Nothing encapsulates the type of learning that goes on in your first year of teaching like Thomas Edison’s quote. It popped into my head when I read the following comment from a reader (when asked what the next blog post should be about):
How to recognize if you’re just drowning because it’s your first year, or because you’re in an unsupportive district/community, or because elementary is not the right fit for you (lots of inner turmoil going on…)
Dear anonymous teacher,
If only you knew how many have stood in the same place as you, perhaps you wouldn’t feel so alone. You may think you’re learning nothing, but that’s not true (no matter how many times it plays on repeat in your head). Even if every single lesson fails for the entire year, you’ve learned something. You’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. As long as you’re open to that, you’re going to be just fine, whether you choose to remain as an elementary music teacher or not. I promise.
I can’t speak for every teacher’s experience in their first year, but I can share my own. Perhaps my story will help you to sort out some of that inner turmoil going on.
I started my first job at a school in which the principal told me that the former music teacher’s curriculum consisted of a copy of the state music standards, which meant that I would be responsible for developing my own curriculum. Considering I’d originally planned to be a band teacher, this seemed an insurmountable task. I was also told that I needed to put on a music program for every grade level (K-4) every year. In addition, I was the assistant high school band director and co-teacher for the summer band program. In this same year, our school began its march toward Title One status, which meant that over 50% of our students were on the reduced or free lunch program. Despite all of the responsibilities and challenges, I was lucky to have found a job in a school with a great reputation, surrounded by a community that valued the arts and was locally-minded. Plus, it was the school in which I’d student-taught, so I had a feel for what was expected from the music program and from me.
I remember clearly the first time a group of students walked into my classroom. I was a nervous wreck, and I’d been a nervous wreck since the night before. If I did manage to sleep that night, it wasn’t anything that resembled restful. The students had no idea just how sleep-deprived and worried I was. Somehow, I managed to make a good impression that day and the rest of the week. The months dragged on in this same manner, but I rarely felt confident in any of my teaching abilities. I tried my best not to relive teaching mistakes over and over again in my head. I failed at this often. The nervousness never completely went away that year, but I became more comfortable in my surroundings and in my new role as a member of the community. Admittedly, I never did learn how to embrace the attention I received as a music teacher in a small town. I would’ve preferred to stay in the background, but that’s just my introversion talking (as it rarely does).
If I could change only one thing about that first year, I would’ve changed my priorities. I would’ve realized that the musical concepts I was teaching were not as important as my relationship with the students. From the outside, my classroom management looked stellar, but it was missing what I now consider to be the most important component of teaching; a solid relationship with students built on humor, trust, kindness, and compassionate consistency. I was too unbending that first year, and because of it, I missed out on a lot of teachable moments for myself and for my students. In the end, I believe students remember their teachers more for who they were, than the lessons they taught. Through those relationships, students are inspired to be lifelong learners, and maybe even lifelong musicians.
Looking back, that first year was not my best, but I grew. I learned how to fight for music education at every opportunity, how to say no when I was overwhelmed, and how to always put my students’ needs before my own. I cannot say whether what you’re experiencing is typical of a first-year teacher, but I can say that your current mindset is helping you more than you know.
You will make it. And on those days where you feel as though every action you take fails, just know that you have my support, and likely the support of every single music teacher reading this right now. We are here. You are not alone.
P.S. If you would like to leave some words of advice and/or encouragement to this anonymous reader, please feel free to do so in the comments section. Let’s all show this music teacher just how amazing our community is!