all at once. But, if you can take the small steps to build the road of trust and communication, problems become more easily solved and students are eager to join you on the musical journey!