Music With Mrs. Tanenblatt

Monday, October 5, 2015

Advice for a Struggling New Teacher

Over the weekend, one of my best friends from college reached out to me on behalf of someone I've never met. This friend of hers is in her first year of teaching and is having a lot of trouble with managing the behaviors of her middle school music students. I wrote this up for her and figured it might help someone else who is having behavior issues at this point in the year. So I've posted it here in the hopes that someone may find it useful....

I have been in some schools where the older students (fifth grade in particular) had really bad behavior. One thing that I've learned from behavior specialists is to remember that MOST of your students are not acting out on purpose.

In general, think of it like a pyramid:

At the bottom of the pyramid, 60-70% of your students, are intrinsically wired to WANT to please you and they genuinely WANT to do well in class.

The middle section is about 20-30% of kids, who are generally well-behaved but can be swayed easily by "ringleaders" who are acting up. They might also just make mistakes because kids are people too and nobody's perfect.

Then there's the top tier, 10-15% of kids who have more serious behavior issues. These kids may need individualized interventions, such as frequent 1-on-1 reminders to stay on task, check-ins with the guidance counselor, or a behavior chart to stay focused.

For that top tier, a few things to remember:

-QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally
 Students who have severe behavior issues are usually acting up because of things outside of your control... factors at home, issues going on with their friends/peer group, a negative experience with a previous teacher, etc. Remember that no matter what, they are children and they need to be loved. You should never take their bad behavior personally.

If they are teasing you or making fun of you, it's most likely because they want to get a reaction out of you. They are looking for attention, and for many of them, they have learned that the quickest way to get an adult's attention is to act a fool. Try your best to keep an even keel, especially when your top "ringleaders" are misbehaving. If they see that they won't get a reaction out of you, they will eventually stop trying.

-Use redirection strategies
Use things like proximity and name-dropping first to try and redirect the bad behavior. If that doesn't work, try a PRIVATE conversation 1-on-1 to redirect the bad behavior. Kids want to save face in front of their peers so if you call them out publicly for their misbehavior, that will only embarrass them and probably lead to a bigger blowup.

-That being said, you do need to establish consequences
Follow through with them consistently and without emotion. If your rule is 3 strikes = phone call home to parents, you'd better make sure you follow through with that. If calling home doesn't make a difference with that particular student, try to find another consequence that will have an impact. Loss of social time at lunch? You can talk to their homeroom/other veteran teachers at your school to get ideas of what might work best with your particular students.

-Be proactive with your top tier students 
Use the students in examples, ask them to be classroom helpers, send them to another classroom to give a teacher a note... anything that you can do to show them that you value their presence and want them to be a part of the community. If you can take time to have a lunch bunch with some of them, you can get to know what they're interested in learning about and tailor your lessons to get them interested and engaged.

-Never raise your voice 
Kids will tune it out and you will only end up hurting yourself. Wait for the group to be silent before trying to give instructions. If a student misbehaves, never yell at him/her. My kids know that when my voice gets really quiet, I am NOT happy.

-Give clear directions 
When you plan your lessons, try and think of them from a student's perspective. If you say "read this rhythm" will they understand that what you really mean is to speak it on syllables and clap it? Be explicit in your directions and leave nothing to chance. If you leave a direction open for interpretation, kids will try and argue about it. "But Miss, you never SAID I couldn't run across the room and talk to my friend."

-Be consistent! 
I know I said this already, but it is so important. If your rule is everyone enters the class quietly, then follow through with that. If they talk on their way in the door, send them back out to the hallway to try again. Be relentless. Eventually they will get tired of the back-and-forth and will comply with you. You are the adult the room. Don't forget that.

For the rest of your students...

For the rest of them, I recommend that you take a step back and try to really figure out where the behavior is stemming from. If there's several ringleaders in the class who are throwing the rest off, make sure they are seated far away from each other and in a place where they won't get the attention of the rest of the group. (Planned ignoring of those kids can also be an effective strategy, as long as the rest of the class understands that you are ignoring bad behavior and they don't see it as an invitation to join in the behavior.)

I know from experience how discouraging it can be when you are standing in front of a class and it feels like NO ONE is listening to you. I also know that the hardest thing to do as a new teacher is to try and get a class back once it's gotten that bad. My first year, I had a fifth grade class whose behavior was so poor that even my bottom tier, 60% kids, were talking and not listening to me.

The thing to remember is that most kids are not doing that because they are trying to be bad. They might simply do not know what it is that you expect them to do. Many times, even after we as teachers think that we've made it clear what our expectations for behavior are, the kids still don't get it until they've practiced the correct routines and gotten positive feedback from you.

To start with, I'd recommend rewarding the good behavior that you are seeing. Immediate positive feedback works best. "[student name], I like how you entered the classroom quietly." You can establish a class incentive... Some teachers accumulate marbles in a jar and add a marble every time the class is focused and behaving well.

The one that I do is a sticker chart... when the class has a good day with their behavior, they earn a sticker on their chart, and after earning 10 stickers they get a "free" music day where we do line dances like the cha-cha slide or whip/nae-nae. One that might work for you since you're on a cart would be to try to spell the word "MUSIC" one letter at a time. Any time you see good behavior, you put a letter on the board. If they earn all five letters during a class period, maybe they get to watch a fun music video on youtube at the end of class.

I also have a deal with my classes that if MOST people are making good choices and it's just 1 or 2 kids misbehaving, I will let the class earn their sticker for the day, but when it's time for the reward, those 1 or 2 kids will simply have to do an alternate assignment while everyone else has their "fun" day.

Speaking of doing fun stuff in class, I think it's especially important to show the students that what we're teaching is relevant to their lives. If they feel that the subject is personally significant to them, they are more likely to "buy in" and listen to what you are talking about. I know that as a classically trained musician, I sometimes feel outside of my comfort zone teaching hip-hop or rap music in my classroom. But that's ok! Let the kids know that you are interested in learning more about their music and you'd be surprised what they can teach you. Try and add body percussion and opportunities to be creative into your lessons. I think the kids will surprise you with what they can do if they feel personally invested in the music-making.

I've definitely tried to teach lessons where the kids would not stop talking, and I came to realize that their behavior was a good way for me to reevaluate my teaching methods. Am I presenting the information in an engaging way? Am I incorporating technology? Giving kids time to talk about the information and work in groups? Am I breaking up my information into 5-6 minute chunks to make it easier to understand? Am I presenting the information visually, aurally, and kinesthetically? Am I providing movement breaks? Even big kids need to get up and move around in every class.

I hope that some of this information is helpful to you. It takes time, but it gets easier.

For now, if you still have a bunch of kids who are misbehaving and just a small handful who are following directions, start with the ones you've got. Just teach something really fun and interesting to that handful of kids. Once the rest of the class sees that what you're doing is worthwhile, they'll catch on and will want to please you.

You also might want to have a "come to Jesus" talk with them and re-establish your rules. Take a class period to do this and invite an administrator into the discussion, if you'd like. Tell them that you have not been happy with the way the class is going this year and you want to turn things around now. Give them something to work towards... i.e. if their behavior improves, they can do a fun music composition project on garageband or something.

Invite the students to come up with a behavior contract with rules that they all agree on. Have them sign it, send it home to parents... show them that you care about music class and you expect them to care about it, too.

And finally, some tips for self-care:

Teaching is HARD work, but it's important work and the kids are so much better for having you there.

It is so important for you to find a support system. A buddy teacher in the school that you can talk to when you need to vent after a rough class. Or an advisor, if you are lucky enough to have one. Are you a member of the "Music Teachers" facebook group? It's got thousands of members and there is always someone willing to answer your questions or suggest teaching strategies.

Cultivate hobbies outside of school. Something fun that's just for you, not teaching related or music related. As much as you can, leave work at work and enjoy your home life at home.

Reflect on the positive things that are happening in your classroom. Even if the best thing that happened in your class was that one kid said hi to you, write it down. You are your worst critic and chances are that things are not as bad as they seem. Once I started my teaching blog, I saw how many great things were going on in my classes and it completely changed my outlook. Try and hold on to the good things that happen every day.

And last, but not least...

DO NOT GIVE UP! It will get better.


  1. This is some great advice! Thanks for sharing! #FermataFriday

  2. Such great advice here, and I know many new teachers will be encouraged and find great practical tips from this post! I agree with absolutely everything you said here. Thanks so much for sharing- I will definitely direct new teachers to your post, whether they teach music or not! #fermatafridays