Overcoming Challenges as a New Music Teacher

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The first year of teaching didn’t go entirely well for award-winning music educator Victor de los Santos. He was assistant band director at Santa Ana High School in California and says the director there told him to lower his expectations because the students were supposedly “not going to achieve.” When that director left, Santos was encouraged to take the job, which he did despite his concerns.

“The kids didn’t like me, and I didn’t care for the area… but I decided to change everything in the program and thought if they fire me, they fire me,” Santos said.

Victor de los Santos conducts one of the ensembles at Santa Ana High School in California. He was one of the finalists for Grammy’s 2019 Music Educator Award.

The gamble paid off in innumerable ways. He now says he loves his job, and in the ensuing 11 years Santos has changed so many lives he’s received several high-profile accolades. Santos was one of the ten finalists for Grammy’s 2019 Music Educator Award and is on the honor role for the Life Changer of the Year award. The numerous sentiments on the LifeChanger page about his impact are touching.

“Of those fortunate to be in his presence, there is a mutual consensus that educators like Victor only come once in a lifetime.”

“He pours his heart into everything he does, loves his students, and has an incredible amount of faith in his students potential. I personally wouldn’t be where I am today if he didn’t believe in me.”

“He has been to many a father figure, myself included. I had the honor to be walked down the aisle by him.”

Reaching that level of success certainly takes tenacity as schools across the United States constantly struggle to retain talented teachers. Music teachers Alex Schweizer and David Fernandes say they faced a number of surprises their first year of teaching in the 2018–19 school year. Schweizer says he burned out during the year but kept going with the encouragement of fellow teachers and by focusing on the positives. That is helping him now in his second year of teaching.

“I’m a lot more confident now – I know how to teach and know who I am,” Schweizer said.

What Many Colleges Don’t Teach

David Fernandes says he faced some unexpected challenges his first year of teaching after graduating from college.

One of the immediate challenges for many music teachers is handling problems they didn’t learn about while in college. Fernandes is teaching general music in the Reading School District in Pennsylvania. In his first year he taught middle schoolers, including emotional support students, ESL students, and many pre-teens and teens dealing with homelessness, gangs, and other societal problems.

“I wish I was more prepared for teaching in an urban setting,” Fernandes said.

One of his toughest days came when the students were on lockdown because of threats of a gang riot. Fernandes had to use a teaching cart that day since the students were not allowed to leave their homeroom classrooms.

“I remember feeling unsettled that day, but I stepped up because the kids were scared,” Fernandes said.

Schweizer tried for jobs in school districts where the types of problems Fernandes and many other teachers face are less common – districts with healthy resources and fewer students with troubled backgrounds. However, Schweizer found most of these positions were filled by experienced teachers. He took a teaching job in Newark, Delaware, where funding for music education is often limited. He taught choir and general music at George V. Kirk Middle School. There he had to make his own curriculum, and he said the students’ knowledge of music was at all different levels.

“The district has school choice, so they may have not come from the same feeder elementary school,” Schweizer said. “They were all over the place in terms of what they did before in music. There was no consistency.”

He also found he struggled in the area of parent communication.

“I improved in parent communication, but I was scared at first because I didn’t know what to say. I made some positive phone calls and sent positive emails, and the parents were grateful to hear good things.” Schweizer said.

A band director may be the most consistent person in these students’ lives.

– Music teacher Victor de los Santos

Creating a Family Environment

Santos is certainly familiar with how problems outside the doors of the classroom affect the day-to-day job of being a teacher. His district is also in a low-income area, and he was taken aback when a student called him her “dad” in his first year of teaching. Since then, he has accepted that it’s important to create a family environment at school, and many students call him “father.”

“She said you’re the first male figure in my life who cares about me,” Santos said when describing the first student who called him her father. “A band director may be the most consistent person in these students’ lives.”

Santos says it’s important to set the right tone at the beginning of the school year and to avoid arguing with students. He is very in tune with students’ behavior each day, and if a student seems to be having a bad day, he asks them what’s wrong. He also says the most important thing is never to lower expectations.

“I may tell them to have the first three measures be perfect by tomorrow. The next day, I’ll ask them if they’ve met the expectation. If the answer is no, then they need to tell me why,” Santos said.

Santos also continually defines concepts for students so they understand what he means. As an example, he kept telling one student to stop rolling her eyes, but she said she didn’t do that. One day he saw her roll her eyes and immediately commented:

“Whatever you just did I define as eye rolling. Stop doing that,” Santos said.

He also does this for music concepts.

“If you tell the students they are flat, I have to define what flat is and what they have to do to change that,” Santos said.

Mentoring Teachers

To help new teachers reach this degree of comfort, California has a two-year teacher induction program that provides mentoring. Santos is mentoring two music teachers in the program this year. Studies show that such mentoring is helpful not only for educators but also for students. A study by the research nonprofit SRI International found student scores were higher when they were taught by a new teacher being mentored.

Fernandes says his school uses what it calls the “welcome pineapple.” If a teacher puts a pineapple on their door, it means the door is open for other teachers to come in and observe and offer advice.

Schweizer says he had much support from his fellow teachers in Newark, and he was assigned a social studies teacher to be a mentor. However, the school lost funding for his general music class. This year he has moved to the rural Upper Adams school district in Pennsylvania, where he is replacing a band director who taught for 24 years. There he has a general music teacher as a mentor, along with support from colleagues across the district.

The Business of Music Education

Santos says one key area mentors often have to address is how to help new teachers handle the business aspects of the job. He recommends going through inventory at the beginning of the year to track what you have and don’t have.

Alex Schweizer directs the trash can ensemble he created with the help of online donations.

If new equipment is desired, Santos helps teachers prepare budget requests for administrators. He says administrators and teachers often speak a different language, and new teachers sometimes don’t realize that. He helps teachers give administrators fully developed plans that consider all aspects of a request. If it is a budget request, this may include price comparisons, shipping costs, etc. If it’s a schedule request, then it includes full details about why it would be helpful and how it would work.

Mentors may also have to help teachers with budget limitations. Schweizer tackled this problem by pursuing funds through donorschoose.org. With the help of social media, within 24 hours he was able to raise enough funds to create a trash can ensemble.

Fernandes likewise contends with limited resources. He has made due with broken pianos that are missing keys and limited equipment. However, he did benefit from MacBooks provided by the school. He had students use Garage Band to make music for movie trailers. Schweizer was able to give his students a similar project when the district approved Chromebooks for the school.

Ideas That Worked

As a music educator, Victor de los Santos is always looking for new ways to help his students develop both as musicians and as people.

Creativity and passion are often key in the process of adjusting to a new school year. Santos, Fernandes and Schweizer have all pursued ideas that have greatly benefited their students. Among other things, Schweizer added the trash can ensemble; Fernandes organized the school’s first musical; and Santos hired a mariachi instructor.

Santos is always looking for new ideas too, which has helped him greatly increase the number of ensembles in the school and the students involved in them. One tradition he follows every year is holding an annual senior dinner. During that event, he asks the students what they liked and disliked about the program, and he makes changes based on their feedback.

No matter how teachers go about reaching students, Santos says it’s always good to keep in mind that there will be good days and bad days. He recommends finding support from parents, teachers and administrators by asking them for what you need. But in the end, it’s important to keep expectations in check.

“Don’t give up. It’s going to get hard,” Santos said. “I had two previous orchestra directors say if you are 70% happy, you can work on making it better, but 70% is good.”

View resources for new teachers.

Visit cuttime.net for information on a group management tool that helps with inventory, rosters and more.

Mary Rogelstad
Mary Rogelstad joined Pepper in 2018 as the company’s Marketing Content Coordinator. Previously she worked as a journalist in the international media and as a communications specialist at various nonprofits. In her free time, Mary has enjoyed singing in various choral groups and performing in musical theater.

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