Most of the world has somewhat of an idea about how difficult teaching is, but middle school teachers are proven to have it rougher than most other educators. The feeling of just getting used to teaching a certain group of middle schoolers only to start over with an unfamiliar group of kids is unavoidable in music education, and adds to the myriad challenges middle school educators already face. How well a middle school orchestra director tackles working with new groups of students depends on a host of complicated factors, but there’s plenty of good guidance to consider. If you’re getting ready to face a new middle school orchestra for the first time, here’s a few things to keep in mind:
They’re much more afraid of you than you are of them
Empathy is paramount in middle school education. Between huge and uncomfortable physical transformations, burgeoning social insecurities, and general anxieties over being in a new classroom setting, saying the students in your new middle school orchestra are in a more vulnerable position than you is a grand understatement. Keeping the difficult position your students are in at this point in their lives at top of mind will help give you the empathy you need to teach effectively and compassionately. When students are rude, withdrawn, or defensive in your orchestra, it’s important to remember how difficult it is to be a middle schooler rather than taking it personally.
Set expectations for success and mutual respect
A recent article published by the National Association for Music Education lists setting clear and high expectations as a crucial principle for building a thriving middle school orchestra program. Facing a new middle orchestra is made much easier when educators convey their expectations clearly. It’s also hugely important to remember that respect and attention can’t just go one way. Setting clear expectations is the first step, but making an effort to know and respect the students in your class is second. If you’re able to establish that every person in the classroom is to respect one another from the first day, leading your middle school orchestra will be much more manageable throughout the year.
Humor and silliness lightens the mood
A 2016 Smartmusic article written by 40-year teaching veteran Jim Schulz recommends using humor to bond with middle school students. Like we mentioned before, students at the middle school age tend to be vulnerable and uncomfortable. Keeping the mood light with jokes is a way to make students feel at ease, which is critical for getting to know them. Self-deprecation is especially effective, because it can reflect humility and humanity in an educator. If something can go wrong in a middle school orchestra, it will eventually, so find the humor in every situation and share it with your students.
Set aside time for tuning
A good deal of your first day teaching a new orchestra will inevitably spent tuning and inspecting instruments. With everything else that needs to be covered the first day, tuning can get overlooked, but it’s crucial because your students won’t be able to perform without tuned instruments. This also gives educators an opportunity to get a lay of the land as far as how each instrument is performing and a chance to make needed adjustments.
Positivity and purpose are infectious
True leadership is vital in middle school education settings. Few middle schoolers are likely to admit this, but they crave support and a need for purpose. Establishing the common purpose of thriving and exploring music the first day of class will set a motivational tone and expectation that will carry your students through the entire year.