Reflection on 16 Years of Teaching Elementary General Music

On Monday, I will be honored with a 15-year milestone at Far Hills Country Day School (FHCDS), in Far Hills, NJ. For the past 15 years, I have taught PreK-3rd grade general music, 5th grade instrumental music class, grades 4-8 band, K-2 after school chorus, founded and directed the FHCDS Conservatory, founded and directed the flute and clarinet ensembles at FHCDS, and served on numerous committees. Before I took this job, I taught for a music company that sent me to 12 daycares/preschools in NJ to teach their music program. As this milestone approaches, it reminds me of two things: 1) How lucky I am to be able to teach music everyday of my life and 2) why I love teaching music specifically to early childhood and elementary students.

Teaching early childhood and elementary students is a very rewarding experience. If you find yourself in the position where you will be teaching this age level, consider it a great learning experience. One that might assist you in later years or one that might take a hold of you and make you realize that this is the age group that you want to teach for a very long time. Here are some items that I feel make it special and some important items that I have learned along the way:

  1. At this age, the students are like sponges. They want to learn and absorb everything that you teach them. Therefore, do not hold back and be creative! If your lesson can benefit from technology, then utilize it. If your lesson can benefit from movement, then get up and dance like no one is watching, because young students will love you for it and will dance along side of you.
  2. Unlimited hugs. Remember that young students think that you are a rock star, no matter what is going on in your personal life and no matter what kind of day you have had. A hug from a young student can make a bad day disappear.
  3. Riser choreography. I was never taught about this in college, but you will begin to resort to it for every concert because it adds another visual element and it looks so cute when your young students move to music. Luckily, most songs come with riser choreography, especially songs by John Jacobson and Sally Albrecht.
  4. Riser safety. Along with performing on risers comes riser safety. Always check with the school nurse to know who has been sick or has had a fever in the past few days as they might be more likely to feel faint on the risers and pass out.
  5. Curriculum. When I began teaching elementary music, I was not sure what to teach. So, I assessed the students and then researched a variety of curriculum so I could decide which one worked best in the classroom. Whether you utilize a series like Silver Burdett (I am an author on their newest series), or one from Denise Gagne, or if you study philosophies such as Orff, Kodaly, and more, you will find what works best for you and be able to own that and utilize it well in your classroom.
  6. “A ha” moments. When young students have that “a ha” moment, their faces light up as if it is their birthday occurs everyday of the year. This is such a joy to see.
  7. Assessments. Assessments can be done effectively and well with young students with the addition of technology. My book gives some great rubrics that include technology as the assessment tool. In addition, many iPad/iPod apps make assessing young students easy and efficiently. Whether you have to write a progress report or not, assessment is very important because it assists you with planning lessons and giving you feedback on how to pace lessons better and how to continuously improve your lessons.
  8. Teaching them from the beginning. One of the best items about teaching early childhood and elementary music is that you can teach the students and treat them as a blank canvas that you can mold and influence. I hear from many middle school and above music educators that they have to correct what was taught to their students in elementary school before they can even mold them into better musicians. When you teach young students, you have the unique opportunity to develop their musical skills from an early stage, as well as instill a great appreciation for music. I always remind myself that the students I currently teach are privileged and I can at least instill a great sense of music appreciation in each of them so that they can pass that appreciation along onto their children someday. They also can grow up to be people who adore and support the arts.
  9. Young students make beautiful music! Young students love to create music, make up songs about anything, and perform on instruments. When you put all of that together, you realize that your young students have the ability to make some beautiful music together and you have the wonderful job of guiding them to create.
  10. Piano/Voice/Guitar/and Recorder. I was a clarinet music ed/performance major and a flute wannabe in my undergrad years at Ithaca College. When I began teaching early childhood, I was thrilled to be able to play the recorder a lot because the third graders were studying the recorders. I thanked my mom profusely for making me take seven years of piano lessons because they were now paying off a lot because I use them everyday. I listened and learned a lot from my vocal colleagues because I had to learn how to sing and how to take care of my voice (you will lose it quickly your first year of teaching). Finally, I learned that if you learn four chords on the guitar, you can play almost any children’s song. And the young students light up when they get the chance to see, listen to, and sing along with the guitar.
  11. Networking. In this digital age, social networking has become the norm and it has several advantages for music educators. If you connect with other music educators via Skype, Facebook music teachers group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/musicpln/), Twitter (#mused, #musedchat), pinterest (many music educators are “pinning” some great classroom ideas and lessons on pinterest), or other sites, you will find out quickly that you are not alone, especially if you are the only music educator in your school. Networking can assist you with any questions you may have, or give you  and your students the opportunity to collaborate with other music classes from different states and countries, or give you a boost when you have had a bad day because you will receive support from other music educators, or bounce lesson plan and concert ideas off each other, and more. If you have not done so, take the time to join a social networking site and begin connecting with other music educators.
  12. Making your music program known to the community. I have said this numerous times and I feel that it is worth repeating: Make your program and curriculum known to your parents and others in the community. Whether you have a music room website, or give out CDs of the students’ musical creations, or invite parents to your classroom throughout the year, or invite the community to your concerts, or collaborate with the local news sources to advertise your concerts/programs, or go out to the community and perform in local venues, or more, get your program out of your classroom and into the hands of supporters. Does this sound a bit like your selling your program? Yes. Why would you do that? For a couple of reasons. One, you will feel that your program is supported when you would like an audience for your students’ performances. Two, if your program is one that could be considered on the “chopping block,” it will be the supporters that will save it.

There are many more items that I have learned or have found to be very special in my past sixteen years. I am looking forward to another sixteen years (hopefully at my current school) of teaching music to young students!

What are some things that you have learned when teaching music to young students?

Amy M. Burns is an elementary music educator, clinician, author, and musician. She currently works at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, NJ teaching PreK through Grade 3 general music, grade 5 instrumental music, and grades 4-8 instrumental band. She is the author of Technology Integration in the Elementary Music Classroom, Help! I am an Elementary Music Teacher with a SMART Board, and Help! I am an Elementary Music Teacher with One or more iPads! She is also an author for Online Learning Exchange™ Interactive Music powered by Silver Burdett. She has given numerous presentations on integrating technology into the elementary music classroom as well as being a keynote speaker for music technology conferences in Texas and Australia. She is the recipient of the 2005 TI:ME Teacher of the Year Award and the 2016 NJMEA Master Music Teacher Award. TI:ME . You can find out more about Amy at her website: amymburns.com
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