4 People I’d Tell My First-Year Teacher Self to Run To or Run From

My first teaching job was an elementary general music position at 2 schools. One of the schools was toxic and chaotic, the other was friendly and supportive. Both taught me important lessons about the importance of choosing the right teacher friends.

The Timesucker vs. The Reciprocator

RUN FROM: The Timesucker

Timesuckers will constantly ask you to help them with favors small and large. They may ask for time, talent, or skills without anything in return, insist on talking to you during planning or after school when you are trying to get things done, or they may treat elective teachers like teacher assistants. Most of the time, they don’t realize how busy a music teacher’s day is. Don’t be afraid to guard your time and say no to this person. A simple “no, I am not able to help with that right now” is all you need.

Traits: self-centered, oblivious, talkative (even when you are in a hurry), manipulative

RUN TO: The Reciprocator

Find the reciprocators at your school as soon as you can and then aspire to be a reciprocator yourself. They are often a major reason why a school has a positive, healthy climate. Reciprocators will ask you for favors but will also help you when you need it. The reciprocator respects your time, and when you ask for help, they are happy to lend a hand. Someone that allows you to send children to their room for a break is a tell-tale sign of a reciprocator. We all need a buddy classroom sometimes! Veteran teachers and mentor teachers are often reciprocators because they’ve been where you are, they are rooting for you, and they see your potential.
Traits: kind, giving, loyal, helpful, perceptive, respectful

The Gossip vs. The Out-of-the-Looper

RUN FROM: The Gossip

Gossips will hurt you by spreading rumors or negative stories about you and other teachers. People are drawn to them because they always seem to have the inside scoop. But be warned, hanging around gossips can create a toxic and negative school environment for you. The worst kind of gossip will befriend for the sheer purpose of getting dirt on you and won’t think twice about sharing info with admin. They’ll stretch the truth to make you look bad. Associate with them with them only when you have to. Stay clear of the teacher’s lounge at lunch if you find the gossips often congregate there.
Traits: jealous, selfish, cliquish, competitive, attention-seeking 

RUN TO: The Out-of-the-Looper

Out-of-the-loopers make great friends! They aren’t interested in other people’s drama and care more about your successes as a teacher. They will be your biggest cheerleader and you will be theirs. They often march to the beat of their own drum, and are sometimes judged by others for being different. Students are their main focus and they don’t care much about what others think. You will hear them gush about their students often, and they can be trusted to give you kind and constructive feedback. This person will have your back! At my first school, this person was the art teacher. She was close to retirement and I was a newbie, but we had a magical bond and still do. Out-of-the-loopers can be hard to come by, so treasure them!
Traits: humble, caring, giving, quiet in large groups/meetings

With all that being said, in the end, you may never know a person’s true colors. Don’t judge anyone right off the bat and remain professional with everyone, including support staff. The person that rubbed you the wrong way when you first met, may end up being your best friend. 
It can be lonely being the new kid on the block. Make sure you go to lots of professional developments to learn from and connect with other music teachers. Networking is so important as a teacher and you may even be able to ask a seasoned teacher to mentor you. I find that teachers who present at P.D.’s are usually the kind of people who want to help newbies. If you can find a great mentor, you’ve hit the jackpot!

Memorize Student Names in a Hurry with Your Cell

Record the Students Saying their Names

This seems so obvious, but it never occurred to me to record a 30 second video on my phone of the students saying their names. I recently began teaching part-time at a middle school and my phone helped me learn about 45 names in a few days.

What I Did

  • Created name tags and hung them on each students’ chairs. The backs of the name tags had a short questionnaire for them to fill-out while they settled into their first class with me.  
  • When students were lined-up for dismissal, I whipped out my cell phone and took a video. I started at the front of the line and had each child say their name. This also helped me learn nicknames and name pronounciations.
  • Everyday, I watched the video on my phone several times.  
  • I would mute the video or pause it to see if I could guess their names before they said them. 
  • I also read their questionnaires, and tried to mentally match their faces with the fun facts they shared about themselves on the survey. 


IOS Apps

You could also try apps that have been created to remember names, such as Name Shark or Namerick. 

  • Name Shark (free) allows you to create groups and share them with other teachers. This would be great if you become friends with someone like the P.E. teacher, who may have the same students.
  • Namerick ($0.99) can also create groups of names but is unique in that it will create a mnemonic device for each name. The video below uses the example of Fred. The app will populate a mnemonic such as “Fred Floats Felines.” The mnemonics could be fun to set to music or use as vocal warm-up!

Hope these quick and simple tips are helpful or inspire you to create a fun way to get to know your students! Have a wonderful year!

6 Ways to Retain Students in After-School Chorus

It is so frustrating to have students drop out of your after-school choral program mid-year. Reasons for dropping out range from students wanting to join other clubs, to parents taking away chorus as a punishment for poor grades. After loosing a chunk of my chorus to the soccer club during my first year at a new school, I knew I had to change some things.  EDIT: Anna Hanks has a great comment below about how she retained students by not having to compete with sports.  I totally agree. Kids, especially in elementary school, should be able to explore multiple interests!

1. Use concerts to recruit for next year.

My most dedicated group are always the 4th graders because they are so excited to be in chorus after watching the concerts when they were in 3rd grade. I chose at least one fun or memorable song for the winter concert and did a short musical in the spring with fun costumes, props, and choreography. One song I made memorable during a winter concert was “Santa Lucia.” I incorporated some Swedish traditions by turning off the lights in the auditorium and having the oldest girl enter with an electric candlelight wreath her head to an instrumental version of the song. The other singers followed her in line as the got into place. It really set the tone for the concert and the audience was silent! By the time the 4th graders were able to join chorus, they took it much more seriously than the group I had during my first year at the school.

2.  Give lots of solos and put kids in charge.

Even if it’s just a reading an introduction to a song, pulling the curtains, or holding a sign or prop, I tried to give each kid one special job or moment during the year. They take it seriously, and are so much better at remembering their tasks than I am. Even though something may feel like a chore to us, to a child, it makes them feel important. It’s also fun to see student leaders emerge in the group.

3.  Set aside time for games and play.  

Dramatic exercises that focus on movement, concentration, ensemble connection, and improvisation are great. If it’s a beautiful day, or near the end of the year, I take students to the playground for 10-15 minutes while waiting for others to trickle-in after school.

I found lots of great dramatic exercises to use from theater books for kids and sometimes a classroom teacher would pop-in and play with us! A fantastic book full of imaginative activities is  On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters. Here are two exercises I used.

  • Mirror: kids mirror the actions of their partner. The point is for onlookers to be unable to figure out who the leader is. Students have to move VERY slowly until they are connected enough mentally with their partners to move faster. I add music to set the mood. This is an activity where no speaking is allowed.
  • Mystery Object: in this game students have a prop, such as a chalkboard eraser, and they have to use their improv skills to pretend that the object is something else, like a remote control. The other students have to guess what the “mystery object” is. After a few guesses, the mystery object is passed to a new student. This game was very popular with my chorus.

4.  Provide snacks (or allow them to bring snacks from home).

I always provided snacks, and the kids looked forward to them. It was another way to show that I cared. To save money, I bought them in bulk and split up the snacks in coffee filters because they were cheaper than paper plates. See my short blog post here. Snacks I’ve provided include pretzels, popcorn, chips, cookies, and Cheez-Its. I usually mixed it up, for example, 7 honey pretzel twists and 2 cookies. In late spring, I’d even cut up a watermelon or give freeze pops to the kids while they played on the playground for a few minutes. We also had pizza on concert days. I knew some students would not have a ride to the evening concert, so even though it made my day very long, I always offered to play a movie and provide pizza for students that couldn’t go home before the concert. Remember to save your receipts for tax deductions!

5.  Allow them to be creative: create movements/choreography, props, costumes, instrumental parts, attire.

Sometimes the best concert ideas would come from the students. I’ve had students go home and study The Temptations on their own, and create amazing choreography to some of the Motown songs we’ve sung for our Black History Month assemblies! The moves were so much better than what I would have come up with.  The school secretaries almost died when a group of boys performed a dance to Music K-8’s “My Pizza”, just for them, with the moves from the following YouTube video.

6. Maximize performance opportunities.

We had video announcements at our last school so it was fun to have chorus sing short songs for holidays. What was also great about that is that you can write out the lyrics and no one will see them if you hold them off-camera. 😉  Another idea is a school tour.  Take chorus students around to the primary classrooms and office staff to brighten their day! We also went to Six Flags every Spring to sing with other students in the county.  If students could not pay for their tickets, I would pay for them, or tell them to bring what they could. This was one of my BEST recruiting tools and students talked about it all year. I’ve also had a grant funded which helped defray costs for families.

I hope this post gave you a couple of useful ideas. Even though I take chorus very seriously, there were times when I really did have to lighten it up. Especially since it was after school and I did not want the kids to burn-out. Yes, this does require you to spend money (perhaps you could use school or PTA funds) but your chorus kids will become extremely loyal to you for going the extra mile. 

Rhythm Rounds: A Engaging Game for Music Class


Sometimes I’ll start an activity will start to morph into something totally new by the end of the week.  Probably common among music teachers.  This activity is an example of one of those instances.   I was playing Musical Four Corners with my 4th graders and it quickly turned into another fun game that is free and easy to make!

4 square rhythms ta, tit, z-05

  1. Display 4 rhythm patterns on the board. Download a FREE set of cards that you can print or project by clicking the image above.  I started with simple 4-beat rhythms.  You can add more measures depending on the skill level of your students.
  2. Place four pitched/barred instruments on the floor in locations that correspond to the rhythm patterns.  For example, my rhythms were in a 4-square block, so the instruments were arranged the same way.  I like varying the instruments to include xylophones, metallaphones, and especially tone bars.
  3. Give your students a batting order.  We sat in a semi-circle, so we just went down the line.
  4. The first 4 students sit behind an instrument.  Remove bars to make instruments pentatonic for a pleasant sound.
  5. Give students a few seconds to become familiar with their instruments if needed.
  6. Students should play on only one bar until they are comfortable enough moving around to different bars.
  7. Display 4 different rhythms.
  8. Count-off and listen for mistakes as students play their rhythms simultaneously.  If played correctly, they will make a beautiful, rhythmic sound.  If a student makes a mistake, they sit down and the next in line will take their place.   You can also have a warm-up round to give students time to adjust to the activity.
  9. Students have a lot of fun trying to play their rhythm perfectly in order to gain extra turns.
  10. After everyone has gone once, I’ll tell students that they now have to play their rhythms as an ostinato.
I found it easiest to project the rhythms on the board.   I had a student scroll through the rhythms on my computer while I stood at the board watching the players.

For students who struggle with reading rhythms, or hand-eye coordination, I will let them slide for a couple of rounds so that they can get a little extra practice.   When this happens, I say something like, “Oh, I didn’t catch anyone that time, let’s try again,” or I’ll move to the next slide.

If you find this game is successful, you can vary the activity with different rhythms/icons, or include pitches.  You can arrange it for 5+ rhythms or have students “face-off” in teams with 2 rhythms.

If you prefer stick notation, download the free Kodaly-friendly version by clicking the image below!

4 square rhythms ta, tit, z STICK-03


How to Teach Primary Songs with a Pocket Chart

I inherited several pocket charts in my last classroom and didn’t know what to do with them for about 5 months.  For a while, I tried putting objectives in the pockets but it was easier just to write the them on the board.  Then, a PreK teacher was throwing out a semi-broken chart stand and the hoarder in me snatched it up.  I had to find a way to use this pocket chart.  I had been using beat charts with 1st and 2nd grade for a couple of years and decided to transfer each beat, to a pocket.  It turned out to be a very successful way to teach elements of a song!  Here’s what I did (after rigging up the stand with yarn and binder clips so that the chart would not fall off):

  •  Use a chart with at least a 4×4 grid of pockets and a title pocket on top.  My chart was 5×5.  

  •  Place the title of song at the top.  I’ll use “Lucy Locket” for this example, but any 4-measure song will work.  Fill in the square pockets with beat numbers.  Have individual students tap the beat with a pointer while the class sings or chants the lyrics.  If everyone has time for a turn, you can use this as an assessment grade.  My p-pal was also pleased that I was “incorporating literacy” by placing the lyrics in each pocket. 
  • Next, students should start tapping the rhythm of the song.  Place rhythm icons (pennies) over the beats and lyrics at this point.  

  • Once they are comfortable with the above steps, take all the icon cards out, and scramble them.  Pass out the cards to 16 students and see if they can assemble them in the correct spots. Avoid chaos at the beat chart, by passing the cards out slowly so there are only a few students working at a time.  Check the icon positions as a class.  If there is an error, call on a student to correct it.  I’ve had students who usually do not shine academically get a big confidence boost when they were able to correct problem spots. 
  • Repeat the previous step, with musical notation!  Scramble the quarter notes and eighth notes for your students to reassemble. You may also remove the icons beforehand to see if they can correlate the notes with the rhythm of the words.  If they are successful, you can remove the lyrics so that they only have the beat number cards as a clue.  

  • You can also repeat this process with pitch.  I use “S,” “M,” or “L” cards for  sol, mi, and la.  

In the end, you’ll have layers of cards in each pocket that represent different musical elements that make-up a song.   I like how students can see how rhythm is built on beat, and that the pitch is dependent on rhythm.

Use the extra pockets to store cards, and keep multiple song titles in the top pocket to flip through.  The beat numbers can always stay in place to be reused for various songs.  The rhythm and pitch cards were laminated and stored in the bottom row of pockets.  If students wanted to complete the entire song alone, I would sometimes store the cards for each row in the empty pockets on the end of each row.   I hope that makes sense!   Extra pockets = good.