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

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!

10 things they don't tell you about being an elementary music teacher...yes to all of these, but especially #10!

#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!

23 comments

  1. This post totally inspired me. I student taught at a placement which was K-6 this past December and loved it. Some of the things im concerned/worried about when I am applying for jobs ( not being the worlds greatest piano player, or taking a methods class and not being good at strings, but still having to teach it) you made me feel better about! I agree that being an elementary music teacher truly is the best/ most important job! Its also so rewarding! Especially when your students have a smile on their face when they enter and leave your classroom! :) -Christa

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  2. I love this post! I am teaching elementary as a long term sub while I finish up my teaching degree and I can relate to every point on your list. Within my first month I had three parents ask if I would teach their child piano. I politely declined and explained that while I can play well enough for my own enjoyment and to figure out how songs go, I am not a piano teacher and I would not want to teach them my bad habits! My biggest challenge has been that the students have no foundation, even my 5th graders who have had music every year. I have had to start from scratch with every class and love that there are seasoned teachers out there who share their resources for the rest of to use. Thank you! --Jennifer

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  3. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I too am not a stellar piano player and I agree where most people assume music teacher= accompanist and that is so not true. I have been teaching elementary for 6 years and love every minute especially when I see how excited they are to come to music.i think about her big point is admit when you make mistakes kids respond to teachers who are real people and admit when they mess up! Love the post!

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  4. AWESOME post and something I wish I had seen when I was first starting out teaching elementary music 22 years ago! It's amazing how many assumptions there are for those "not in the know" and also how much our profession has changed into one of active, engaging learning, instead of sitting in a chair singing.
    Aimee @ http://ofortunaorff.blogspot.com

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  5. This is a great post! I have been teaching for 17 years and have come across every single one of these situations! Hopefully this will reach as many new teachers as possible so that they know they are not alone!

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  6. What a great message Aileen. I have been teaching 30 years and encountered every situation you mentioned. One my favorites is the people who see me still at school at 6, 6:30 or 7, and wonder why I am still working like the "real" teachers. But I would not give it up for anything. As you say the joy of the students, the smiles, the struggles and the accomplishments are an infinite reward.

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  7. Great wisdom, Aileen! One thing no one told me is how physical this job is. While I love it that I can decide when I sit and stand, when I walk and when I dance -- and the activity is certainly very good for me -- it's been surprising how much stuff I lug back and forth between schools, how much umph it takes to start a piano rolling, and how many chairs I pick up and rearrange every day. Returning this fall after back surgery made me take notice of all I was doing every day with my body, and more aware of moving correctly to avoid injury.

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    1. So true! I now have Orff instruments on wheels and it is SO much easier! I've forgotten how heavy those bass instruments are!

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  8. I love this post! I encountered #7 yesterday. We had a school assembly in the morning, and one of the teachers was upset that I had to cancel her class because I needed to put all the sound equipment back in my room and get it set up again (no sound system in the gym). She NEEDS her prep time! I am lucky if I have time to use the restroom, let alone prep during school hours. #4 - I AM a piano player & frequently accompany a few high school choirs, but I rarely play in my classroom. The only time I really bust out the piano skills is when we are singing happy birthday. I want to be in front of my students, not behind a piano. Don't feel bad at all for not using the piano.

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    1. Thanks, Laura! Yes, another reason to not constantly be behind the piano. I am short (5'2") so it would be hard for me to see the kids while sitting at the piano anyway! :)

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  9. I couldn't be more inspired by this. Proud to be a music educator. I've said these exact things so many times. People don't understand. Especially 5th grade teachers who think I don't know their students or their parents as well as they do. My lovelies in 5th grade always told me I knew more about science and s.s. than their teacher. I told them it's because I am a music teacher. And our history is right there for us to sing about. I've moved up to Jr high this year. I miss my Littles but I have a whole new set of students who inspire me.

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  10. This post is everything! I couldn't agree more. Sharing :)

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  11. Aileen, would you mind sharing what type of district you teach in? Urban, suburban, rural? White collar, blue collar? Thanks!

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    1. Hi there! I teach in an upper middle-class suburban school district. Hopefully most of these apply to any situation! :)

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  12. Aileen,
    Thank you for your post. I ran across it because I am trying to decide if I want to make a switch to MS/HS choir. My former school that I taught elementary at for 6 years is losing their choir director. I would have the unique opportunity to teach choir to my former students. This sounds amazing, except that I have been teaching only general music and children's choir for the past 9 years. I feel as if I would be missing something. I would love to teach k-8 choral and general music!
    Thoughts??

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    1. That is such a tough call! I would miss elementary, but it would be great to teach your former students. What does your gut tell you? If you ask yourself, "What do I want to do?" and give yourself 1 second to answer, what is your answer? :) Good luck!

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  13. I could have written this myself, almost word for word! Excellent description of what we do, the challenges and the blessings.

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  14. Thank you for sharing this post! I am a first year elementary music teacher... With three days experience to be exact :) and I am taking notes.

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  15. No truer words have been spoken! It feels amazing to feel validated!
    I have taught K-8 music for 20 years, and am heading to a new school K-6 next week. (both schools I taught at before this one have closed -I hope the new staff don't think I'm the kiss of death!)I love all of your ideas. I play guitar (and always match tones vocally too.) Kids think they are real music stars when you accompany them on guitar! Teaching your passion is a gift!

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  16. No truer words have been spoken! It feels amazing to feel validated!
    I have taught K-8 music for 20 years, and am heading to a new school K-6 next week. (both schools I taught at before this one have closed -I hope the new staff don't think I'm the kiss of death!)I love all of your ideas. I play guitar (and always match tones vocally too.) Kids think they are real music stars when you accompany them on guitar! Teaching your passion is a gift!

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  17. Bravo! Spot on. I just shared this with my student teacher. Thanks!'

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