The latest issue of Choral Journal features an ongoing column written by retired choral conductors, for retired choral conductors. This month’s contribution was written by Linda Lovaas, a retired middle school choral music educator from California.
Following is a section of the article, which you can read in full in the May 2017 issue. ACDA members can log in with their username and password to view and download the newest edition. You can also read our electronic version. If you are not already a member of ACDA, join today to start receiving your monthly Choral Journal! Associate members can join for only $45 a year.
“I don’t call it retirement. I call it redirection!” I can still hear Dr. Ginger Covert Colla, a choral teaching colleague here in Modesto, California, saying this some years ago. I laughed at the idea and thought it was a great way to look at things, but I never really “got it” until I joined the ranks of the retired. What a perfect way of describing what happens to us in this time of life!
I loved my choral music job in junior high. I started in Texas, where I was born and raised. My dream was to go to New York and be a famous star—either opera or Broadway—or to teach college music. I got my teacher’s credential for backup, student taught at the high school level, and was hired in Texas City, a “blue collar” oil refi nery community near Galveston. It was in middle school. What fascinating creatures! I was hooked for life.
The biggest thing I miss about teaching is the contact with young adults. I fi nd myself seeing junior high-age students at the grocery store or at the mall, and I try to get them to talk to me. (No, I’m not stalking!) It is fun to make brief connections with the “skills” we have as teachers to be able to communicate with them. To help fill this void, I have also offered my experience to choir teachers around my area and have been invited to work with choirs in our county. It is a good exercise for my brain, and it is a great feeling to help guide students and their teachers in a healthy way. I really enjoy the connections and the happy feeling that I am a part of an exciting work community even though I am retired.
I’ve also realized there is a huge need for mentoring. Some teachers are like me and are loving retirement with a finger or two (or twenty) in the field still, helping out those who are still teaching and needing advice and someone to work with their choir or observe and offer help. Other retired music teachers I know do not feel wanted or needed anymore because no one contacts them. There is this huge gap between those who teach and those who are retired, and I am advocating to close that gap. We must reach out and continue to offer our services and experiences!
It is our job as retired choral directors to advocate the importance of our passion. It is sad how chorus gets lost in the funding, lost in the order of importance, lost in the need to nurture children’s souls with the instrument they carry with them every moment of their lives. Singing provides a solace in times of stress, grief, and happiness. We need to redirect ourselves to help those in the trenches to give our strength and our voice to help keep choral music, folk songs, classical, and new compositions up front and personal for all.
If YOU are an experienced choral conductor interested in passing your wisdom to the next generation (you don’t have to be retired!), please consider becoming a mentor through ACDA’s mentoring program! More information here. You can also contact with any questions.
In recent years, rubrics have become a popular trend for assessing student achievement; they have been the common grading tool at most choral and solo festivals for as long as any of us can remember. While rubrics can be useful, they also present several pitfalls thats can severely impact the long-term growth and motivation of students at all levels.
Working with parents in your Music Classroom-Part 3
The Parent/Teacher Conference
This is the final piece in a three-part series about working with parents in your choral music classroom.
In part 1 of this series, I shared some ideas about how to get started with parent collaboration. In part 2, I wrote about some of the fun characters that I have encountered as I opened my classroom up to parent volunteers.
In this, the final post in the series, I am going to share ideas about how to handle the often challenging parent/teacher conferences.
Before I delve into my ideas and experiences with parent conferences, there are three philosophies we should consider:
#1: First and foremost, everything we do as educators must be for the students. As their teacher, we want to demonstrate the 3 D’s for our students each and every day: Desire, Discipline and Dedication. We want them to learn many more life lessons in our room than simply how to read music and sing a song, and it is our responsibility to help prepare them for successful lives.
#2: Secondly, we have to be willing to awaken our students when they need it. Sometimes, that means that we also have to help awaken the parents…and that isn’t always easy to do.
#3: And lastly…a very important piece of my philosophy as a public school choral music educator of 25 years…
People of all ages change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.
Why have a parent conference?
Classroom management can be one of our biggest challenges as teachers.
During my student teaching experience, I remember my cooperating teacher gave me some of the greatest advice of my career.
“Deal with behavior issues in your classroom whenever possible.”
She encouraged me to find solutions that started and ended with me rather than pushing the problems out to the administrators.
I have heeded that advice for my entire career.
Are there situations in which you must turn a situation over to an administrator? Absolutely…but a parent conference can go a long way toward fixing the most chronic disruptive behaviors so many public school teachers encounter.
I have rarely used detentions that are supervised by administrators or other teachers because they almost never result in the desired behavior change.
I have found that parent contact and parent conferences solve almost every situation I encounter in my room.
When should you have a parent conference?
Here is what has worked for me.
When I encounter a child who demonstrates chronic undesirable behavior issues in my classroom, First, I work directly with the student by changing his seat, by having a conversation about how the exhibited behaviors are hurting the learning process. I let the child know that if the behavior doesn’t change, I am going to contact his parent.
When the behavior continues, I start with parent contact via email first. When I email the parent, I always start with some positive information about the child. Then, with as little judgment as possible, I list the behaviors I am seeing in bullet form. I ask for support in changing those behaviors, and I make it clear that I am open to suggestions.
Then, I wait for the parent response.
Sometimes, there is no response, but the behavior changes. This indicates that the parent has handled it and doesn’t want the bother of meeting with me or exchanging more emails.
Sometimes, there is no response and no change in behavior. We must remember to also view this as a “response”. We must hear it so we can continue to move forward to correct the behavior.
Most of the time, I get a response saying, “You won’t have any more issues.” This is also an awesome outcome.
Responses like this one indicate that the parent is listening, and they are partnering with you to respond to the situation.
…But sometimes, the behaviors continue.
When that is the case, here are the actions I take:
Over a three-day period, I watch the child closely, and I very carefully and discreetly jot down specific information about the behaviors.
A note about scheduling conferences: Always schedule parent conferences “as needed” rather than waiting until specific conference nights that are scheduled by your school or by your district.
Individual, “as-needed” response is best, in my view.
If we wait to long to meet with the parent, the behaviors become habits which are very hard to break.
What should you do before the parent conference?
1) You should carefully prepare all documentation.
*Print out copies of the child’s grade and any notes you’ve written inside the gradebook about behaviors.
*List all of the behaviors you’ve observed.
*If you taught the child in a previous grade, as many choral directors do, you may want to obtain any other documents you have that support the behavior patterns you continue to witness in your time teaching the child in order to awaken the parent.
2) Carefully prepare what you are going to say.
Soul search. Dig deep. Evaluate yourself. Have you done everything you can do to elicit a positive response from the child? Or are you cutting to the top person (the parent)? Do you like it when parents bypass you and contact the principals?
Plan to speak to the parent in the same way you’d like to be spoken to if you were the parent.
It’s so important to effectively and clearly communicate and stay very focused on the intended outcome.
With that in mind…
…What is your objective?
Clearly define it for yourself so you can communicate it well to the parent and to the child.
3) After you define your primary objective (which is usually to improve behavior and work patterns), you need to determine a secondary objective in case the parent is absent, uncooperative, in denial about their child’s behavior or if you perceive that the child is simply no longer interested in being in choir.
I have 340 un-auditioned children in my choirs who voluntarily sign up for my class, and sometimes their interests change. It’s ok. I don’t take it personally and neither should you.
At my school, there is some flexibility in moving children into and out of choir at the end of each quarter, so I always walk into every conference with a schedule change form ready in case we need to consider that as a solution. Thankfully, I rarely have to use it. However, I am thankful to have the option.
If there is currently no flexibility at your school on moving children into and out of your class during the school year, begin working toward that goal and be patient as you do. Choir is not the only consideration for administrators who create the schedules in your buildings.
Who should be present at the parent conference?
*Another teacher or administrator.
If you sense that it is going to be a particularly difficult conference based on your correspondences with the parent or if you believe the parent will escalate to the administrators regardless of how the conference goes, ask an administrator to come to the conference as well to save yourself more strife after the conference is complete.
What do you say at the parent conference?
Go without fear and focus on the fact that your goal is to help the child, the parent and the other children in your classroom who are impacted by this child’s poor behavior and/or work ethic.
Remember that this is probably not the first time the parent has heard what you will say, but make it your objective to help them to hear it and take action on it, for perhaps, the first time. To help a parent really “hear” the information you are sharing, you must carefully plan the words you use and the flow of the conference so that you can obtain maximum impact that will result in behavior change.
*Start with examples of positive behaviors. If a child or a parent perceive that you don’t like the child, you will not gain their support. If you start the conference negatively, you are likely to start a battle between parent/child and you that will be a waste of energy. Remember: Until now, the parent has only heard his/her child’s side of the story. If you start by listing positive behaviors (and every child has them), you can help avoid this complication and disarm the parent and possibly even the child.
*Listen. Ask questions about how the child is doing in their other classes. Ask about the child’s outside interests/passions. Often, you will hear things from the parents about the child’s work in other classes that support your arguments about the child’s sub-standard performance in your classroom that support your position.
*Then, it’s time to “go in.”
When you “go in”…
State the behaviors objectively and without judgment.
Be accurate. If you state a detail inaccurately, the child may seize the moment and hurt your credibility in front of their parent causing the conference to go awry.
Remember…you are dealing with a difficult child.
In the conference, what do I do with unsupportive parents?
Most parents of difficult children are thrilled you are taking the time to help support them, but some parents are not. These unsupportive and, in my view, ineffective parents are the ones who have enabled the types of behaviors you are seeing in the first place. In the face of mounds of evidence, these types of parents will not acknowledge or react to what you are alleging about their children, and they will make excuses for their child.
To help awaken those parents, I have a laundry list of effective things I say that are aimed at awakening the parent. Here are two of my favorites:
“I have 83 other children in your child’s class period whose learning is impacted by the behaviors I’ve shared with you today. It is my job to teach all of them. Anything that stands in the way of that learning has to change. Your child’s behavior is standing in their way.”
“I have presented lots of information about your child’s behavior in order to help you and your child. I teach your child for one to three years. You have him for life.”
“I initiated this conference, and I prepared for it in great detail because I care about your child and for all of the children who are impacted by his/her behavior. I hope you will consider partnering with me in the best interest of your child so that we can get him/her on the right track.
During my 25 years teaching choral music in urban public schools in North Carolina, New Jersey and Georgia, most of my parent conferences have gone without a hitch and the desired outcome was achieved.
However, that is not always the case. Once, a parent came out of his chair, and I thought he was going to assault me.
Other times, parents have worked to manipulate the administrators which added another layer of stress to the situation.
Recently, I had a very difficult situation. It involved a parent volunteer I’d worked with and known for many years. I’d taught her two older daughters.
Rewind: Upon enrolling in 6th grade, her child chose band over chorus, so I was sad to lose a committed parent volunteer. Half-way through her third child’s 6th grade year, she came to me to complain about the band teacher. She asked if he could start chorus in January…half-way through this 6th grade year.
I willingly took him.
After recognizing that her son was one of my new challenges and following the processes I’ve outlined above, I decided it was time to hold everyone accountable…including the parents.
Suddenly, after watching 4 years of excellent results in musicals and adjudicated performances and after I’d accepted her third child mid-year into my class, they didn’t like my approach.
Right before Thanksgiving break, they wrote emails slamming my approach and calling me a bully while copying myself and administrators. In addition to the word “bully”, they used many other code words to make sure their case was pushed to the front of the line.
I followed every step I’ve outlined here, and I gathered every bit of documentation I could get my hands on.
We met. We had an administrator present per their request. I met on 3 hours notice on the Monday after Thanksgiving break because I was very clear about what type of parent I was dealing with.
When the parent told me that my techniques to awaken children and parents didn’t work, I calming stated:
“You’ve seen my work with your first two children. You’ve volunteered in my classroom to support my work. I accepted your child into my classroom in the middle of the school year when you complained he was being bullied by his band teacher. Now you call me a bully. When you’ve taught public school for 25 years with 84 children in a classroom, and led a program of over 300 non-auditioned middle school children who volunteer to take my class, then you can tell me how to do my job. Until that time arrives, I am telling you that your child needs to wake up. I hope that you will work with me to help that happen.”
I offered a schedule change form. They refused.
“Today, you have questioned my integrity and called me a bully. Why do you want your child to stay in my class?”
Response: “We like what you are teaching.”
I didn’t respond.
Her child has been doing great since that time. She knows it and so do I.
Stay calm. Trust your gut instincts. Don’t be intimidated. Know that you are doing the right thing. Always know that there is a solution for you and all of the other children you teach in your public school classroom.
I always make sure my heart is in the right place and more importantly, that my documentation is 100% in order.
Parents talk, and students talk about how we do or don’t hold them accountable.
The ripple effect is worth the effort.
Partnering with parents is really what education is all about…even when it’s difficult.
It’s the final day of preparations before the children arrive!
It sort of reminds me of Christmas Eve.
It’s all finished.
On the first day, I want my middle school singers to know that I will wrap the arms of structure around them immediately, and that we are going to have fun too! They want both of those things, and they need them both to flourish! Whichever educator said “Don’t Smile Before Christmas” should have been encouraged to find other work opportunities! 🙂
With up to 85 students in my classes, it is critical that I have my systems and processes in place at all times! So…let’s go on the tour of the first 10 minutes of experience in my middle school chorus class on the first day!
To get to that moment, here are some of the things I did:
1) I used Infinite Campus, our grade book, to print labels of the names of the children in each class. It was quick and easy!
2) I created seating charts. It is very important that they have a place to be from the first moment of the first day.
3) I placed the labels on the chairs to correspond with my seating charts so that I can call their names of the first day if I need to do so! I don’t check roll by calling names out loud. On a normal day, to check roll, I do a quick scan with my charts and make quick notes in pencil. More about how I check roll on the first day below the picture.
4) I copied a word find for them to do. This helps keep them busy while I deal with late comers, lost children, and folks whose schedules were changed at the last minute. They will be busy with the word find for about 10-15 minutes. I play “spa” music! It relaxes them AND me! I know my 7th and 8th graders well, but I am meeting the sixth graders for the first time. So, I quietly walk up to each 6th grade student in their seat, make eye contact, and I say their names. If I pronounce it wrong, they correct me, and I make quick notes on my chart. I feel like this connection is critical for us to make with new students. It’s quiet, one-on-one, eye to eye and it sets up a relationship between you and the student. When we call roll out loud on the first day, the children are put on the spot to perform. Yes…even saying “here” is a performance for a middle school student, and it can go in a variety of ways! Going around the room quietly in the way I described above eliminates the performance and gives you an opportunity to connect. It is important to establish positive rapport immediately.
I often say to my students: You get one chance to make a first impression. Well….the first 10 minutes of chorus class is their first impression. Structure….warmth…..calm.
The next thing I want to establish on Day 1 is FUN! So, once I’ve gotten everything organized with late-comers, etc., and I feel like things have calmed down, I launch into the first lesson of S-Cubed: Successful Sight Singing for Middle School Teachers and their Students. Here is the video link to exactly what I do after things have calmed down on the first day. I took that video on the first day of school in 2013.
With shortened class periods in my building on Day 1, this is pretty much all I am able to do on that first day, but I wanted to share it with everyone. Perhaps it will give you some ideas!