It has been a rough year!

I teach middle school, but I still don’t consider myself a middle school teacher. Middle school is an interesting age, and teachers often have an elementary approach to middle school. I prefer to work with students as emerging adults, but that approach isn’t always successful–at any age (even with adults!). That said, I no longer see myself as a high school teacher (this was my identity for 17 years), or even as a college professor. I see myself as a music educator that could teach at any level. That change has been a long time coming!

What I have learned over my past two years of teaching middle school is that there are better solutions out there. The best solutions work regardless of personality or charisma. In my current teaching position, I have 320 students in grades 6-8, and music is a required subject (unless a student has remedial classes to take, or they are enrolled in AVID and choose other elective options). What this means is that unless a student plays an instrument (band or orchestra), they are in choir. I also get all the kids who drop or get booted out of instrumental classes. So musically, choir is the end-of-the-line.

I see nearly half of the school population. The difficult part is (without a non-performance option), about 25%-30% of any given grade level is in choir but has no desire to be there. This results in behaviors that I never experienced at the high school level. Those previous behaviors caused the previous teachers to leave this same position. And not to be rude, but of those 25%-30% of students, 95% of that group behave poorly in other classes. On a related note, their parents are either overwhelmed, enabling, or not involved. With those parents (and students), the statement, “It is just choir, so it doesn’t matter,” is used. There is no better statement that you can use with a music teacher to let them know that they and the subject that they are most passionate about are complete rubbish to you. And no, grades are not a motivational tool for most students, and with “Grading for Learning,” students can earn no grade lower than a 50%.

Last year, all but twenty-four 8th Grade students chose a different option than choir. That was determined long before I arrived–but there should have been over 100 8th grade students in choir. In 8th Grade this year, I kept nearly all of my previous 7th grade students (about 95 of them), but an additonal 25 students were dropped into choir who had not taken choir in 7th grade. Those kids were generally not happy to be in choir, and a large number of them made a concerted effort to disrupt the educational environment every day. Sadly, in our middle school format, there was no other place for those kids to go (they aren’t going to join band or orchestra at that point) and there was no ability to change anything.

I have been trying to stay true to myself, and to treat students as the emerging adults that I believe they are. I have modified my expectations about homework (generally, students don’t do homework in our school, so many teachers stop assigning it) and pitch-perfect concerts. My personal goal is my personal survival and well-being, and to have choir be a fun place where kids want to be. I want them to want to take choir at the high school. Last year, I sent 4 students to the high school choirs; this year I sent 31. Some days, it is a struggle to go to work. I miss working with kids that choose to be in choir, and I now understand why my former middle school colleague bid into my former high school position.

Please note: it isn’t the “middle school beast” that ruins my day–I like middle school kids. I really do! But the kids who hate your class and do everything they can to destroy your class can really ruin your day–and they often do. Sadly, that impacts how you react, even though while 70%-75% of your kids (260 of them) want to be there. But we seldom focus on those particular kids.

I was recently reminded of this, as teachers are encouraged to hand out a reward slip to students who are ready, safe, or respectful. Last Friday, we had a rewards day for any student with 25 or more slips, and a HUGE number of students at that rewards day were “naughty” kids. Teachers used those rewards slip to keep those naughty students involved or calm in their classes. Meanwhile, most of our kids–the majority of them “good” kids–sat in their normal classes, because teachers don’t reward them! We need to make sure that we are rewarding the “good kids,” too.

I have to remind myself why I moved to middle school: time with my family (most days, I am home by four and we have two concerts a year, plus I attend our other middle school band and orchestra concerts), the iPad initiative (I have learned SO much), support for my other professional interests (being allowed time to present at a few conferences each year), and the reduction of stress away from a high-profile high school position. There is also the benefit of a guaranteed position (320:1 and rising), as well as an administration that is supportive and encouraging. Additionally, as of next year, all of the students will have been “mine” for the first time. So the culture might very well shift to a direction that I love.

Realistically, however, things will stay basically the same, and I will have to continue to deal with the 25%-30% of kids that are in choir that don’t want to be there. That situation has resulted in a whole new level of stress which I don’t think I will ever like or get used to! My college choir director, who is retiring this year, often said, “Every hospital has its bed pans.” He was so very wise in sharing that statement with us.

In our disrict, we have bidding rights that come with a four year mandatory bid. If you bid somewhere, you teach in that position for four years. So I can’t go anywhere else for two more years without leaving our district, and there is no guarantee anything will open in our district at that time, or that I would want to bid to another position at that time. As a result, I have to try to fix the problem from the inside out. That partially means advocating for some kind of class that isn’t performance-based (our administration is set against a general music class). I personally want to work on introducing a music technology class, but need to figure out how such a class doesn’t become a draw away from traditional band, choir, or orchestra. The other thing that I have needed to do is to find middle school management solutions. I found two solutions that worked this year which I will keep using, and I also have given up on some solutions. The next few posts will talk about these items. In particular, I will discuss “above-the-line” and S-Cubed. Stay tuned!

P.S. Our last day with students is on Friday.


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