by Tim Pipinich
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You finally made it! After four years of endless homework, projects and lectures, you’ve earned that thick diploma and the optimistic, conquer-the-world attitude that brings with it the promise of a job! In no time, you think you’ll be teaching a great band class with a long legacy of trophies and accomplishment where most of the groundwork for success has already been laid in a large city full of culture and opportunity.
Unfortunately, for most it really doesn’t work like that. After becoming licensed to teach in two states and collecting a pretty impressive collection of “thanks for your excellent resume but you have no experience so see you later” letters, I, a young, optimistic band ed grad, finally got an interview in a small town less than 100 miles away from my hometown.
So I put on the suit and tie, gathered my application materials, memorized the mission statement and important statistics for the district and headed on my way. It’s a beautiful drive but I’m not crazy about two-lane highways and there were some rather sketchy shanty towns along the way. As I arrived, this community revealed itself as a prototype for the blue collar bedroom community. On your left as you enter the town, there is a giant chemicals manufacturing company and on the right are rows of homes, many that are single story and little larger than shacks. While it is attached to the state capital, one could walk across the entire town in about ten minutes.
The interview went quite well and I was impressed with the community support of the music program but I didn’t get my hopes too high. I knew that this interview could result in another notch on the rejection letter belt.
I awoke the next morning to a phone call from the principal of this school offering me the job. I figured – I’ve got the job; my problems are all solved!
They say that the first year of teaching is all about survival, and a truer thing has never been spoken. I had the best education in college I could have ever wanted but it still felt like I was being dropped on my butt throughout the entire first year. Colleges can teach you how to teach but you never really know until you’re doing it. Seriously, I’m a music teacher – I can teach hundreds of fifth graders how to play clarinet or trumpet but I was no encyclopedia on standardized testing, interventions, common core or even task prioritization. For instance, the file cabinets were perfectly organized and I had the first day or two planned to a T but I had no plan for the following week. There is no way around the first year of teaching – the only way out is through.
The worst part is that sinking feeling of despair that maybe this isn’t what you want to be doing, that you wasted those four years in college and that you may have to start all over to do something different or be saddled with a miserable job for the rest of your life. I mean, this was supposed to be fun! Why am I so bad at this?
After a few weeks, things get better. The staff at my school was actually incredible and the administration was unbelievably supportive of the program and my professional development. In my second week, a student said to me, “a lot of students talk trash behind your back” and I took it pretty hard as that sinking feeling returned. By week six, I heard something similar and it rolled off pretty easily as I learned to take things less personally. I mean, these are middle school kids – they talk trash behind the backs of their best friends and parents; why wouldn’t they give me crap behind my back?
This experience was the beginning of an important lesson – the lives of children are very small. I didn’t say unimportant or insignificant, just small. A quick Facebook search of any of your students will result in a page with about 12 photos, 40 friends and a wall filled with messages that just say “sup?” or notify them that it’s their turn to play at Farmville. Unless they have experienced a true tragedy in their youth, their young lives encompass a very small sphere of experience in which getting grounded for a week constitutes an absolute catastrophe.
So if you’re like me and you’re in the classroom with dozens of kids… now what? Feel free to take everything in this paragraph with a grain of salt or disregard it altogether as teaching strategies differ for every person, but I was of the mind that establishing myself as an authority figure and having strong classroom management was more important even than teaching the content in the first year. After all, if they don’t listen or care about what you’re teaching, then they won’t learn anyway. The first order of business is establishing clear, consistent procedures and expectations concerning rules, consequences, expectations and of course when to be silent for the teacher. Canter’s Assertive Discipline model and the ideas from Wong’s The First Days of School book were very helpful here- basically, they need to be clearly posted in several places in the classroom, easy to understand and consistently enforced. This has evolved over the years, but my current table of expectations aligned with my school’s universal expectations can be viewed below. This would not be appropriate for all age levels, but it’s been great for grades 5-8:
Well, I beat the first year (you don’t just finish the first year, you beat it. Or you lose, but I don’t know anything about that) and started the second year with a real spring in my step. Never again would I have to repeat the first year and now that I made my mistakes, I knew everything and this year was going to be totally different. To be fair, year two was better and I had learned a lot from my mistakes, but it was another eye-opener and not always in a good way.
To better serve my students and my professional growth, I embarked on a mentorship experience with the teacher that had my job three or four people before me. She had 30+ years of experience, almost 20 of which were at my school and she was an ex-nun that left the church in a dramatic fashion to be a teacher. Needless to say, she was very intense and pretty intimidating to me despite being half my size; she more than made up for it in personality and spunk. After observing a few of my classes, she raised a magnifying glass to all of my flaws and filled sheets of paper with points where I was inefficient or ineffective. I had felt like year two was going way better, and this was like being told halfway through, “just kidding, you’re still terrible.” And you know what the worst part is? She was right. My classroom management was excellent but my standards for their achievement were not high enough and I kept moving on before important concepts were mastered. Most of my mentor’s recommendations had to do with staying at work until 6PM and doing emails and phone calls at home until I went to bed and I didn’t feel the willpower or desire to do that.
After beating myself up pretty hard for a few weeks, I took what I needed from that experience and I found a rhythm to it that best suited me. Basically, year two was “okay, your classroom management is solid but now you really need to teach the content in the most efficient, sensible and age-appropriate way possible.” This really boils down to for every day, every class period you need to have a plan. Teaching on the fly is only successful for so long and without a tangible, long-term goal in mind, you’re building your house on sand. Try to start and end every day with a moment where kids are successful so that they don’t walk out of your class feeling like a disappointment or a failure. In an elective class like Band, you need to maintain high standards but you also need for students to feel like you know what you’re doing and that they are appreciated and successful or they will simply quit on you. Each class period also needs a small goal that can be achieved each day that allows for repetition and a back-up plan in case things go awry. For a music teacher, this could be “work on the note accuracy and dynamic contrast on the melody of concert piece A, including the legato section at measure 43 for the flutes.” Don’t try to do everything all in one day because you can’t get there without putting in the work and chipping away at the stone.
With these skills practiced, the end of year two was very successful. The final concert of that year was excellent, and I didn’t even need to stay at school every night until 6PM.
Bring it on, year three.
There’s not as much to tell about year three because it was by and large fantastic. The older students who had had several different music teachers had graduated and those who remained knew me and my teaching style and personality; they were on board and it finally seemed like my program.
It also helped that my personal life was much more intact. In fact, the woman who would become my fiancé moved from two states away to be with me the summer before that year and I’m firmly convinced that her presence helped bring the purpose and drive to my life that made my professional life more successful. I think that’s one of the most important things I learned in the last three years: teaching is the greatest job I can imagine but there’s more to life too. I look forward to spending time with my wife, having kids and pets and actually being with them. You really can go home at 4PM and have a personal life with relationships and hobbies and still be successful in your career.
As I begin year four, it is truly incredible to see how such a community can be so supportive and welcoming of music in the schools when the population could clearly be worrying about more pressing issues. But despite any possible lack of education or wealth, this community still understands the transformative power of music and its ability to show you things beyond your basic needs; this community realizes that music and the arts are basic needs. I’m now at a point where I know that I am good at my job and I have a great day at work almost every day. My colleagues really appreciate what I do and I was granted tenure this year. I know I still have more to learn, but I know that I’m taking the right steps. The sinking feeling of despair is completely gone and I can’t imagine a better, nobler job for me. The only way out was through, and it was completely worth it. Bring it on year four, year five, year ten, year twenty. I finally made it.
Tim Pipinich was born and raised in Bozeman, Montana. He attended Concordia College in Moorhead, MN where he graduated and received his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education in 2010. He is currently beginning his fourth year teaching Band in East Helena, MT.