How to Start The School Year Strong For Music Teachers
How you start the school year as a music teacher is something that can set the tone for the rest of the year. Admittedly, that might sound stressful. Especially if you are meeting new students or starting a new job, there's probably a lot on your mind. So in this post, I want to simplify a few key ideas for you to help you start the year right!
In this post, we’ll talk about 3 key ideas to help you start your year... and 2 things to avoid.
P.S. Did you know I have a YouTube channel where I do music teacher toolbox chats about topics like this? If you're not connected with me there, make sure you subscribe to learn more meaningful elementary music strategies!
We're going to focus on centering students, which may sound obvious.
But let me share a story of how I did the exact opposite, thinking it was the right thing to do...
The biggest mistake I made beginning the school year was my first day of school at my first job. Into my room walked about twenty 8th graders, and I was more than a little intimidated. But I also felt a bit more confident about what I had planned: laying out all the rules, procedures, and consequences. I needed to establish my teacher-ness, and this was surely the best way. Plus that’s what a certain book said to do, so how could I go wrong?
First of all, looking back and picturing myself in my students’ shoes, this was not an inspiring or fun class. I didn’t hype my students up or show them who I was.
Second of all, the fact that I don’t remember what we did musically that day is very telling.
Since then, I’ve had many first weeks of school in different jobs with all different age groups. I know what works and what doesn’t. Mostly importantly, I’ve now learned how to center students in beginning the school year. And that’s what I’m here to share with you!
Without further ado...
My 3 big key ideas as I start the year?
Let's break those down into actionable strategies!
Don't be me and lecture kids on rules on the first day. This might be counter to things you've read or been advised. And true, you know your students best. Later, we'll talk about about teaching rules and procedures in a more natural way, leaving you room to do what you to best: make music with kids!
How to start?
When they walk in, have music playing for them!
I do this with a small Bluetooth speaker and a playlist I control from my phone, and that easy set up has been a game changer. Some favorites are: September (Earth, Wind, and Fire), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell), Better When I’m Dancin’ (Meghan Trainor), and Best of My Love (The Emotions). These are all songs I’d use with K-4, and they’re great because they all are catchy, fun, and have great choruses that you can add simple movements to for students to follow.
Students who don’t know you will follow your lead regarding entering the room. Maybe you dance them in, or greet them at the door as they find seats. If students are talking, giggling, or seemingly confused, that’s okay! Especially on the first day, that isn’t necessarily the time to “correct” natural responses like this. Your students will learn the expectations soon enough. Coming into the room the first few time should prioritize strong energy from you, and a great piece of music will help!
You can take this further than simply listening. Lead students in movement, from beat keeping to more complicated patterns or rhythms, depending on your students' ages. I generally say nothing while I do this unless kids look genuinely confused. A quick prompt- “Can you match me?”- is usually all they need.
When I stop the song, we briefly name some words about how it made us feel, or do a turn and talk. Stopping without some kind of debrief can be kind of like shaking a can of soda and then not expecting it to explode. The music was fun! They just moved around! Open the cap slowly and let them share some thoughts. Let them know that what they think matters!
Manipulatives and Instruments
In the first few weeks of school, I also like to start kids using scarves and simple percussion instruments like rhythm sticks or shakers. The sooner they begin using materials, the sooner they can begin to practice musicianship skills and learn our procedures (more on those later).
Put yourself in your kids’ shoes for a moment. In your days as a student in music class, what were some of the most memorable times? Why? It was probably days when you and your peers were directly centered in the learning through active music-making.
Starting small with scarf movement matching activities, singing with puppets, or echoing patterns on instruments is a great way for kids to dip their toes into the water. There’s nothing too complicated, but it’s still active for them.
I want kids to know that in this class, we are not always sitting down. We are standing, moving, and dancing! This isn't just a big part of music ed, it's also healthy and energizing.
We talked about moving to music above, but making some kind of simple dance or move-it a part of your daily routine is a great way to build structure. It can be the opening or the cool down. It can be teacher-led or student-led (think improvisation or turning the learned motions over to student leaders).
Even listening can be active in more ways than just through listening. Asking students to raise their hands, or sit or stand, when the music changes in some way combines listening and moving. Similarly, using different colored scarves for musical opposites is listening, movement, and coordination.
If you're more dance-inclined, having a folk dance of the month that can be repeated is another routine that has another cool result: students can see themselves improving week after week.
Beginning the year with a simple dance (Los Machetes, Sasha, 7 Jumps) helps kids feel successful right away, too. Especially in higher grades, music students can get into a habits of thinking that they just "aren't musical" or "don't have talent." It doesn't help that culturally, we often link being musical with innate talent. No, no, and no! Like any subject area, practice makes progress.
Prioritizing being yourself
For some reason, it's so much easier for me to be myself around kids than around adults. But for a long time, I didn't realize that. I think I was caught up in the mentality of needing to prove my teacher-ness. As a result, I let my sense of humor and kind but firm demeanor stay hidden.
Whatever makes you YOU is something I know kids want to see!
Think back to your favorite teachers and why they were your favorites. I bet part of it is their personality and way they made you feel.
Guess what? You have the ability to be that teacher, too!
Being in charge of the classroom and showing authenticity are not mutually exclusive. And while you can't just go all Daniel Hillard in your classroom while kids boogie to Jump Around, you CAN be more Mary Poppins by setting boundaries while lending your own sense of whimsy. (Fun fact about me: I'd describe my teaching style and personality as a mix between Robin Williams and Mary Poppins!)
So don’t be afraid to let your personality traits shine through. I am a firm teacher, but I have a sense of humor that really clicks with young kids. If I can make my students laugh, that’s a great connection.
You might be a story teller, and that might be your way of connecting with kids. Or you might do a series of goofy call-and-responses as transitions. But be you!
Modeling genuine self-expression is so important to kids. It helps them feel welcome and appreciated. And who knows? There may be a kid who thinks they're awkward, when in fact they just need to know that it's okay to be genuine. Teachers can send strong messages about acceptance and courage in self-expression just by showing who they are to students.
Those are the 3 big things I prioritize.
Now here's what I AVOID in the first few classes.
Don't prioritize... lecturing on rules and procedures.
You may have been wondering earlier, But what about rules?
Here’s the thing. Telling someone a rule is something I find ineffective. Showing someone a rule- or procedure or routine- is far better. And chances to show those rules will arise naturally in your class.
Don’t be like me on the first day of my first job and lecture kids about rules. This also might be counter to things you’ve read or been advised. Now, when it comes down to it, you should do what you think is best. For me, I ask myself, “Will there be chances to learn rules soon?” (Yes.) “Will I stop student behavior that is out of control?” (Of course.) “Is students being able to recite music class rules a priority for me on day one?” (No.) “Will I tolerate disrespectful behavior?” (No.”)
Here’s what I mean by rules arising naturally:
As you continue your class with a song, game, or activity, you might need to demonstrate some “how-to”s. How to hand out rhythm sticks. How to be an echo voice. How to listen. Often, those how-tos fall under some big umbrella, like respect. There are ways to do everything your students will end up doing. As you do the thing, like handing out rhythm sticks, narrate what you’re doing. Ask students to follow. Thank them for following the instructions. Gently remind to wait for your next instruction.
In other words, as you’re going along, show them the behaviors you want. If I had said what all the rhythm stick expectations were, then proceeded to hand them out with the expectation that students would remember and follow what I said, I’d have been disappointed. Kids are curious and, let’s face it, you have a fun room! Model and give chances to practice.
As you go through class, giving students opportunities to practice your expectations is just plain smart.
(Want more info about behavior management in elementary music? I've got you covered here.)
Don't prioritize... specific concepts
At some point, of course you need to start teaching your content/ curriculum. You can't just do a potpourri year of music. That's actually HARDER than sitting down and making a plan! (Trust me- when you have the right resources to make good long-term plans, it's such a load off your mind. I use these planning templates to make sure I stay organized!)
But in the first few classes of the year, let exploration and helping students feel successful be the cornerstones. Because honestly? Any kind of genuine music-making (meaning music educator-facilitated and planned with students in mind) is building skills, curiosity, and self-confidence.
No, your students will not be behind if they don't start learning solfege hand signs on day one. Or what it means to match pitch or keep a steady beat. Or who Mozart was.
Your content is important. So is setting an encourage tone and nudging students towards curiosity.
Wrapping it all up
If we prioritize music-making, movement, and being authentic to our students, the year is going to be off to a great start! Getting "down to business" can wait for 2-3 classes... because remember, these 3 key ideas- while general- will lead to valuable experiences for your students.
They take away a bit of stress from you, and they set students up for success and love of learning in your class.
I hope that these ideas have been helpful! The beginning of the year is stressful enough. Sometimes general ideas like this are better guide posts than a checklist of everything you should be doing.
If you have any questions or just want to chat about how these ideas could more directly apply in your situation, please reach out!