Inspire Beginners, Create Mentors, and Promote a Culture of Can-Do Learning
Starting heterogeneous classes of beginner band students can be tough for even the most veteran of teachers. On average, I start one beginner class of about 65 students at the beginning of the year. Each different instrument must be individually addressed so that students understand and experience the proper way to assemble, disassemble, and hold the instrument. If that weren’t enough, they must learn to make a sound, read the music, and coordinate their fingers at light warp speed with their tongues! Combine all of those responsibilities with teaching other classes and handling the busy start of the year and you have your hands full!
How to select student assistants
With just a little bit of planning before the year begins, you can eliminate a lot of the work, stress, and aggravation of this situation. With the principal’s permission, assign student assistants to help you with your beginner class. Eighth grade band students serve as wonderful assistants and seventh graders will work well in a pinch also. I usually don’t choose my best musicians as assistants–I reserve that opportunity for those that demonstrate great people skills. The student that is friendly with others in class–always willing to help others and quick to notice and complete what is needed without being asked. If you don’t have a student like this, you can still select a promising child and help him/her develop these skills over time.
Once you have selected a student for this job, consult with him and his parents. My students and parents have always felt honored by the selection, and I have rarely been disappointed. Make sure that the guidance counselor can make the schedule work for this type of situation before finalizing it with the student/parent. It can be very disappointing for all concerned if the schedule does not work out properly. Many years I have selected more than one assistant. This is generally due to the number of beginners that will be in one class. If I do select more than one, I try to choose students that have different strengths–one may be a woodwind player and the other a brass or percussionist; one may be great at organizing, and the other may be fearless at addressing the class publicly.
Making Good Use of Assistants
After selecting your assistant(s), determine what their strengths are and consider what duties/responsibilities you plan to assign each student. At the beginning of the year, my assistants fill very different roles than they do by the time the year is over because not only am I using them to facilitate the teaching of my beginning band class, but I am also working with them to foster their growth in a variety of areas. Early roles may include such tasks as the following:
- Collecting forms and paperwork from the class and then organizing it
- Handing out folders, assignments, music, or parent letters
- Walking around the class while instruction is going on and monitoring for students that need help but don’t realize it
- Handling issues such as restroom use, pencil sharpening needs, other non-instructional issues that arise
- Organizing music, equipment, or supplies
Gradually, I guide them into taking on different types of responsibilities such as:
- Running beginner sectionals in the adjoining practice room
- Leading warm-up
- Working with individuals or with small groups of students that are struggling on a particular concept or skill
- Developing beginning conducting skills
- Challenging on-level students with more advanced materials/strategies
Long Term Benefits
There is no need to micromanage every little thing in your beginner band class. You can hand over many responsibilities and lighten your own load. When you do this, you are not only saving yourself from burnout, but also empowering student leadership.
A magnificent by-product to doing this is the relationship that is created across the grade levels. Sixth-grade band members look to an older, more experienced band member as a source of guidance, and they develop an insight for the things that they too will accomplish in their future. They see themselves as leaders in training, and many of them automatically place themselves in roles that allow them to help other less experienced band members. While I allow the student assistant to function as a leader in the class, I never permit any type of abuse of this power. This system has been working for my band for nearly a decade, and I have found it to be one of the most successful ways to navigate the overload of beginning band needs each year.
Laura Cameron has taught middle school band for 18 years, the last 13 of which she has been serving as band director at Georgetown Middle School in Georgetown, SC. She loves working with this age group. Discovering ways to empower students in the band room has allowed her to have more time after school to spend with her husband Mike and their four children.
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