Little things I’ve learned as a first year teacher

Happy 2015!

It’s been a long, long time since a post here. I’d like to chalk it up to being so busy at my job, moving out of my parents’ house, coordinating and directing my first concert, but other things got in the way too. (Speaking of… I smell a New Year’s Resolution in the air!)

As I move into the next part of the school year, I’ve found that there are a few things that have either worked really well or, eh, not so well for me as a first year music teacher. Here’s my list so far:

1. Plan, plan, and plan some more. You really can’t plan too much (overplanning is different. I’m talking about planning for the future). If you have even a very general idea of where you want your students to be in a month or at the end of the semester, that will guide your instruction and make it more focused and purposeful.

2. Use essential questions. I’ve found that when students have specific concepts to focus on, or specific questions to answer, they feel the material is more directed. Then they’re more likely to draw connections and link material to other subjects. Not to mention these provide good closure activities.

3. Make a behavior/discipline plan and stick to it. I used Harry and Rosemary Wong’s classroom management techniques discussed in The First Days of School. After reading through the most relevant chapters (there’s so much information, but I picked what seemed most applicable to a music classroom), I made a classroom policy for each of the grades I teach with clear expectations, sequential follow-up procedures, and a logical progression of consequences.

4. Language matters. The words you choose can contribute to a classroom where students have accountability and responsibility. For example, I like what the Wongs said about the word “choice.” Students choose to break rules, to do or not do work, or to put in effort. Nothing should undeserved or unfair- it should be the result of choices students make. I’ve also written about saying “thank you” to everyone. The attitude you project should be the one you expect from your students. Young people learn by example. Lastly, I’ve found that using phrases like “You will put your papers up here when you’re done” instead of “I want your papers here when you’re done” are more effective. They call directly on the student to do something specific, whereas the latter sentence doesn’t call for students to do anything.

5. Give students a visual representation of their behavior in the classroom. One of my colleagues suggested using a marble system for the younger grades. Starting class with 5 marbles on the board and then eliminating them when a rule is broken has been very effective for me. It gets students to recognize when not all students are on task or on their best behavior. It helps them get themselves back on task rather than have me stop class to do it. After they earn a certain number of them (say, 20), they get a special day.

What other things would you add to this list?

Signs: a great and necessary way to get your messages out

Let’s face it: part of the success of a music program relies on students remembering things. Remembering instruments, remembering when their lessons are, remembering to practice, remembering when things are due.

Besides frequent verbal reminders, signs are a great and necessary way to communicate things to students. And me having my music room at the end of a long hallway away from the main entrance and other classrooms, I need a sign system.

My main goal is to communicate things to students simply but effectively. Outside my door here I’ve got a small wipe off board and three paper signs.

Outside my room

The wipe off board is a bit risky. Kids leaning on the wall can erase the writing, and I’ve had some kids deliberately erase things. Overall, I still like it because it’s a quick way to communicate a message or announcement. I used sticky tack to adhere it to the wall and it’s held up since about the second week of school. Don’t leave any markers outside your room or you’ll end up with drawings! (Fortunately, I didn’t learn that the hard way.)

My red paper sign is one that goes outside my door on Fridays. I stick it on with masking tape so it comes off and stores easily until I put it up again. Since this message is only relevant once a week, it doesn’t need to be up all the time. I don’t think signage should be overwhelming, but it should be consistent. This sign is always in the same place so kids know to look for it.

The other paper signs are in page protectors I’ve taped to the wall. Each page protector has a few signs tucked it in which get rotated to the front depending on what day or week it is. The top page protector contains signs for each of my three ensembles. They’re color coded so kids can look down the hallway, see the color, and know which ensemble meets today. That saves them a trip down to my room. The bottom sign changes every week and indicates which band lesson schedule to follow. The font is big so, again, students can peek down the hall and see it from a distance. When I come into school in the morning, I change the signs right away since they’re the first thing I encounter.

This seems to do the trick, although any teacher will always have a few students who need extra reminding. And I always try my best to remind students about rehearsals, lessons, and due dates. Still, these signs are there because a) I don’t always remember, and b) I’m not always available. Many questions can be answered by looking outside my room, which helps kids learn the value of responsibility and saves me frustration.

What does your lesson plan template look like?

How many times have you written a detailed lesson plan only to find that during the lesson you suddenly realizes that something you needed prepared isn’t prepared. Or that something you thought was an arm’s reach away is really across the room? Or an instruction you need to communicate as soon as students walk in isn’t written on the board like you had wanted?

As a new teacher, I found that this happened more than I liked during my first week. I had written a good plan with all the instructions and steps I’d need to follow. I’d used a format I’d been using in school and for a few of my previous jobs. So I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

And then my “Organizer Extraordinaire” side kicked in. The lessons themselves were fine. The physical layouts of the plans (also called the templates) were not. And that, I realized, was what was throwing me off. Just like the physical layout of a space can be counterproductive to whatever needs to be happening in the space, the design of my templates was less than optimal for maximum effectiveness.

You might be thinking, How hard could this be?

The traditional lesson plan template looks something like this:

lesson plan 2 - use


True, not all lesson plans look exactly like this. Some of these labels are ordered differently, some are renamed. Google “lesson plan template” and you’ll find several different types organized in different ways, and depending on your subject, one may be better for you than for a colleague teaching a different subject. But I find that the majority of plans list their categories vertically like this, and that is what causes me to become disorganized very quickly.

It’s got all the categories a teacher needs to consider consolidated in one place. But when I thought about it, the order of some of these made no sense to me. For example, why would a Resource list be last when that’s probably one of the first things you need to know to set up a lesson? Why would your Assessment field be separated from the Objective when the two are inextricably linked? I thought, if certain fields naturally go together, why not list them a) together, and b) side by side?

So I redesigned my template to work for me based mainly on how think and what would make me most successful as the classroom leader.

my lesson plan template


At the top is a place for my Unit name, which I never see on traditional templates. Then to the right of that is a place for me to write which classes the plan is for, and when I see them. I see two sections of each grade, and sometimes I see them broken up between two weeks. I also want to know which lesson it is in the sequence of my unit, and that may not always be the same for each section. So this layout is better for me than simply putting a date or a grade. I want to build good habits starting now, which means labeling my plans as clearly as possible.

Then I have Objective, Assessment, and Standards all in one line. An objective by definition is measurable, so I want them side by side, not on opposite ends of the plan. Additionally, each objective should address certain standards (national and/or district). When I flip through these later, I want that information at the top for easy access, and I want to see it linked with how I met that standard.

This next part is the most helpful. I split Resources between Procedures, Differentiation, and Homework because I wanted to see exactly what I needed for each step in my plan and where it should be placed. I also added Prep because some resources, well, need to be prepared. And I need to know that before starting a lesson. An isolated uncontextualized list of resources was not beneficial. This lets me see what I need for each step and how I need to prepare it. I can check off items as they’re completed, which makes me feel even more secure about the plan’s execution.

The only thing I can think of that I might add is a place for notes on how well a lesson went or on student participation and behavior. For now, I just write it in any blank space on the page.


Here’s a pdf of my template: Lesson Plan_ADifferentMusician

But I encourage you to make your own. If your district has universal templates they want you to use, talk to them about the advantages of an individualized plan. After all, what you’re really asking is for them to differentiate, which is a cornerstone of teaching. No matter what your district’s decision, an honest conversation about differentiating for teachers might encourage everyone to see things from new points of view.

Life begins!

I’ve done it!

I’m so excited to say that I have finally begun my career as a music teacher! Everyone said it would happen, and it did… five days before the first day of school!

It all came together for me in one day, what I call The Day of Three Interviews. It was that middle interview that turned into my first job offer (and funnily enough, I almost had to cancel that one to make it to my third one in time!). I am now an elementary music teacher in northwest Connecticut. And it’s going splendidly.

I didn’t think it was possible, but in this very short amount of time, I feel completely different. I have purpose now. I feel like an adult. I feel capable. Driving 55 minutes each way and coming home at 5 is fine because it’s my routine now, and I like having a routine.

I’m definitely busy. And when I’m not doing work, I’m almost always thinking about how I can make my classroom more productive and fun.

But this is it! This is my career, and I’m so excited to be a music teacher.

Up-in-the-air life? Not so much anymore.

Happy Birthday Lenny!

Today would have been the 96th birthday of my hero and musical inspiration Leonard Bernstein.


Naturally, I’d like to share something of his. Here is his November 1966 Young People’s Concert: What is a Mode? (1 of 4). Lenny explains modality so accessibly, yet with his trademark sophisticated flair. Perfect for middle schoolers and anyone else who wonders why there’s something different about Norwegian Wood or Scarborough Fair.

I’ll probably be celebrating the day by listening to his symphonies back to back, followed by a sing-along to West Side Story, and maybe peeking through IMSLP for a new score to follow.

And yes, I’m already excited for his centennial in 2018. That will be a whirlwind year of concerts and festivals, I’m sure, which I’m counting on attending.


Books in education: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

I just finished the audio book of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, by Peggy Orenstein. Confession: I have also read this book twice, and it’s sitting on a bookshelf in my sister’s room. So in short, I find it fascinating.


Amazon’s description of it reads (in part):

“Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters from infancy onward, telling them that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. Somewhere between the exhilarating rise of Girl Power in the 1990s and today, the pursuit of physical perfection has been recast as a source—the source—of female empowerment. And commercialization has spread the message faster and farther, reaching girls at ever-younger ages.

… From premature sexualization to the risk of depression to rising rates of narcissism, the potential negative impact of this new girlie-girl culture is undeniable—yet armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters’ lives.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a must-read for anyone who cares about girls, and for parents helping their daughters navigate the rocky road to adulthood.”

Orenstein herself is a mother of a young girl. She talks about her own personal battles with these issues, but also offers solutions to combat this girlie-girl culture.

One thing she doesn’t explicitly mention is how great, and probably even necessary, this book is for educators. It’s useful for anyone who is a role model for children, but is written mainly for parents or family members. Educators, too, play a formative role in a child’s life, and as a future teacher, I see her ideas from that point of view. As I listened, I made all kinds of connections to education, so I’d like to share a few with you.

First, why is this book important for educators? For one, it introduces them to this “girlie-girl” culture that pervades America. Teachers must understand the culture in which girls are growing up and participating (not all, but many), for teaching cannot and does not take place in a vacuum. The more a teacher understands about our culture, the more likely is it that she will be able to engage with her students. And two, it offers solutions to the problems this culture creates, which teachers can actually use in the classroom.

Problem #1: Girls are taught that their value as a person is linked almost exclusively to their appearance. It’s not enough for teachers to ask girls to put make-up away or stop taking selfies during class. The point isn’t to stop the action in the moment, it’s to adjust girls’ attitudes about themselves and their education for the long-term. Solution: Teachers can make a conscious effort to compliment a girl on things besides her appearance. It’s hard! Complimenting hair or clothes is a natural way for females to “grease the wheels of conversation.” But teachers should try. Compliment their good ideas, their skill, or their kindness. Make conversation about their latest read, or how band rehearsal went, or how the soccer game turned out. Focus on their abilities and inner qualities, for these are the most valuable. Teachers of younger children can set up compliment baskets for students to leave messages for their classmates. Make sure they understand that they should try to talk about more than just possessions or outward appearances.

Problem #2: Girls are earning the majority of degrees in this country, yet the numbers of females in STEM fields are declining. STEM teachers should aim to give leadership opportunities to all students, to let girls chime in during class discussions (Sheryl Sandberg says that girls are more likely to be scolded for interrupting with raising their hand than boys are), and to praise girls’ achievements to her classmates. We expect boys to do well in these fields because of cultural stereotypes. Therefore, teachers must make an effort to show no bias towards them while still including them equally. Again, this is difficult. If there are more boys in an engineering class, then of course more boys will be called on than girls. Teachers, be creative! Do a female STEM pioneer of the month corner. Get a female computer scientist to come talk to the class. Girls need to feel valued and competent in these fields from their first encounters with them, or they run the risk of dropping out.

Problem #3: Girls and boys know that pink is a girl color. This one’s more for the preschool and elementary teachers. Adults know this statement about pink isn’t true, but kids don’t. Because this is what they see wherever they go.

  boy toy aisle girl toy aisle

Boys consistently get more variety in color and type of plaything. Action figures and building sets in blue, brown, red, green, and orange! Girls are often limited to pinks, purples, and yellows, as well as playthings that don’t do much of anything. Princess dolls with brushes, lipstick, and a purse! There’s something inherently secondary about girls’ toys, or so marketers would have us believe with signs like this.

building sets

Teachers should be sure to encourage everyone to play with all the different types of toys and playthings present in the classroom. Cross-sex play should be praised to the class (“Look how nicely Susan and Eric are playing together!”). Teachers can verbally encourage girls to use different colors in their artwork. And any boy who wishes to play with a doll or a kitchen set should, of course, be allowed to, but also praised. This is also a great conversation starter (“Do you have a family member who takes care of your baby brother or cooks dinner at home?”). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pink. But it’s important for girls to know that it’s not their only option.

Problem #4: Boys and girls are not taught enough about internet etiquette and privacy. We can’t make privacy laws at a rate that keeps how with how fast technology changes (well, maybe Massachusetts can). Older adults are often befuddled by technology and aren’t in a place to teach about safe limits. And parents are not always in the know about what their children do online or on their devices. Middle school and high school teachers should raise the idea of internet etiquette, safety, and privacy to their administrators. Schools can hold in-school seminars, discuss these issues during school pride sessions, or run half-semester or half-year classes. Technology teachers can turn this into a research project. Guidance counselors can communicate their willingness to work through privacy or cyber-bullying with students and their families. Administrators can enact cyber-bullying policies.

The main thing is that these solutions need to be part of a team effort. If only a few teachers are on board with these ideas, their effect will likely not be far-reaching. In daily interactions with colleagues, teachers should bring up some of these issues. Use Peggy Orenstein as a conversation starter!

I finished this audio book in about a week, mainly listening to it on my morning or evening walks using OverDrive. It’s loaded with statistics, anecdotes, research, and a fair amount of comical writing.

Orenstein’s website is also a great place to keep up with her research and this “girlie-girl culture.”

Ambition, happiness, and honesty

My dad has has had one job his whole life: Professor. At the same school. For thirty years. He’s climbed the career ladder, published research, lectured at conferences, chaired committees, and designed successful new courses. Power to him!

That type of career trajectory, though, is becoming less and less common as millennials seek a differently fulfilling experience from a job than their parents might have. Today, young people want work-life balance, paid time off, family leave, intellectual fulfillment… basically, strong sense of belonging, being valued, and making a difference. I’m one of those young people. In order for me to live the most fulfilling life- socially, personally, mentally- I want a job that is not just something that pays the bills, not just something I have to compartmentalize, not just something to which my actual life becomes secondary.

What will that be, I wonder?

I can envision several scenarios in which I’d be very happy. I don’t mean to appear indecisive or noncommittal- that’s just how I feel. I’d love to be teaching. Traveling the world. Writing music. Attending conferences. Working to empower girls and young women. Acting as an arts consultant to local schools. Learning how to grow my own food. Becoming fluent in Italian. My interests are plenty. Why must I confine them to one career?

For many people, a career change is revitalizing, a way to unlock a higher sense of self. Many of my fellow ARC peers were mid-career adults looking to turn their life around with a new and exciting job. Others transfer their skills to new fields and entry level positions that they embrace as learning experiences. I feel like one day, that might be me. It might be in thirty years. My mom loves the idea of retiring from healthcare to work in a laundromat or bakery. Years ago, that kind of ambition might have been verboten, hardly seen as ambition at all. But anytime someone wishes to better themselves and learn something new it is ambitious.

The challenge, besides having the time and means to do everything you want, is to not appear, well, indecisive or noncommittal. For example, when someone asks you during a job interview where you see yourself in five years, it might not be the best thing to say “Hairdresser to the stars!” when the position is bank teller. Yet it might be a completely valid thought to you! Just because you may want Hollywood in five years doesn’t mean you don’t want the bank now. It doesn’t mean you’re any less serious about the bank. It just means that your personal goals are varied, that you seek fulfillment, and that you’re willing to take risks.

Would the bank want to hire someone who said “Investment banker” over you, future stylist extraordinaire? Yes, maybe. It does make sense on their end. And in all likelihood, leaving the conversation hanging with “Hairdresser to the stars!” might throw some people off.

That’s why you’ve got to own your ambition and turn it into your greatest strength. If you don’t want to be an investment banker, don’t gush on about how you do. But whatever it is you do want to be, show people how you’re working towards it, even if it’s vague right now. Show how your skills from this job or a previous job will help you get there. Show how you’re ready to make a difference where you are right now. Because it’s true!

Millennial ambition and yearning for fulfillment can turn our society’s views on what it means to be successful on their heads. It’s hard for me accept this for myself sometimes, but I know in my heart that my success is how I define it. 

Being a nurse now does not preclude you from being a teacher later. Being a nanny now does not preclude you from being a pilot later. It’ll take work, and maybe even more school. But if it’s true to you, go for it.

When I interviewed for an arts admin job in New York this summer, they asked about why I wanted to be in New York if I had just gotten Connecticut teacher certification. I said I felt called to many things, and that I thought I’d be good at this job. I was casting a wide net, I said, because I believed my skills and experiences were transferrable. And that was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had.

If you’re the kind of person who likes having a job you can leave behind at 5pm, that’s cool. And I don’t mean that’s okay. I mean, good for you. Good for you for knowing what makes you happy. If everyone was more honest about what would make them happy, we might all be better off as a result.