Wednesday, March 17, 2010
The Middle School Band - They Can Sense Your Fear
Without qualification, I can state with a clear conscience that I love teaching middle school. It's not an easy thing to love. It is an acquired taste. If you choose to read further, I consider that permission, based on my love of this part of my job, to consider myself successful at it. Maybe you'd allow me this even if only for poetic license. In my first job, one of my colleagues, a brilliant if not hauntingly cynical teacher, had this (I hope) tongue-in cheek theory about middle schools: "Get rid of them! Close every one of them. When a student completes fifth grade, he or she will be handed an ax and sent into the woods for three years, unsupervised, to cut firewood for society. When they emerge, they will be more emotionally, physically, and probably academically better prepared for high school than middle schools ever would have made them. Will they kill each other out there? Yes, they might. As sad as that is, we must no longer shelter these students from eventual natural selection by protecting them in the halls of our middle schools. Concerned that the 'best and the brightest' of our students might not survive the three-year pre-pubescent ax fight? They probably won't, and the atom will go unsplit, and missiles not built, and the globe will be unwarmed, and our species will go on: a race of strong mediocre humans." Funny stuff, but there is something about middle schools that make more than just this guy feel that way. I don't think one has to. Not everyone who teaches middle school band loves it. Among those, maybe there are some that never will, or ever could. I think there are plenty that should, can, and hopefully will learn to love it. If you just can't make that leap, then please consider an alternative (and likely for more lucrative) way to be miserable in your career. There is too much at stake for you to show up and collect a paycheck for souring a generation of students right out of music. Step One: Release the notion that this a stepping stone to a better job. Kids deserve committed teachers, who are there for them. I am certain they can tell when they don't have that from you. Whatever your ambitions, you are their teacher. You are their music. Be their leader. This they will respect. Embrace all the wonderful things about being part of their musical growth. Step Two: Understand and respect them. Middle school kids are neither caterpillars nor butterflies. They range in age from 11 to 14, but they look like they span the ages of 8 to 33. They are bombarded with stimulus, hormones, and pressures like never before in their lives. They are trying to establish themselves socially. They are experimenting with their independence. They can appear disrespectful, disengaged, disinterested. They can be hyperactive and out of control. I dismiss most of this as their being distracted. Their need to impress each other, look cool, stand out, not stand out, will all once in a while overtake their ability to focus and achieve. Telling them that they are lazy, disrespectful, or uncommitted is not only ineffective and counter-productive, its just not accurate, not at first anyway. Show them enough of that sort of contempt, and they will fall right into your assessment of them. You will lose them. You have very little to lose by reminding yourself that they are a distracted group of young musicians who genuinely want to be good, and want you to show them how. Step Three: Decide that you are not giving up on them, ever. Tell them that, especially when things are getting rough. "Folks, I know we can do this, and I am not giving up on you." I have that line chambered for those moments when I am beginning to feel frustrated. The message is clear yet positive: they are falling short of your expectations, and you have faith that they can meet them. I feel like that invites them along into my struggle. It not only pulls them along, it pulls me. Step Four: Don't underestimate them. Find that piece that might be just out of their reach, hand it out, and expect success. It's a form of trust in them that they will pick up on, and to which they will respond. As I think back on my career, I have way too more "that was too easy" thoughts than that of "that was too hard". Step Five: Be calm and candid. They will mess up. They're middle school kids. They need to be empowered to mess up once in a while, or they will not be willing to take risks with you. Wrong notes are not meant a a personal attack. Tell them what you expect, praise their earnest progress towards meeting them. Let them know when they do not meet those expectations, but do not take it personally when they don't. Most of the time they don't mean it personally, and even if they do, it's not really in your interest to let them know they've succeeded. They are kids. We are paid not to be. Step Six: Don't buy too hard into the idea of the fact that you are a 'feeder system' for the high school band. I do get it, I promise. I know that the product, the performance, is a huge part of the public face of our music departments, and that without good preparation from the middle schools, the high school band will have a harder time putting out a quality product. I think that the same level of performance can be achieved if we as middle school teachers work toward preparing our students to learn, not just perform. The Spanish teachers in our middle schools are not trying to develop a base of students that will make the high school Spanish department look good, they are trying to give their students the best experience in Spanish they can. It's a subtle but important distinction, and I contend that the quality of teaching improves to the extend that they are our students, and not the high school's prospects. If you teach middle school kids, savor the privilege to be such an important part of their lives at such an important time in their lives. You will probably never be forgotten, for better of for worse. There are three teachers, all career middle school band directors, all very different whom I admire greatly. When I am ever tempted to take this responsibity lightly I think of those three, and try minimize my differences from them. Contrary to what my cynical friend suggests, middle school is an extraordinarily important time. They are in a cocoon, finding who they are to become as adults. For many of them, being a musician and sharing that experience with peers is a huge part of that. If you even bother to read these remarks, I think there is a good chance you were on of those kids.