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Major behavior issues in MS choirs

I have two choirs, one combined 5/6 grade and one combined 7/8 grade. The kids are out of control with their talking, rudeness, lack of enthusiasm for the music, and general disruptive behavior. I've changed the classroom setup, changed the repertoire, changed seating, given dozens of detentions, tried new and fun warm-ups and activities, but none of it's working. And now, my administrators are on my back about the management issues. I've done all that I know how to do. I'm tempted to shut down rehearsals every day because we can't get anywhere. What do I do?!
Replies (22): Threaded | Chronological
on February 1, 2012 10:44am
Hi Shannon,
Have you tried speaking with the offending kids PARENTS?  Or are there too many of them?  You could certainly call the ringleaders parents.  What is the district's policy about that? 
And what about having some sort of behavior/consequence policy for your choirs?  Here's an idea--every time you have to stop rehearsal, etc. for someone being a jerk, put a mark on the board. Do it quietly, without saying a word--it's hard but there's a certain quiet drama in it. If you have more than three (you pick the number) marks in one rehearsal, you will call parents.  If a person's parents are called more than once a week, they get detention.  If they have three detensions for a month, they have an in-school suspension (it will go on their PERMANENT RECORD--sure to strike fear in parents hearts every where and you can explain this to them), then home suspension.  You are not playing!  You could contact parents with the new behavior plan or put it on your music department website before you do anything. And explain to the kids.  The first time someone has an in-school suspension, there will be no more of this crap!
You could also just kick out the biggest offenders from your choirs.  If they have to take choir/music, that's too bad, they should have thought of that before and can stay in middle school an extra year.  Parents will not be pleased.
When are your concerts scheduled?  If you have to CANCEL a concert because of behavior because you can't get anything done, parents will not be pleased. Your administration may not be pleased either, so see if they can back you up with the parents in the first place.
Sorry you have to deal with this instead of MUSIC!
As I've mentioned before, you couldn't pay me enough to teach middle school/junior high!
on February 1, 2012 12:12pm
Hi Marie -
Thanks for the reply. I have given numerous teacher and office detentions (office goes on their permanent record), called parents, even had conferences. The consequences for the kids are as follows: they get one verbal warning, a red cup (visual warning) after that, and then it's a teacher or office detention. Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to kick any kids out without "probable" cause (I've essentially been told I have no probable cause, and that I'm the only problem) even though it's not a mandatory class.
I am considering cancelling their Spring concert, or at least bringing the executive director (no superintendent - I work at a charter school and music proficiency is part of our mission statement) in to speak to the kids and let them know they are not performing up to the school's standards. I'm meeting with the principal tomorrow to discuss it. It sucks because it's a LOT of the kids, but not all. The ones who work their butts off will suffer for this too, unfortunately.
Thanks for the input!
on February 1, 2012 2:42pm
You do know you're not the problem, really aren't! If music proficiency is truly part of this school's mission statement, how do they expect you to achieve it when  the kids won't shut up long enough to become even slightly proficient?  What do the parents say?
Have the Ex. Director talk to the kids. Threatening to cancel a concert might do the trick. 
Good Luck!
on February 10, 2012 2:04pm
Is your principal/headmaster in SUPPORT of you?  If concert participation is based on preparation and classroom participation, assessments would allow you to include those who work hard and require the non-participating students to attend and submit a critique.  If you don't know your music, you can't sing.  If your participation grade is poor, you can't sing. Use the concert as reward as opposed to assessment.  The concert is the PAYOFF for all of your hard work.  Don't penalize the hard workers because of the challenge kids.
Document everything.  Email your principal about everything everytime.  This is your "CYA".  The email becomes a legal document that puts poor behavior on the calendar with a time stamp for parents who disagree.  You are NO student's behavior problem.  It is still their choice regarding their actions.  5/6 and 7/8?  They are old enough to know better.
on February 1, 2012 7:58pm
Shannon:  I suppose this is pretty obvious, but most of the other replies have been suggestions about appropriate punishment.  When my wife was taking Kodály classes, Phil Takka (not sure about that spelling) desribed how he handled his inner city classes.  Be so well organized that from the moment they walk it they are on the spot, call on individuals without warning, never take a beak between activities and never give them a chance to think or breathe, let alone start talking.  Make it absolutely continuous activity without a single break, and do off-the-wall things to snap their attention back.
Might work for you and might not.  It takes being able to act in a completely extroverted character so they never know what to expect.  But it worked for Phil.
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 2
on February 2, 2012 5:04am
I walked in to a similar situation 18 years ago - kids literally jumping out the ground floor window to get to the vending machines in the lobby during class! I agree with John - Keeping the kids busy is key to long term success.  What worked for me included a simple grading system: 50% in-class participation, 25% music mastery, 25% concert performance.  I explained that I expect my students to do what they should - consequently they all start with an "A" (50 pts) in in-class participation.  Those that choose to lose points, 5 points at a time, do so consciously. Opportunities for extra credit are very limited and always reinforce the expected behavior - solos are the usual extra credit opportunity, but it may be a surprise if a student or two are the first (only) ones to follow your directions, remember an instruction.  The Music Mastery section is based of 5 catagories of 5 points each - Accuracy, Independence, Musicality, Strength and Memorization - I have never had a student or parent complain that testing of this nature is unfair.  I also institued a concert dress-code and spent time on "performance practice" expectations, practicing them until it became second nature.  Students who wouldn't follow directions lost points.  I have found that 95% of kids want to do the right thing if the teacher is in charge.
The last piece of advice is never let them see you upset.  Be profession, calm, quiet and consistent.
Good luck!  You can persevere!
Ken Ahlberg
Applauded by an audience of 2
on February 2, 2012 6:13am
Been in your shoes! 
Here's a thought....could you ask your adminstration to provide an accompanist? Even for a short term--like 2 weeks? When I'm not behind the keyboard, I have so much more contact (control) over every situation.  The keyboard can act as your pulpit or your prison depending on how you use it.  When I'm comfortable staying behind the keys, the kids could slide by with less than best efforts and behaviors. I fundraise for my accompanist and have her about 10 hours per week.  It's such a help!!  In addition, it's another adult in the room who can act as an observer or recorder if necessary.
Establish the Condition of Respect.  The room and environment must be one where all parties (students, administrators and YOU) can expect to receive and give respect.  You cannot expect anything else.  If kids are receiving peer recognition for disrepectful behavior, that must be cut off.  Disrespect can quickly fall into bullying.  Every school district makes a strong statement against bullying.  I'm wondering if your school would support a whole-school focus on anti-bullying behavior?  It would elevate the awareness in EVERY area that disrespect won't be tolerated.  It would be easy for you to tie in the whole-school initiative with your classroom environment.
MS kids are ruled by raging hormones, low-level awareness of the relationship between action and consequence and a strong desire to fit in.  The environment is primed for group- or gang-mentality behavior.  You have to make them YOUR gang, so to speak.  Establish 2 or 3 non-negotiable statements of purpose.  Stick to them.  You can try the "Madeline Hunter-esque" process of three strikes yields a consequence but that becomes just as much a time killer as the negative behavior you've described.  The record-keeping can be a nightmare.  And then the arguments that ensue if you lose count...or the behavior is exceptional requiring heavier actions...ughhh!
Your students really know, deep down, what is expected.  Don't settle for it.  Cut to the quick, quickly.  Do it with love, kindness and expectation of change.
Focus on what CAN be done.  It takes one.  And then another one.  You know the statement that "Rome wasn't built in a day", right?  Well "Rome" will never be started if the first construction process doesn't get started.  :-)
You can do all the changing in the world in terms of literature, seating, class schedules, class make-up, etc., but until each child recognizes that RESPECT will rule your day, everyday will feel like the move "Groundhog Day".
There is hope in this message!!!!  Humans do have the capacity to change!!  That's why we teach.
Have a hope-filled day!!
P.S.  I think my choral handbook is in the library of the MS/JH ChoralNet Community.  You might want to download it and read about how I present honorable behavior to my singers.  If it's not there, you can go to my school website and download it.  Here's that link:
on February 5, 2012 12:29pm
I'd love to offer a silver bullet, but here's something my mentor teacher tells me often, "it's not you, it's the kids." I'm in a similar situation and it's not easy to BE positive let alone STAY positive. But even just from your short post here I can tell you're a good teacher. Stay the course!
on February 6, 2012 10:54am
Having been in your shoes before, I know there's no panacea, but I'll throw this into the pot. I had a class one year like the one you describe. I was responsible for taking them to lunch and according to our cafeteria rules they had to sit together as a class. One day instead of sitting at the teacher table like I usually would, I sat down with my students and ate lunch with them. We followed it with a great rehearsal that day, so I continued to eat with them. I would say about 90% of the discipline problems disappeared because they got the attention from me that they were starving for and didn't need to act out to get it. So my advice is to try to get to know them outside of class- however it works into your schedule, and work on building relationships as hard as you work on building musicianship. And keep the faith! :)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 6, 2012 8:08pm
Hang in there! :)  I know it can drive you crazy.  Many of us have been there.  Along with all the great suggestions, take care of yourself.  The stress can take its' toll.  Be politely strong in meetings where the admins try to blame you.  They may be "afraid" or unwilling to bother standing strong when parents communicate.  Work to sidestep, or stride right through, their efforts to put you on the defensive.  (I wish someone had helped me - I made this mistake.)  Graciosuly affirm yourself as a wise professional....continually.  Scapegoating and professional workplace ganging are all-too-common these days in many industires...unfortunately, teaching is no exception.  And just in case they are trying to "save money next year", try to have another interesting job offer - the best negotiating tool. (If necessary, get a colleague you know to agree that "We've been wishing to hire Shannon for years, but...")
One director dealt with the music-enthusiasm issue by saying they are not allowed to comment until they have learned and memorized it.  (Makes sense - otherwise they are judging a part - not the whole.  Would you buy a shirt based on the sleeve only? :))
My M.S. mentor (an art Teacher of the Year) said M.S.-ers don't understand "You hurt my feelings", but they do understand "Let's make a deal".
Not sure whether I like the concert-cancelling idea.  This might teach them that they don't have to follow-through.  If the good kids (ask them privately)  say, "Yes, please cancel - we don't want to be embarrased!", then maybe so..but I would have a very difficult assignment required for the ones who were not ready.  (Naturally this exempts the good kids - they were ready.)  If you have enough for a small ensmeble, let the cooperative ones sing - even if you have to get some H. S. or college students as back-up/ringer/leadership.  If they only know 1.5 songs, that's still a concert.  To lenghten/legitimize it, let a pianist play a solo, and maybe a small group from the H. S. - the teacher might appreciate the recruitment possibilities!
I really like Gretchen's positive approach , and trusting them to "act like adults".  Sometimes a friendly-but-no-nonsense smirk and "Get in your chair, Kevin/Kaelyn.  You know better than this. "  Keep praising/reinforcing the good ones; you can't afford for them to feel disenfranchized. (sp?)  Have you tried training a "Leadership Team"? 
Of course, if you put all these ideas into practice, even half of them, you would never sleep! :) I had to hire people sometimes - once a local college student majoring in Voice/Piano.  She was quite good - kept her laptop on the piano lid, and typed behavior notes and future lesson ideas with one hand , while accompanying with the other -   but they tended to run over her sweet personality a bit.  Upside - it made me feel better about my management skills and I appeared stronger to them.  Another time I hired a young-adult voice student of mine.  The first day she looked at them rather intently - just as they began to turn their head to talk - and said, "I don't know about you, but I don't like to be disrespected."   Basically, they got it. 
Another Teacher of the Year, who had taught M. S. [not so successfully] but largely honed her skills teaching elementary students, said in her acceptance speech: "Middle-school teachers, my hat is off to you.  The M. S. classroom is 'the range of the strange.'"  An entire county of teachers filled the auditorium with laughter and applause.
Kudos to you for working so hard at this!  You are succeeding much more than you know.  We, [along with God] are at your elbow with moral support every moment!!
on February 7, 2012 2:46pm
I have had similar situations in my career.  I have even had a group of administrators tell me that i had to have every student in the 6-8 grade take choir?!? No, really!  As you can imagine this caused several issues. I tried everything under the sun and moon to keep classroom management a priority.  Keep in mind I had over 80 students in each middle school choir because of that.  My wife, who is a registered nurse, actually suggested that I change my perspective on the problems.  That got me thinking...what about changing their (the students) perspective about class unity and what a choir is, A UNIT.  If the class would get out of control I would stop them from what they were doing entirely by making them line up in the room and then I would take them on a walk around the campus.  If anyone spoke while we were in line, there were immediately escorted by the me and the choir in toe to the principal's office for disciplinary consequenses.  The good thing about that was that they were all afraid to go the principal's office.  Typically, this would only happen once and they never talked again in the walking line.  I then would make them silently go back into the room and they were not allowed to sit until I saw that they could be disciplined.  I found that just by changing what was in front of them and their location that it actually only had to happen a few times.  I know that it takes up precious education time but really what are you losing if all you're doing it shutting class down anyway?  I have also made all of my students take off their shoes or sit in a circle or stand on their charis to sing.  It's crazy but just a little change in what they think is routine is sometimes the best way to control the room, especially if you have a huge choir with lots of challenges.
I hope this helps a little.
Mr. Brian Long
Director of Creative and Performing Arts
Anderson Preparatory Academy
Anderson, IN
on February 9, 2012 9:30am
Shannon, I feel your pain.  My current situation is very similar---and if I'm not mistaken, it's the parents that are probably making it even harder for you.  The kids go home and complain about you, generally in a very exaggerated fashion, to their parents, who then complain, usually in an equally exaggerated fashion, to the administration, who then talk to you.  Parents either will not communicate with you or will not listen when you do communicate with them.  For me, my administrator tends to lean on my side of things (especially because he has been in my classroom multiple times), but when there are SO MANY parents and students complaining, it still makes him skeptical.  It's a scary position to be in---and a frustrating one---and I'm sorry that you're there.  I deal with it daily.
I guess my point in this whole thing is to let you know that you're not alone, and to pass along the advice that was recently given to me: Keep going, be calm, be consistent, be kind, let go, and don't give up.  All easier said than done, but something, anyway!  Good luck!  We all need it!
on February 10, 2012 11:11am
As I was reading the replies, the one comment that stuck with me was you need, really NEEEEED, an accompianist. I don't know where you are located, but is there a university or community college located near you with a music program? My thought was that any students from the Music School could possibly earn credit working with you as an accompianist, and you would have the ability to fully concentrate on the kids. I thought that the suggestions from Barbara and Ken were good, because they let the kids know that they begin with an A and it is through their own actions what grade they ultimately end up with.
My other suggestion is that you need to request an impartial observer to come for several days and evaluate your class. After this you will have something with which to go to the administration with. From what you have said you are doing everything within reason, but have little support from the administration. I hope you find a resolution soon.
on February 10, 2012 2:14pm
Another suggestion - if they really balk at your choral rep, try doing some popular music karaoke every once in a while.  Get Youtube on a screen and search for Karaoke videos of age appropriate songs.  We do this occassionally on Friday afternoons and it's really a fun and light hearted way to get the kids singing, just for fun. Make sure you preview the videos first for inapropriate lyrics or visuals. Disney songs really work well for the girls - I'll bet you can find some that work with the guys as well. If they really like the song you can try to add some simple harmonies - turn it into a learning moment without being too pushy about it - keep it fun.
on February 18, 2012 12:23pm
How are YOU treating them? How do YOU talk to them?  With middle school kids, if you come across as knowing everything or if you talk at them or down to them, they'll shut down really fast. Middle school kids think they're grown ups and, of course,  have the world figured out, so you have apprach them this way.  Never act like you know more than they do.  You have to win them over first and make them feel safe then they'll start to listen to you.   Lower your voice with them and don't single out individuals. Never get drawn into a debate with them because you will NEVER WIN. They have allies and you'll look like an idiot, no matter what is said.  With middle school kids, if you're talking, they're talking, so don't talk so much. These kids have so much energy and on top of it all they're all on a sugar high from all the candy they eat. Ever notice how when they're standing they twist back and forth flapping their arms? Take advantage of the energy. Give them energetic warm ups with lots of movement and energetic songs to sing.
Buy/read/re-read Tom Carter's book "Choral Charisma."  Read the section on discipline on his website:
Tom's book completly changed the way I teach my kids in a life changing way.
    Regarding accompanments, Use an IPOD instead.  Record your playing so you can engage with your kids. Sing parts to them and have them sing back to you instead of playing them on the piano.  Move quickly and don't stand in one place all of the time, work the room. Get them off of the risers and have them stand in a circle or in "Olympic rings"  (interlaced)--Get close to them. Sing fun rounds with them that have lots of energy.  PLAN YOUR REHEARSALS so there's no down time. They don't want to stand and watch you try to figure out what to do. As soon as your attention is not on them, they will seek to get their attention needs from other resources, i.e.  their friends and classmates. Translation: Give them something to do or they will find something to do! (and usually it is not what is desirable or good<G>)
    Remember they just want to sing and they don't want to read or do technical things so spend most of your class time singing, not talking! 
I love my middle school kids and I don't think I would want to teach any other age group. OK, 7th grade is a pain, but they grow out of it, and then you have some wonderful, loving  8th graders. You get these kids when they're still little boys and girls and get to be a part of their lives while they grow into young men and women. You are there when the girls and boys loose their cooties and if they trust you, you can be there to help them through some tough times.  Its a magical age and also a pain in the behind, and I wouldn't change it for anything. 
on February 28, 2012 8:47pm
Hello everyone -
Thank you all for your support, advice, and encouragement. I'm still overwhelmed, tired, and stressed - but I'm full of hope and inspired by what you have all said. Thank you - I'll keep you posted!
on March 20, 2012 7:42am
I have one 6th grade class like that every year to some degree. Lots of structure, don't let things slide, address it before you move on. LOTS of parent contact.  For me every day was warm-up, sightread, rehearse.
Never take it personally, if they're having severe issues it has nothing to do with you or your class. As for afterschool rehearsals, those end up being very useful for me. I have two classes that are performing the same music for concert and that's the only time I can hear them together. The kids who are a pain in class probably won't go, thus letting you work with the kids who have "bought in".
Save the gems for choir next year!
Be strong and I hope things have gotten better!
on March 21, 2012 8:28am
What class they walk in and see that you have assigned a conductor and soloists....not the usual ones, the really ornery ones?  Do you have filming options?  Tell them they will be filmed, and each day, there will be new assignments.  Are the kids on risers or just seated?  Well, there is the schedule for the first 15 minutes of class....fresh outta ideas for the rest of the class:-)
on March 21, 2012 12:49pm
Hi Shannon,
Might I suggest the "Love and Logic" management approach.  You can find A TON about it at  It won't be an overnight fix, but it's a management technique that I use EVERY DAY for both middle school and high school choir.  The basis is, all you can do is control what YOU do, not what they do... and it works beautifully.  I'm at a point where I just raise my hands and say, "I conduct professional choirs" and they change their behavior.  Check out Love and Logic.  It has changed my teaching.
Best of luck!
on May 13, 2012 5:55am
Shannon- I'm sure that some of the students are as frustrated as you are.  Are these students there by choice, or by audition, or....  If by choice, let them know that if they are really not interested at making music they can choose to not come.  Sit down and let them know how frustrated you are.  Be honest-"I am really frustrated with choir lately, because some of you would rather spend your time talking, being rude, and being disruptive.  I thought you came here to sing together and make wonderful music.  That's what choir is for".  Have  you set any goals and rules for the group?  If not, you should sit down with them and develop some expectations together.  If they do not know what the clear expectations are-they can't follow.  What you decide in discussion and voting should be your working relationship together.  Write it down and post it by the door-Here are our rules and here are the consequences for not following them.  In my experience, detention is a waste of time.  I would say, "If you're waiting to see how long it will take me to send you to detention, don't waste your time.  I can handle any problem right here in this room".  How many kids are rude, how many disruptive?  My style would be to do what John Howell said-never let a minute be wasted-"I have no time to wait for those who are not following our rules-we have a lot to do today".  And mean it!  Get your rules set, stick to them, and spend your time making music!  From the minute they come in until the minute they leave!
on May 22, 2012 6:30pm
I am just finishing my first year in a high school position where, in addition to two auditioned choirs, I am responsible for teaching four nine-week beginning choirs. These Vocal I classes include a few students who are interested in singing, a few who don't mind singing, but mostly students who just need a fine art credit to graduate. The most recent class included about five students (out of 32) who are constantly disrespectful, argumentative, and one student who just makes random noises for no reason other than to be disruptive. I started out by giving the students gentle reminders or sending them out of the room for a "time-out." I have called parents (which worked for some, but not for others), and I have called administrators (who then gave the students in-school suspension for their behavior). However, the most effective tool I have is to keep the offending students back from lunch one or two minutes after the rest of the class (we have last lunch!). Knowing that they will be at the VERY end of the lunch line has been a powerful inducement to modify behavior.
I also learned that I needed to modify my own behavior with this particular class. I had to be more assertive and shut down behavior issues quickly by giving them fewer options. For instance, where I may have allowed other classes to help choose their concert repertoire, I realized early on that this group could not handle that kind of responsibility.
Good luck and don't let them beat you down!
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