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Conversations with an Elementary Music Teacher

Part 2: Navigating Change and Finding Joy in Teaching

This blog is the second installment of a recorded interview between Gregg Ritchie, Curriculum Specialist at McGraw Hill, and Kelly Lynch, an elementary school music teacher in Texas. You can find Part 1 of the interview here.

In this installment, Gregg and Kelly discuss challenges presented following COVID and remote learning, finding joy in teaching, and supporting students.

Gregg: How do you feel in terms of the support you receive from administration, as well as from the community and families you’re teaching?

Kelly: For administrators, they’re very much at their wit’s end, and it’s just every semester there’s something different. My schedule has literally changed almost every semester. Like, you’re teaching on the computer, and then you’re teaching on a cart, and then you’re teaching in-person. But kids are social distancing, and so then you’re teaching “normally,” but these kids aren’t “normal,” though you’re expected to just jump right back in where you were two and a half years ago. My schedule’s changing again next semester because we’re going to have a half-time art teacher; it’s just constant adapting to new things. I think that I have enough support from admin, but it’s a lot to manage.

Gregg: Are the changes due to things always related to COVID, or other factors as well?

Kelly: A lot in the beginning was COVID-related, but also the district often shuffles administrators around. As a teacher, you don’t get a lot of say in who your new administrators are going to be. I get a new principal or assistant principal, then I have a new schedule, new duties, new expectations and more. A lot of it is staffing issues, which I think people are seeing everywhere. We have open music positions, art positions, and we currently only have a part-time counselor.

Gregg: These open positions are because people are leaving as they’re frustrated and seeking different careers?

Kelly: I think so, yes.

Gregg: Do you feel like as a music teacher, your schedule gets played with more than another teacher?

Kelly: For sure, and it’s hard to come to terms with it, because you are going to be the last priority for someone, and that’s hard. When you’re a master’s level teacher, but you’re doing recess and lunch duty, and your schedule is always changing, and you weren’t necessarily brought in for input on that schedule change… it’s tough.

Gregg: Would you say that the average elementary music teacher doesn’t have a whole lot of say in the schedule, but rather that’s typically administrator-driven?

Kelly: Yes. With all this, I’ve come near to the point of teacher burnout. But, at the same time, I had a student teacher last semester, so I was trying to instill the joy and to tell them this is not normal. Both her, and another I had, have gone on to take music positions in the district, and so I feel like I succeeded at something. I think people who are new to music education are finding joy in it. Some of us who have been doing it for a longer time are starting to think “I need to take a break.” A lot of people are at that point.

Gregg: Can you give any specifics about the joy that you still find?

Kelly: The joy is teaching the kids who want to be there and who like playing the games and singing the songs. I still know that I like doing that! For many kids, this is the one thing that they’re best at. I had many of them tell me their favorite classes are art and music. There’s so much pressure on them to do well academically, when they’re really one to two years behind. But you know, in the music classroom, we’re still playing and experiencing and creating at whatever level, and every child can still be successful at that.

Gregg: Do you notice developmental changes? For instance, are you teaching fourth graders musical skills and elements that they should have been proficient at perhaps in third grade?

Kelly: For sure. Our curriculum is spiraled, so a lot of that can be built in, but our district also has a lot of mobility. Like you have a kid who has only been doing “ta ti-ti rest” and they’re in fifth grade. How do you like catch them up? They could come from another school and have had a different schedule. For instance, I see my Pre-K kids 90 times a year and others only see their Pre-K kids 30 times a year, so the children are all at different places.

In 3rd grade, I teach the rhythmic “syn-co-pa” element and would teach them the folk dance, “Alabama Gal.” Well, I can’t so much now. They haven’t done the steps and don’t have the skill development from first and second grade that would prepare them to be ready to do like this folk dance, where they’d be sashaying down a set and making an arch. Many don’t even know how to follow in a line or know their right from their left. We’ve always dealt with challenges such as these, but it’s definitely inflated this year.

Gregg: Do you anticipate a shift where skills and concepts, such as “syn-co-pa,” will now have to be taught later? Over time, maybe twenty years from now, will there perhaps be a more permanent change in when skills are taught, that will have occurred because of these past couple years?

Kelly: I definitely think everything’s pushed back a little bit. You can’t expect kids coming in — let’s say kids coming into sixth grade — to be at the same level, they were when you were teaching five years ago. They’re not the same kids academically or emotionally, and I think we’re going to see the ramifications of that for years and years.

Those student teachers… this is all they’ve ever known. They’re coming into it new, and this is your normal reality, whereas this is truly not normal and I’m struggling against it. I think things are going to change just because the new teachers are going to come in and say “well, this is what kids can do, so we’re going to work with what we have.”

Gregg: I’m no expert on math and literacy, but I know there’s typically a “third grade math book,” or a “fifth grade math book.” For literacy, there’s a fourth grade reading level, a fifth grade reading level, with a spectrum of approaching-level, on-level, beyond-level readers. For those teachers, I wonder if they are more limited with what they can then do with students, when more students are possibly an entire year behind. Whereas with music, maybe that’s easier to deal with?

Kelly: Yes, there’s less restrictions on what we must do; in that regard, we don’t have the same pressures on us, like getting to a child to a certain reading level, because music is often not a tested subject.

Gregg: Are there any other joys that come to mind that you want to share?

Kelly: Well, kids are resilient, and they still love having fun. Even though I’m struggling to get my fourth graders to stand still for a concert, we’re still doing the fun things that we were doing before. And they’re making music!

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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