Fifteen Years and Counting
By Rebekah Mueller, WMEA Vice President – Northeast District
I remember like it was yesterday when I walked across the stage at my undergraduate graduation excited for my first year as a teacher. I am now in my 15th year. I have been fortunate to work in districts where I felt I belonged and I could make a difference. Entering the profession of teaching, I didn’t have rose-colored glasses on thinking I was going to change the world right out of college (my father was, and still is a teacher), but I definitely learned some career-changing lessons along the way that made a huge impact on me and kept me excited about my choice to become a music teacher.
First, you can control only what you can control. There will always be difficult students in difficult circumstances. What goes on with a student outside our classrooms is something we cannot control. We can control how we make them feel when they walk into our classroom. The 45 minutes in our classroom might just be the best time of a student’s day. What do we say to the student that has been missing for three days? It is the difference between saying “Where have you been? You have so much to catch up on!” and “I am so glad you are back!” We can control letting them know we are adults who care and want the very best for them. It is just as important to talk with students about their lives outside music as it is to talk with students about their lives inside music. Sometimes that means being a listening ear. Sometimes that means reaching out to their other teachers to help get them back on track. Sometimes that means sharing a personal story from our own experiences that let them know they are not alone. If they can learn how to count dotted eighth-sixteenth patterns in the midst of that, we have done our job!
Next, colleagues are your best resource. One huge mistake I made when I started teaching is that I wanted to show not only my students, but also my colleagues, that I knew what I was doing. Nothing is wrong with wanting to be proficient. However, it was wrong that I was worried if I didn’t have an answer, I would be regarded as a poor teacher. I could not have been further from the truth! Reaching out to other teachers, administration and community members was the most important thing I could do for my teaching. Over the years, I have gotten out of my “silo” and into picking other teachers’ brains. My biggest resource for solving problems within my teaching and my knowledge gaps come from other peoples’ experiences. Last summer, I attended the CMP workshop for the first time in my career (I know, I am probably one of the last teachers in Wisconsin to attend one!). I found the evening social times to be the most beneficial part of the workshop. I learned so much from others who attended the conference. Not only did my knowledge base triple, but I found that I was not alone in my daily struggles. One particular conversation I had with a college professor about balance of family life with work life was particularly refreshing. He is nearing 40 years in education, and still feels the struggle. I am not alone.
Lastly, communication is key. This is not something new that I have learned. However, over the years, I have never been accused of over-communicating. Just like students learn in a variety of ways, they also need to be communicated with in a variety of ways. If a student loses a paper, why not also include it in an email? Additionally, parents need to know when their child is doing well just as much as they need to know when their child is struggling. A few years ago, I started sending emails to my first semester high school students’ families. I let them know in two to three sentences how things were going. The response was very positive. I had more parents email me back thanking me for sending them a positive note then I ever did sending emails regarding problems in the classroom. Establishing a relationship with those parents took just minutes out of my day, but made a lasting impact. It is easier to have a discussion with the parents about their child’s poor choices if they know you already recognized their child’s positive choices.
While these few thoughts may look on paper like small victories in my teaching career, they are victories that I know are driving me to the next 15 years in education. Whether you have been teaching six months or 30 years, it is important to keep learning and finding things to keep you going. It is important to find people that you can lean on. It is most important to know you are not alone in your struggles teaching students. While so many things change around us within the world of teaching, we can remain constant in knowing that we can be the consistent part of a student’s day. Fifteen years from today, what new things will I have learned? I can’t wait to find out!