Master Teacher Interview With Mark Saltzman
by Will Janssen, WMEA Vice President, South Central District
Mark Saltzman is director of bands at Madison East High School. He received his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at UW-Madison.
Describe the band program at Madison East High School.
The Madison East band program is an urban band program here in Madison, just a mile or so from the State Capitol but the attendance area covers the north side as well as much of the east side as well. It is an area that contains the governor’s mansion as well as low-income housing. We have over a hundred homeless students among the over 1,600 students attending East. Overall it is a great place to teach. I really love my kids and the staff here at East.
Are there challenges your students have to deal with being in a band program in an urban setting?
There are challenges just like in every school, but we do have some unique challenges as well. I do have a great parent organization that is very supportive and helps put on a Jazz Dinner Dance every year. There are also many students whose circumstances and situations limit them from being able to provide for reeds, instrument rental, field trips, etc. Besides those issues (which I am sure many schools are dealing with), we do not have lessons of any kind in our instrumental programs throughout the district. This leaves middle school band teachers to teach beginners in one large group setting. You can imagine how difficult it is to start beginning band students in one large group. Needless to say, students do not get the same kind of attention and instruction as they would if they had lessons or small group sectionals.
How do you coordinate with colleagues in the band (and greater music program) across high schools and/or across multiple middle schools? It would appear you have many people to work with but might that in fact lead to more isolation as everyone just does their own thing?
You really have to make your own collaboration. Each school is somewhat of an island unto themselves unless you reach out to colleagues. Jim Kyle, Laurie Fellenz (now our fine arts coordinator) and I started middle school honor band about 20 years ago and it is still going strong. We invite kids from all 11 middle schools to come and be part of the group and middle school teachers from the district teach it. It is a lot of fun to see each other work and it has become a great way to mentor younger teachers.
Do you have access to students for any kind of small group instruction? If yes, how is that structured; if not, how do you alter your instruction in the full ensemble setting because of that?
When I began in the MMSD, I was teaching middle school and did not have any small groups. It was really challenging so I started doing sectionals before school at about 7:15. Some kids came but some didn’t. The next year I talked my teaching staff into carving out a 20-minute time during the school day when I could do lessons. The sixth grade staff was very supportive but I could not get any allocation, so I was basically doing it for free. The next year I was able to get it counted as part of my teaching load. As administrators came and went, allocation for the sectionals came and went as well. Most schools in Madison do not have any kind of small group experience, but it all depends upon what you can make happen on your own.
How do you measure success for your students?
To me success is not about comparing yourself to anyone else but about being better than I used to be. It is about constant self-improvement and doing the best I can.
As a long-term professional, how do you stay energized and engaged in professional growth?
I believe a big part of that is finding ways to feel like a professional. Patty Schlafer in Mount Horeb, Mark Sieger in DeForest, Dave Otterson in Verona and Jim Kyle and I from the MMSD get together every summer and hold what we call the Middle School Consortium. Basically we get together, bring our best pieces from the previous year and trade them. It helps me to feel connected to other teachers and helps me to know that I will great material to work with for my kids. It is also a lot of fun. Mixing work and fun is always good.
What is the best part of your work?
Connecting with kids through music. It took me a while to figure that out. At first, I was a band director. Later on in my career, I realized that I was a teacher who uses music as the vehicle. What I teach them is up to me.
List a few aspects of the band program at Madison East that you are proud to be part of.
I am proud of all the kids that make it through four years. Having an opportunity to connect with someone and nurture their love of music over that length of time is really a great thing. A lot of people may have great jobs, but I bet a lot of people don’t have that opportunity.
You have hosted multiple student teachers, why are you willing to take on this additional mentoring role? Have you noticed any trends in the preparation of music educators?
One of my goals as a young teacher was to find ways to stay connected to my university. Hosting a student teacher does that but it also forces me to justify everything I do. It really helps me to be a better teacher. I like being able to provide a safe place for people to have a successful teaching experience. I see some really great people who are a lot smarter than me. I learn a lot of good things from having student teachers. Hopefully they do too.
The last thing I want to say is that students are students no matter where you teach. I love the kids here at East. We have an old building with a lot of fire doors because we have added on so many times over the years. You end up holding a lot of doors for people. Students always hold doors for you and when I hold a door for a student they almost always say “thank you.” The kids here at East are as kind and curious as any students I have ever worked with.