During my field placements in undergrad I had the amazing experience to observe and teach with some amazing cooperating teachers. From day one I was in awe of their knowledge of their content area and their ability to sequence their lessons in a way that made everything they did in their classrooms incredibly purposeful.
But as I look back at my time with these teachers, I was blown away by the community that they were able to create in their classrooms. The amount of respect they had for their students was only overshadowed by the amount of respect the students had for them.
Once I got into my own music classroom, I knew that I wanted to have that kind of mutual respect for my students. During my field placements I noticed that by having this kind of positive community makes students want to do what they are supposed to and helped cut down on me needing to implement any negative responses to their behavior. When our students have that intrinsic motivation to succeed and behave well, we as teachers can focus more on the educational aspects of our job instead of feeling like we are putting out fires and constantly dealing with classroom management.
Where My Experiences Began
My first experiences in a classroom were actually in the lab preschool during my sophomore year of undergrad. I honestly believe that ending up in this classroom changed my entire trajectory as an educator. It all started with needing community service hours relating to education for a class in the education department. I had no idea what I was going to do. I eventually gathered up enough courage to email the director of the lab preschool to ask if they had any hours available for me to work as what was essentially an aide.
At this point in my college career I had never worked with small children, and I will be entirely honest and say I was terrified on my first day. I thought I wouldn’t have a clue what to do or how to respond to the students, and I just psyched myself out the days prior to me starting.
But the strangest thing happened when I started, I LOVED it! Everything I knew about education changed at that point. When I had reached the amount of volunteer hours I needed, I was offered a job in the same position and I ended up working in that classroom until I started my full student teaching placement.
I had an amazing teacher that I worked under, and I attribute a lot of what I have learned about building a positive community from her. Regardless of the situation that presented itself, she always responded calmly, logically, and from a place of empathy.
As I began to have more field placement experiences, and as those included me teaching more and more, I began to implement the calmness, logic, and empathy that she modeled for me each and every day. This just felt right to me. I was being completely genuine with my students and I felt that this approach gave me the confidence to run the classroom, when in reality, I still really didn’t have any idea what I was doing!
Love, Logic, and the Responsive Classroom
As I continued working with students I came across the Love and Logic parenting philosophy on Pinterest. As I read some of the blog posts and articles, I feel like what I was reading really resonated with me. Even though I’m not a parent, the idea that we love our students enough to set and enforce limits and using logic and empathy to help our students grow really stuck with me.
During the summer before I started my first music teaching position, I read the book, Responsive Classroom for Music, Art, PE, and Other Special Areas. I feel like this philosophy went well with what I already believed, and it helped me take that and create systems and procedures that complimented those beliefs.
This book talked a lot about setting routines and procedures that would set students up for success, which I instantly fell in love with. If you know anything about me, it's probably that I love having systems in place to make things easier! This text offers practical applications for the music classroom that allow students to feel as if they are being understood and appreciated.
Another huge tenant of this particular book, as well as my own philosophy of classroom culture is positive teacher language. I first began to understand the power of teacher language back at the lab preschool in undergrad. I began to see that the words that I used to respond to my students really mattered.
Teacher Language Matters
NHere’s a situation that I was in a lot when I was working at the preschool. A student would come up to me and show me a drawing that they made. If I were to respond with “I love it, it's so pretty” that’s a fine answer. It isn’t bad. But what is it really showing the student that I value about what the student had done?
Again, this is by no means a bad response, but it can be better. For instance, if I were to respond with “Thank you so much for sharing this with me! I can tell that you spent a lot of time on it and worked very hard,” then the value is being placed on the work that the student had to do in order to create their drawing.
In the music classroom, a lot of what we experience is incredibly subjective. I think it is important for us as educators to be aware of our teacher language and make sure that we are placing the value in the right areas. Instead of only placing value on the merit of the end product, it is important to recognize that the student may have worked hard to get here. This is a great to tie in the Growth Mindset that many administrators are (rightfully) pushing nowadays.
I know I keep drawing in bits and pieces of different philosophies, but I just had to share one more. I use a lot of restorative practices in my classroom as well as what I’ve already shared. Restorative practices, in my mind at least, are all about making sure the consequence of an action allows a student to take steps to repair any relationship that may have been damaged by that action.
For instance, if a student pushes another student down, whether it be an accident or on purpose, I would argue that we should start by having that student make sure the other isn’t hurt, and to help them up. I find that when students accidentally hurt another student, such as if we are doing a movement activity and they end up hitting each other, they assume there is no blame. I use these as teaching moments to show students that even though it wasn’t intentional, someone still got hurt and it is their responsibility to try to help in any way they can.
I don’t think that we will ever have one teaching or classroom management philosophy that will be perfect. I think it is our jobs as educators to pick what we like about each of those that we see and include our own life experiences to create a philosophy that works for us.
Our students deserve a positive community of learners in the music classroom. When they feel safe they are more willing to take risks and try new things. When they feel appreciated they are less likely to act out. And on a purely selfish note, when our students feel safe, understood, and appreciated, they are more likely to follow instructions and try new things when we as teachers are teaching.
So if you only had one takeaway from this blog post, I guess that I would hope that you realize that your teacher language matters. Like a lot. Even if you don’t intend for something to have the implication that a student receives, it can be there. I urge you to think about the types of phrases you use with your students and think about ways that we can empower our students through our words in a way that allows them to understand that we genuinely care about them and their time in and outside of our classrooms.
Like many music teachers out there, I have many students that walk through my door that have experienced more trauma than any child should ever have to experience. These Adverse Childhood Experiences alter the way our students are able to learn, both on physical and emotional levels.
As I have mentioned previously, I spent my first year out of college outside of the music classroom. I had the wonderful experience to be able to work with students on IEP’s and 504’s as a part of the intervention team at my school. This allowed me to become much more familiar with sensory and emotional differences in my students. When I transitioned into having my own music classroom, I wanted to make sure that I used my experiences to make sure that I set up my classroom to allow for all students to be successful.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to make our classroom accessible to students who have experienced trauma in their lives. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, so-to-speak, of how to make sure that we are setting up all students up for success.
1. Meet Students Where They Are:
I really hope that this is not a novel idea for most of us, as I would argue this is one of the foundations of good teaching. However, this is so important that I had to include this at the top of my list.
Our students all have diverse needs. They all have unique life experiences that shape their proficiency in specific emotional and academic skills. As educators, we must meet our students at the level that they are at in order to allow them to show growth, regardless of the concept or skill. We must meet the needs of our students before we are going to be able to see academic growth.
2. Identify Student Needs:
Ok, we’ve acknowledged that our students have different needs. Now comes the important part: what are the specific needs our your students?
I’m going to be honest: this is not easy, especially as music teachers. We see so many students that it can be hard to identify the needs of each and every one of our students. It would be crazy to ask one person to figure out the diverse and specific needs of hundreds of students. Thankfully you don’t have to do this alone.
It can be incredibly helpful to work with the homeroom teachers and Intervention Specialists in order to help identify the needs in environments that are not the music classroom. This information can often be directly related to their needs in the music classroom. Once we have identified what our students needs are, we can start to apply interventions to (hopefully) meet the needs of that student.
3. Apply Interventions to Meet Student Needs
There are so many ways to apply interventions to help student meet their needs. The best thing is that there are so many supports that we can implement incredibly easily. When used purposefully and appropriately, these supports and interventions can allow students the help they need to be successful. Some supports that I use in my classroom include a variety of fidgets (with a variety of textures and tactile feedback), breaks for students, and rewards.
I use fidgets very carefully because there is often a fine line between when a fidget is helping a student and when it is causing further distractions. I set up clear expectations for students that use my fidgets (use them appropriately, they are there to help you focus, etc.) and hold students to those expectations.
I have some students that really struggle with staying 100% focused on music for the entire music class. Sometimes they physically cannot go all of the way through without being able to take a break. A break doesn’t need to be anything crazy, sometimes it could be as simple as allowing a student to go get a drink in the hallway and come right back. Some students may need a longer break. I have one student that physically needs a little bit longer of a break, so their homeroom teacher will come down and walk with him for a little bit before returning him to class.
4. Increase Attention to Self-Regulation
The last tip I wanted to share today was how I think about self-regulation in the music classroom. I have found that putting a focus on practicing self-regulation (especially at the beginning of the year) pays dividends when it comes to classroom management and student behavior. Additionally, I think that this increased focus allows all students to be able to increase their ability to make emotionally-sound decisions, which ideally helps students in all facets of life.
I firmly believe that the music classroom is for so much more than teaching musical concepts and skills. Music is something that allows students to express emotions that they otherwise may not know how to put into words. Don’t get me wrong, this is not something that is easy. It can take a lot of time to put these systems into place, but I would argue that this is necessary. We owe it to our students to put in the work to set them up for success in and out of the music classroom.
Bryson Tarbet is the music educator and blogger behind That Music Teacher.