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10 things they don’t tell you about being an elementary music teacher

10 things they don't tell you about being an elementary music teacher...yes to all of these, but especially #10!
Over the 17 years I have taught elementary music, I have learned so much about my profession, about the students, about music, and about education. Today, I'm blogging about the things I didn't learn from a workshop, from a book, or from a blog post, but instead just from experience!

#1: You will lose your voice…and if you're not careful, you can damage it forever.
My first year of teaching, I lost my voice EVERY single weekend. It shocked me how much I had to use my voice as a music teacher: singing, giving directions, managing my class. I wasn't expecting to barely be able to talk to my family and friends, or to barely be able to speak to my students! I soon began to worry about getting vocal nodes, and also realized that I was using my voice incorrectly  (as I started as a trumpet player and wasn't employing proper vocal technique or breath support.) I started voice lessons, and I didn't lose my voice quite as much. I still have to be careful though, by drinking lots of water, not singing with my students all the time, and using some of the strategies in this blog post to help save my voice.

#2: You have to be ON all the time!
Teaching elementary music is a very active profession. You are singing several songs, playing instruments, dancing, and more all in one lesson. It doesn't matter if you are sad, or tired, or whatever…you have to be ON and ready for the students to walk through the door!

#3: You have to be able to switch gears very quickly.
Teaching 5th grade music is a bit different than teaching Kindergarten…so you have to be able to switch from one to the other smoothly (and make sure to not treat the 5th graders like they are five years old…it doesn't go over too well!)

#4: Many people will assume you can play piano.
I once had a staff request that I accompany them on the piano for a Christmas party, so they could sing carols…but I'm a mediocre piano player, and I kind of wanted to just relax at the party instead of having to practice and stress out! In the end, I fudged my way through the carols and they were probably surprised I wasn't great at the piano….but I never said I was! Some people assume that you play the piano because their music teacher did, which brings me to my next point…

#5: Some people will assume they know what happens in your classroom.
I had someone in the same school district ask if the reason I didn't play piano with the kids was because I wasn't very good at the piano.
I was a bit offended. It's true I'm not a stellar piano player, BUT she just assumed that she knew what should be going on in my classroom, and that because I wasn't playing piano I must not know how to. I calmly explained that the best way for children to match pitch was to sing unaccompanied, matching someone else's voice instead of an instrument, but I'm not sure she believed me.
I also had a custodian in the same district ask incredulously why I needed to use the blackboard…
So you may have to inform people of what goes on in your classroom. Invite them in. Talk to them about what the kids do. Tell them to ask the students what you do. Host an informance (read more about that in this blog post.) Educate them about what you do, because otherwise they may assume you do exactly what their music teacher did, which is probably not true.

#6: Some people will assume you would rather be teaching high school band.
While working at a band camp my first year of teaching, my former high school band director's husband stated that I must have wanted to use elementary music as a stepping stone.
Again, I was a bit offended. Why would he assume that? I calmly explained that teaching elementary music was exactly what I wanted to do.
Some people think of high school band as the most important job, and while I have immense respect for my friends who teach secondary music, teaching children the basics of music, in my opinion, is pretty darn important!

#7: You will sometimes be thought of as a babysitter.
Even at the most supportive school, you may run across a teacher or two who thinks of you as a babysitter first and a teacher second, because in most situations, you are providing that teacher with planning time.
I love my planning time too, but it is frustrating and disheartening. The best thing you can do, in my experience, is to keep doing what you are doing, and the teacher will soon hear their students singing as they work, or making cross-curricular connections they discovered in your class, or talking about how much they love music, and hopefully they'll get that you're much, much more than a babysitter!

#8: You may have to teach something you thought you'd never have to.
Hopefully you took all sorts of methods classes in college (strings tech, double reed tech, vocal tech, etc.) because you will likely have to get out those old binders and teach something you thought you'd never have to!
When I was in college, I never thought I'd have to teach strings or 7th grade general music, but I've done them both (and enjoyed them both!) Was I sometimes only one page ahead of the kids? Yes. Were there violinists who'd been playing since they were three and were better than me? Yes. But still, we all had fun and learned!

#9: You will watch the students grow into young adults, and it will be very hard to say goodbye.
The fifth grade “clap out” at my school is very difficult…because I have had these kids since Kindergarten. I saw them on their first day of Kindergarten, their eyes wide with awe, and watched them grow into young adults. I watched them grow as musicians, from not finding their singing voice to singing beautifully, from squeaking on the recorder to confidently playing “Mary had a little lamb.”  Even though I may have only seen them once a week, I saw them for six years of their lives. These students are near and dear to our hearts, and it is not easy to say goodbye.

#10: You will be reminded often of how amazing your job is.
Teaching music, given the frustrations listed above, can be hard. But then you'll hear your choir sing beautifully, or your students tackle a round for the first time, or students make a really awesome connection, or a student tell you how much they love your class, when you will think:
“This is the best job in the world. I get paid for this?!?”
And that is what makes it all worth it: the joy.

I would love to hear what you've learned over the years about being a music teacher! Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!

5 Responses

  1. We love music! When my parents passed away, I set up a scholarship in their names. I liked reading about your experiences. I taught in higher ed and my wife will be teaching elementary kids in a year. She wants to teach music. I told her to get in the door, then take music classes, then look in the district or around to find an opening. God bless you for being a teacher!

  2. Hi Aileen,
    Your article is insightful and very true! The same can be said of all the arts. Arts teachers are not babysitters and should be valued for turning students into creative, higher level thinkers and better learners, not just in the arts, but in all subjects. I am the head of the arts at a private school in Boca Raton, Florida. We are searching for a K-8 music teacher. Can you suggest where we might find one? In these COVID times traditional searching methods have not helped.
    Thanks. I really appreciate your advice.

    1. Hi Anita! I am so sorry, I somehow missed this comment until now! Let me know if you need help this year finding a music teacher. Have a great summer!

  3. I’m studying to be a music teacher and I’ve read this a bunch of times. It inspires me how much you love your job in spite of it’s challenges and it makes me even more excited to be studying Music Ed. People act surprised when I tell them that I’m most interested in teaching young kids which always baffles me. As you said, teaching the basics to children is very important! Thanks so much for the inspiration.

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Hi, I'm Aileen

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