12 Tips For New Music Teachers

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Are you a new music teacher feeling overwhelmed? 

Would you like some refresher tips to help you get a better handle on teaching music?

You’re not alone. 

Even as an experienced music teacher and mentor to other music teachers, I need tips and rejuvenating others’ advice. 

Teaching is a tough job, and it’s exhausting. But it’s rewarding! 

I’m often asked by student teachers and pre-professional teachers for the advice I’d give to new teachers. 

Here are the ## tips for new music teachers I hand out regularly with this in mind. 

The tips for new music teachers cover a variety of areas. Useful tips help teachers set boundaries in the classroom, organize their plans, avoid teacher burnout, and prevent simple mistakes from slowing the learning down. 

Check out these tips below. 

12 Tips For New Music Teachers

These are 12 tips I’ve pulled from over the years to help me when I first got started and help other new music teachers. 

#1 Give Yourself Grace

This is the biggest one. 

Yes, everyone wants to be the best music teacher ever and change every single student’s life. 

It’s not going to happen. 

Not right away. Not ever. 

Your first year will be tough. 

No amount of experience replaces what being in charge of a classroom entirely on your own does for you. 

Give yourself room to grow. 

Accept that you’ll make mistakes. 

Teachers with decades of experience make mistakes all the time. 

What’s the difference?

They’ve learned to avoid the big ones, and they’ve learned to accept themselves. 

Set your goals. Make a plan. 

But be willing to let the plan change. 

Be willing to let yourself fail and learn from it. 

If we want our students to be OK with failure and learn from it, why can’t we?

You’ll be just fine if you let yourself. 

#2 Do Your Planning

This one catches a lot of people off guard. 

When you’re in charge, it’s a free feeling to think: 

I don’t need to write lesson plans anymore. I’ll teach what I want to.

This was me, and I bet it’s a lot of people. 

I planned what I wanted to do, but I didn’t write it down. 

I didn’t think about the parts of the lessons. 

As a result, I’d forget what I wanted in the heat of the moment or end up with lessons that were too short. 

Using whatever lesson plan format works for you, I encourage you to make sure you write down what you’re doing and what your goals are. 

Be specific without taking hours to write lessons. 

This will let you get your mind out of your head and into what the students are doing. 

#3 …But Don’t Stick To Them Religiously

All this being said, don’t be afraid to let the plans go during the lesson. 

If the students are engaged with one part, let them and you enjoy that. 

It helps with building bonds. 

If you get off track with a story or sharing something, go for it. 

Often, the most powerful moments in a lesson are never written down. 

But without plans, you won’t provide an environment for these special moments to arise. 

It’s a tricky balance, but one to keep in mind as you teach. 

If I had to pick one for all teachers, though, I’d err on the side of planning. 

It’s the worst feeling in the world when you look at the clock and realize you don’t know what to do. 

#4 Repetition Is OK

Many new music teachers get caught up in the belief that every lesson has to be unique. 

It doesn’t! 

Kids love and learn through repetition. 

Over a year, you may redo songs and activities anywhere between 3-5 times or more! 

Repetition makes the teaching and planning easier for you, and it helps the information and concepts to sink in with the students. 

If you feel bored with the song, though, consider adding in twists or challenges. 

Have them try to beat you in whatever game you’re playing. 

Try singing/playing at different tempi or dynamics.

Switch the song from major to minor or vice versa. 

Ask students to create their twist on the game. 

All these things make the song feel fresh and keep it interesting. 

#5 Take Time For Yourself, Do Things You Enjoy

When you’re a new music teacher, it’s easy to let the job take over your whole life. 

Don’t. 

Your life shouldn’t be your job. The job is a part of your life. 

Letting it become everything you are and do (no matter how much you like it) will cause burnout so fast. 

I fell for this trap. 

In my first years, I was a new dad and all about teaching. Between the two, I left no time for myself. 

I was exhausted for years, and even developed some health issues as a result of the stress. 

Now, I segment my time. I find things that make me happy separate from my jobs. 

Teaching may seem like a colossal job (it is), but you need to find ways to smile and enjoy your life outside your job. 

If all you are teaching and have a terrible day at work, all you have left is a bad day. 

If you learn to segment, the lousy day stays at school (mostly), and you can still enjoy things.  

#6 Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

There are a million different things music teachers need to keep track of and are supposed to know. 

There is no hard and fast checklist because it depends on each school. 

It may seem like every other teacher in your district has a handle on everything, but they don’t. 

You don’t have to either. 

Ask questions. Ask for help. 

All teachers had a first year, and it was stressful. 

We all want to help you. 

Reach out to teachers at your school. Reach out to your old professors. 

Ask other music teacher friends. 

Don’t be ashamed not to have the answers. 

It’s a wise person who accepts when they don’t know something and they need help. 

#7 Set A Behavior Management Plan And Follow Through

Behavior is the trickiest part for all teachers, but especially for new ones. 

What do you do?

There is no clear answer, and I remembered getting so irritated with my professors when they wouldn’t give me an answer. 

Part of it depends on who you are as a teacher. 

The other part depends on your school culture and administrator. 

Here’s my advice: 

  1. Follow the plan your school uses. It’ll make transitioning to music more comfortable. 
  2. When you develop your style, be clear about expectations and consequences. 
  3. When misbehavior occurs, take your emotion out of it as much as possible and stick to the plan. 
  4. Be consistent. React and redirect every time an undesirable behavior happens. 
  5. Don’t be afraid to reteach correct behaviors even at the cost of learning time. 
  6. Never, ever, never, ever get into a power struggle with a student. You’ve both lost if you do. 
  7. Always follow through with the promise of a consequence—every time.  

#8 Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

Yes, music teachers are well-known for customizing and inventing lessons for their kids. 

You probably want to do this too. 

Go for it, but realize: 

You don’t have to do this all the time. 

Take lessons from books and online. 

Visit the general music songs and lessons tab above to see examples of what to teach. 

Give yourself the chance to focus on relationships and experience. 

Steal what everyone else is doing. 

Go ahead. We give you permission. 

You probably took over for another music teacher in your district. 

Do what they did. Use their materials and their plan. 

Even if it’s not what you want precisely, using it will make your life a little easier. 

As you go, you’ll get more comfortable with adapting and creating your lessons too. 

#9 Know It Gets Better

Your first year is the most challenging year for teaching. 

Except for the 2020-2021 year. That’s the hardest for everyone.

It does get better. 

You will learn and grow. 

You’re not alone.  

#10 Communicate With Your Administration

Be open with your admin. 

Go to them for questions. Set up times to run ideas by them. 

They know what it’s like in your first year too, and they want you to succeed. 

They probably hired you after all. 

It’s easy to feel like the admin is out to “get you,” but it’s not like that. 

They have a lot on their plates, but communicating through email and giving them heads up on things that happen in your classroom creates an open door policy between you two and removes a lot of the mystery. 

#11 Befriend Your Secretary And Custodian

This one is time-honored and obvious. 

If the principal is in charge of the school, the secretary runs it, and the custodian knows how it works. 

Make friends with them, at least on a professional level. 

Come concert time, you’ll need a lot of help from them (often unpaid on their part), and they make your lives so much easier or harder depending on your relationship. 

#12 Free Yourself From Judgement 

The only one judging you is you. 

Instead of trying to reach some crazy goal, settle for just being the best you can. 

At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with the job and choices. 

Everyone else has their plate full of their problems and job. They’re not worried about you. 

And those that are, who cares? Those are the people you don’t want to care about anyway. 

You’re already a great teacher because you chose to be one. 

Now go be one! 

The ABCs For First Year Teachers

I remember when these ABCs were first shared with me in college. I took them to heart, but they didn’t stick. 

It wasn’t until midway through my first year teaching I saw these again, and they started to hit home. 

Even if you aren’t thinking of these right now, tuck them away somewhere to look over time. 

  • Admit your mistakes — and learn from them. 
  • Be firm but flexible. 
  • Communicate with parents. 
  • Develop a homework policy — and stick to it. 
  • Empower your students; don’t just lecture to them. 
  • Find time to attend after-school events. 
  • Get to know all the teachers in your school and make friends with the cooks, custodians, aides, and secretaries. 
  • Have the courage to try something else if what you’re doing isn’t working. 
  • Institute a clear discipline policy — and enforce it consistently. 
  • Just listen — both to what the kids are saying and to what they’re not saying. 
  • Keep a journal. 
  • Learn your school’s policies and procedures. 
  • Model desired attitudes and behavior. 
  • Non carborundum ignorami. (Don’t let the imbeciles wear you down.)  
  • Overplan. 
  • Prepare interesting lessons. 
  • Quit worrying and just do your best. 
  • Remember that you teach students first, then you teach whatever academic discipline you learned. 
  • Stay alert. 
  • Take pictures. 
  • Understand that the learning process involves everyone — teachers, students, colleagues, and parents — and get everyone involved. 
  • Volunteer to share projects and ideas, and don’t be afraid to ask others to share their ideas with you. 
  • Work within your limits. 
  • Xpect the unexpected — and plan for it! Yell if you need support. 
  • Zero in on your strengths, not your weaknesses. (Remember — nobody’s perfect!)

These ABCs come from Education World and are not original to me. 

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoy these 12 tips for new music teachers. 

I heard many of these myself when I first started, and now these are the ones I share with others who are starting their music teaching career. 

It’s a lot at first, especially if you’re starting in the 2020-2021 year, but it will get better. 

Give yourself the grace to discover the teacher you are. 

Try to relax and enjoy the ride. 

Your life will change, and you’ll change the lives of others. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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