The dream job. It’s why most of us began teaching. It is what we aspire to have. A perfectly balanced band of dedicated musicians who live to practice. Parents who smile at us every time they see us and ask how they can help and administrators who go out of theie way to tell us what a great job we are doing. Ah, the good life!
Wake up. You are dreaming. Well, maybe not all of you, but most of you. Chances are that you do not have this utopian band program. You might have a piece of it, but most likely, not the whole enchilada. It gets worse. Maybe you never will. And that is ok. It’s ok if we can redefine what our job REALLY is about.
While trophies, superior ratings and recognition are great (and they certainly are), we can find ourselves in real trouble if that becomes our source of happiness. While building a successful band program is our ultimate goal, as it should be, we have a more important role to play, and we don’t need a trophy to accomplish it.
It’s time we define what our real job actually is. Some say it is to create fine musicians and make beautiful music. I agree. I strive for this every single day. But, I am always aware that as a middle school teacher, that job is number TWO. My first, and most important, job is…
TO MAKE A CHILD’S LIFE BETTER.
Yes, my most important job is to improve the lives of my students. Middle school students are trying to find themselves, build self confidence and self esteem, feel successful or just feel loved. Some of our students have never felt like they fit in anywhere. Many have never felt successful at anything. They need us to be our best for them, and that doesn’t require musical perfection or an amazing band program. That’s why I call it redefining success.
Now, I am not saying that musicianship takes a back seat. Not at all. One of the best ways to help kids feel successful is to make them musically successful. We should be striving every day for musical excellence. I’m just saying that by keeping our focus on the kids, and not the accolades, we can make a greater impact and find joy in jobs that may be less than ideal.
So, what can we do to ensure that we are laser focused on both tasks of making great music AND building kids up? First, we have to get to know our students. It’s not enough to just know that Emily plays clarinet. We can’t change a life from that perspective. What’s her reality? Is the family intact? Does she have siblings? Is she the oldest, with all the responsibilities of the oldest? Or is she the youngest? What other interests and activities are important to her? Does she struggle with academics? You get the idea. There is much more to Emily than three pieces in her folder. It’s pretty simple, really…to teach them, you must reach them. And we can’t do that in only a musical role. If you want to be successful in teaching middle school, you must always remember the old adage “they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”.
Secondly, we have to be very careful to not set our students up for failure. Nothing causes kids to lose faith in us faster than us making them look foolish. Sometimes as directors, we become so focused on US and our own desires that we use our students as collateral in our personal battle for success and recognition. I know I did. We feel pressure to succeed and impress others, so we take it out on kids when results or improvement aren’t meeting our expectations. We go to festivals and contests where we know we aren’t likely to see a successful result, often because it’s what successful programs do. But, is it success if the students feel worse for the experience. Are we still staying true to goal one, to improve a child’s life? Or are we sacrificing the kid, for our own needs and desires? It is important to know the difference.
I was interviewed last week by a former student for her journalism class. She asked me two questions that really hit me hard. First, she said “Many kids at the high school love you dearly and live by your every word, but there are some that hate you too…how does that make you feel?” Wow! How do you think? I immediately took it to heart. I looked at the ratings plaques surrounding the rehearsal hall and wondered if those came at the price of failing those kids. Suddenly they didn’t seem as impressive. I do teach in a program where we have built a tradition of success and standards are high because of it. Sometimes we push to achieve, and that is fine. But, we have to know where the line is for kids.
The second question helped me to rebound a bit, “You used to teach high school, but now have taught middle school for years. Do you ever long for being the lead again?” This one stunned me a bit. I think I am the lead! I explained, and truly believe, that being a middle school director is the most important position in our profession. We take raw material, with no experience, often no self confidence, and can turn them into amazing people of value and talented musicians. We do that. What could be more important than that? I beam with pride for the successes of each one of my students, even in moments of failure. From making all state, playing a successful jazz solo on stage, or just being brave enough to step outside their own personal comfort zone to explore, it is enough. No trophy needed.
I speak at a lot of conferences, and after each session there is a meet and greet at the booth. I usually answer questions about what I spoke about and I enjoy meeting other directors. Two years ago, a woman walked up and said, “I enjoyed the session and would love to try those ideas in my class, but your students are way above where my classes are. I teach in a drug infested school, where violence is common. We have no financial support, no parental support and the administration couldn’t care less. So what I need from you is for you to say something to me that makes me want to show up on Monday”. Geez! Tall order. At the time, I had nothing. I may have suggested selling used cars instead. But, her comment stuck with me all this time. So, I finally have an answer for her, and you if your situation is similar or less than ideal. Here it is:
There is a kid in that room that NEEDS you. They are looking for a chance to thrive. They need help. They are in a bad place and they need a champion. You are that champion. It is your reason for being there. You won’t get a trophy for it. But, it will change your life…and theirs.
I will end here with a personal story. I grew up in a coal mining town in a place made famous in documentaries about the poverty in Appalachia. I wanted a better life, but all around me was misery and low expectations. My band director was probably not a great director by great director standards. He probably didn’t love his job. It most likely was not his dream job. He probably wanted out, too. But, with all the shortcomings of the situation…it was good enough. He didn’t win many awards, but he opened doors for me, showed me a way out and gave me a chance. When I auditioned at college, I finished thirty fifth out of thirty six in my first audition. Not stellar. I got better. Oh, and the one person I beat in the first audition is an amazing teacher who introduced me at my first conference! The point is…you never know which kid or which teacher will make the biggest difference. You can make that difference for a child. You just have to redefine success.
Jeff Scott is the Director of Bands at Cario Middle School in Mount Pleasant. Bands under his baton have received Superior ratings at state and national festivals for the past thirty consecutive years. Mr. Scott is co-author of the books, “Habits of a Successful Middle School Band Director” and “Habits of A Highly Successful Middle School Musician” published by GIA Publications, Inc. Mr. Scott is active as an adjudicator, conductor and clinician throughout the United States, including presenting at the Midwest International Band Festival in 2014 and 2017.
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