As another school year begins, I can’t help but think back to my first year of teaching as a middle school band director. I teach clarinet and music education at the university level now, but those early memories bring back all sorts of visceral reactions, with laughter topping the list.
I went through my undergrad studies at Florida State as a music education major, emphasizing performance, having come up through one of the finest school band programs in the country. I also never misbehaved in school. Ever. This is all well and good, but it also separates said first-year teacher from the realities of what actually happens in a normal public school on a daily basis. Mary Poppins was in for a rough ride.
The interview process was a learning experience in itself, with my favorite moment being when the inner-city school principal asked me about what my greatest weakness as a teacher was, and I said discipline. Thankfully, the very kind man didn’t burst into laughter, gave me advice about interviews, and sent me on my way.
My next stop on the interview circuit was a junior high in a small backwoods town in Florida. I was interviewed by the Assistant Principal, an ex-nun whose very appearance invoked terror in the students…and in me. She told me the band program was in chaos, that the teacher had retired after giving up on the job years ago. She wanted a fresh new teacher to bring fresh new ideas and energy to the program. I was in, God help me (and the students).
I will never forget walking into the band room that was now mine for the first time, can still smell that distinctive aroma of old, dusty instrument cases and valve oil. The place was a mess, and I had already been told horror stories about the students hiding up in the ceiling, playing racquetball in the band room, and all sorts of other activities that had nothing whatsoever to do with making music.
I came from a school band program that played Grainger, Holst, and Vaughn Williams….many of these students didn’t even know how to hold the instruments correctly, much less any of the finer points of wind band performance. I had my job cut out for me, and it was time for Mary Poppins to take off her gloves, put down the umbrella, and teach her butt off.
As suspected, my greatest challenge was just making the kids sit down in chairs and listen to me. The greatest indignity happened in the music appreciation course I had been asked to teach; one student started coughing, then another, and another…you get the picture. It was brutal. So I did what any brand-new teacher at the end of her rope would do..I called in the ex-nun Assistant Principal. There was a hush over the classroom. Well played, Mary Poppins. Well played.
The ex-nun believed in me for some reason, saw potential in me. She took me under her wing and gave me time to go observe the best teachers in the school. I invited seasoned band directors to come work with my students and asked them tons of questions. There were so many things that school hadn’t taught me. Not about the fundamentals of running a program or anything like that…but how to deal with students hiding in ceilings or having planned coughing attacks in the middle of class.
The high school band director came over with some of his students, and they proceeded to rough house. Houston, we have a problem…then the band director gave a student a ‘red belly’, which translated means he threw the kid down on the floor, pulled up his shirt and rubbed his belly hard until it turned red. Truly. This was the man I was supposed to send my students for the high school music-making capstone. I felt sick. This was made even worse when the band director started sending me flowers, trying to ‘court’ me. Could this first year get anymore challenging? (My mom said to never ask that question…she was right.)
Another seemingly insurmountable challenge- I had to get these students to march. This means they had to play and march at the same time. Junior high students. And this school didn’t just march out onto the field and play a tune- they marched a show and had dancers, majorettes, and a color guard. It was a full-blown veritable plethora of chaos. But we got through it, and the crowd cheered (pretty much guaranteed, since the audience was full of band parents…a much-needed blessing at this point).
By the end of the that first year, I was a bit bruised and battered, but I had made progress. I learned how to get them to sit down and listen so that we could get to the fun part- the music. I learned how to keep them from hiding in the ceiling, got them staying after school to practice with me. We bonded over common goals. They had always just needed someone who cared about them, and I cared. A whole lot.
I still hear from some of the students from my first year of teaching. Some are doctors, some have children (that’s always a shock, getting a picture of my students’ children in band). I learned so much about teaching that first year, and about myself…quite an eye-opening experience. Teaching is a much calmer experience now- most days. When it gets tough, I just take a spoon full of sugar…and pray that none of my students are hiding in the ceiling or giving each other red bellies.