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Pursuing Excellence

I am in my second year teaching at a small Christian school. I have struggled the last year and half with the balance between meeting the students where they are and pursuing excellence. Choir at this school means a sluff class. There are many students who are only there for the credit and don't put too much (or any effort in). There are other students who do enjoy singing, but still have not experienced choir as a 'class'. Even they believe that in choir you should learn your parts and sing at the concert and that is it. There is no understanding of the importance of sight-reading, vocal/breathing technique, understanding the music as a whole. They are high school students who have a hard time seeing the bigger picture and can't see how understanding the music will help them derive more enjoyment from the music in the long run. I have tried everything I know to introduce these concepts to them. I have gone slowly. I have been crazy and energetic, I have been understanding, I started an acapella choir and on and on. Nothing is working. I continue to face obsitence, disrespect, falling numbers, and most rampantly an absolute refusual to try anything new and get on board. They don't trust me and overall they don't respect me. They don't even sit in their assigned seats. They think its ok for them to decide where they sit and when. I teach pre-k-12 and do not face these problems with the elementary or the Jr. High girls (though the jr. high boys have an awful attitude as well). I am totally at my end. I have thought that it will get better as my elementary students and jr. high students become high school students but as soon as they land in the HS choir the atmosphere is totally different, they close-up, we don't have fun and that becomes the norm. Is there anything I can do? Is it on them now? Do I continue to plow through, doing what I know is right even though it seems like I am sucking any fun out of it for them at all? I am just totally beside myself over this. Every day is a struggle and I feel anxious all the time. My best male singer told me he was quitting the other day because "he didn't like the way I was doing things." I am considering working over the next week and a half before the new semester to to revamp the curriculum and plan a parent meeting to discuss the expectations and the issues. Whatever it was in the past, MY choir class can't be a sluff class. I don't know how to teach like that. Students cannot expect to come into my class and not do the work or do it half heartedly. The other hard part is consequence. I don't know how to produce for a whole class. And with my work load I honestly don't have the time or capacity to specifically pinpoint all students for points. Any wisdom would be great.  I am sick about it. Thanks. 
Replies (5): Threaded | Chronological
on January 5, 2014 6:51am
Sorry to hear that you are experiencing such a difficult time.  It's awful and stressful in ways that people who haven't experienced it cannot possibly imagine.
What you wrote above reminded me of my first three years teaching.  I was teaching middle school in an inner city school, and I had replaced a legendary teacher whom the students, parents and faculty loved dearly.  
It was a demoralizing time for me, and it sounds like you are experiencing something similar.  The daily experiences make you feel like a complete and inept failure.
I am now in year number 22 of my career, and I am grateful beyond measure that I continued teaching.
Moments like these define our character. 
During those rough first years, I did some serious soul searching.  I either needed to figure it out or quit teaching altogether.  
Below, I have listed a few of the questions I asked of myself.  I would urge you to dig deep within yourself during some quiet time and really think about these questions over the next several months. 
You will not find easy, quick answers.  You will not solve this overnight or even by the end of this school year....but you can begin taking steps toward solutions that serve you over the long haul.  When you start moving toward real solutions based on your answers, I believe that you will be on your way to finding your own, individual and wonderful path toward becoming a master teacher who enjoys her work and thrives in it.
Here are a few things that I asked myself during this difficult time:
a)  Why am I teaching?
b)  Am I willing to take full, 100% responsibility for where my program is and find solutions? 
c)  What type of music am I most passionate about teaching?  Then, find a song or two in that genre and share your incredible love and passion for that music with your children.  Don't follow the path of other teachers because you believe you have to teach a certain style of music.  Find what YOU love...then share it with your students.  Because you love it, they are more likely to love learning it.  Your passion for it will show while you teach it and they are likely to respond to that passion over time as you build your program.
d)  Can I be ok with losing some students and creating my own "thing"?   It's part of the process of becoming the best version of yourself as a teacher, so the answer needs to be yes.  We all must have children in the room who are there because they want to be there, and then we must work toward creating that in our classrooms.  No excuses (counselors/adminstrators/parents....).  Just work toward finding the solution in THAT building with THOSE students.  It is our job to give our students something that is fun, interesting, powerful and valuable and to work with our administrators to help them buy into our vision of what our program should be.
e)  Have I looked into a child's eyes today and asked how he is doing today?  We've all heard this before, but it's important to remember:  Students don't care how much we know until they know how much we care.
f)  At the end of any given school day, ask yourself....What worked really well today?  ....Why did it work?  ...How can I create more moments like that?
g)  At the end of any given school day, ask yourself...Where did I fail today?  ....Why did I fail in that moment?   ...How can I avoid moments like that?
h)  Identify 2 or 3 of the most passionate, successful choral teachers in your area.  Take a day off school and go watch them.  Now that you've taught for 2 years, you will learn much more than you did when you observed teachers during your student teaching.  It's different than going to a workshop. Seeing a real teacher in real time working with real students...nothing like it.
We change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change...and not a moment before.  
My own personal moment of change began to occur when two events happened within a one week period during those early years:
a)  One day, I had been incredibly negative with the students because I was so frustrated with my own inability to reach them.  As the children left the room, one child said "I hate that teacher.  Anybody got a gun?"
b)  Then, the following Monday, as I rounded the corner to go open my classroom door to begin the day, I found a pile of human feces in front of my door.
These events were horrible and vial....and I decided to dig within myself to find how I had brought them into my life.  
I can look back and laugh at those events now, but they were horribly painful at the time, and I can tell that you, too, are in quite a bit of pain.  
Honest reflection is difficult and necessary.
You can survive this.  You can be a master teacher who enjoys her work, thrives and builds a wonderful, large choral program at her school.  
You are already working towards that by reaching out to your peers in this forum.  
Hang in there.  
Warm regards,
Dale Duncan
Applauded by an audience of 4
on January 5, 2014 5:43pm
Heyyyy Rachel.
It's your second year.  This is pretty typical.
Sometimes in these situations, kids just need to see other kids doing it, and doing it well.  They've got no reference for what the heck this choir thing is really all about, so they have no reserve inside them to put their energy and focus into it.  It's not your fault, and it's not theirs.
Let's skype between our choirs sometime.  I direct the choirs at Bismarck State College, and my students would love to meet your students, sing for them, talk about concepts we work on (and other things like seating charts, formations, respect, raising hands, effort, focus, etc..) and just hang out over the web!  We've done it with a few middle school and high school choirs already, and every director said it had a major impact on their students.  After our session, their kids wanted to be just like my college kids.  How cool!?
Shoot me an email:  andrew.j.miller.4(a)
Have a good night Rachel.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 6, 2014 6:08am
Hi Rachel,
I am in my 4th year and I totally hear you. The first two years were really rough, and the third one had it's own trials, but I did a lot of the soul searching Dale reccomended (wow, thanks for saring Dale), and this year has been great. Here are a few specific things I have done in my class room is to help:
-I pass out positive notes ("Cook-ies" since my last name is Cook, but little piece of paper with a note on it that says thanks for helping our choir today). Students get one for any number of things: singing expressivly, great posture, helping a neighbor, and, my favorite, singing a wrong note or getting an answer wrong then they are legitimatly trying (this is to honor any risk taking the students engage in: good choir students take risks, but our academic culture is hyper focused on accuracy rather than risk, but the risk is where the creativity lies). Sometimes I pass out a cookie or 2 to specific students and have THEM pass it out, but they have to announce to the class who they passed it to and why. The note is all pre-made, with a blank for the student's name. The back asks for parent/guardian signature (so they know their kid did something great). They can bring it back w/signature before or after class for something from my "treasure box" (it sounds so elementary, but my kids LOVE it). (Treasure box has pencils, pencil grips, little note books, mints, etc.)
-Hard work/meeting the goals for the week="Open mic" for the last 10 min on Friday. Students sing songs (or parts of songs) of their choosing either solo or small group. It is almost always pop songs. I also allow other performance: dance, monologues. For awhile, one student was writing short scripts to perform with friends. 
-Speechless rehearsals: This has made a HUGE difference for me. I find it helpful to use Curwen handsigns, but there is a lot you can do without. When we are moving forward musically, everyone is happier. 
Directly related to sight reading: the more I have my kids write music, the more they get into sight reading. They see the two way street. I also tell them about the guys from "Fun." (They sing the hit "We Are Young.") They had been trying to make it big for a looong time. He was ready to give up. He was trying to meet a new producer who would hardly give him the time of day, but when they finally met, the producer handed him that song, he sang it, they loved it and recorded it the NEXT DAY! Now... hugely famous. Sight reading MATTERS!
There's also a great thread here on how to make sight reading fun with lots of good ideas.
All the best!
Applauded by an audience of 3
on January 6, 2014 9:55am
Awesome stuff here!  :)
on January 6, 2014 3:32pm
I'm puzzled by the disrespect, noncooperation and poor attitudes.  Won't even sit where they are asked to? These are Christian values?  Have you spoken to your school director, administration and/or board?  In any type of school there comes a point when unnacceptable behavior ceases to be the teacher's responsibility and should become the administration's.  We don't like to admit our difficulties and appear less capable to our employers, and some administrators shirk their responsibilities by throwing it all back on us---are you in this bind?   A competent head of school would put a stop to this at once.  You should be helped to develop and apply a management plan with consequences for the students from you and from above; and your competence should be judged by your accomplishments with students who behave in class with basic manners.  I think it's called "The Golden Rule". 
Participation should be a basic expectation and requirement, and if they are making no effort they should be dropped.  If your class is a school requirement, then--oh well--they suffer the logical and obvious consequence of not graduating.  Are the parents enabling this behavior?  Do they get to call the shots and undermine the school culture because they're paying the bills? 
I must respectfully disagree in part with Dale's otherwise excellent advice at "d": "no excuses (counselors/administrators/parents)...find what works in THAT building with THOSE students."  In my opinion there is a limit to the thoughtfulness and perserverance advocated here.  Some students, some parents, some administrators, some schools are terrible at what they do and not functional.  I would compare your experiences with other music teachers and give serious consideration not only to what you can do, but to whether you can do it at your present school.      
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