The instruments are ready for the students, the parents are excited. You, the teacher, have all kinds of ideas about how to teach the perfect bow-hold, how to get the instrument sitting properly on the shoulder, how to sprinkle the perfect amount of theory and history into the curriculum....
And then comes the reality of the classroom: it's full of kids. No, you weren't hired to babysit them, but you were hired to teach children. Children tend to...act childish. They are juvenile. Immature. This is their nature. They're not going to sit there like graduate students. You need classroom management skills.
So what are you going to do about it?
I'd love to tell you that I have all the answers, but of course, I don't. In fact, many of you probably have more answers and more experience than I do in the classroom setting. Nonetheless, I'd like to share a few ideas that I've gathered over the years, teaching in many different situations including private, Suzuki group and public schools. And of course, I welcome yours! Here goes:
1. Learn every child's name, and use it frequently. People love to hear their own names, and this is the beginning of establishing a one-on-one relationship with any other human being. If you know a child's name, you can keep that child accountable, in both good situations and bad. “I can see that Susie has a perfect bow hold.” Praise means even more when it is personal. And when you need to take some kind of disciplinary action, “Devin, switch places with Jack,” this also goes more smoothly when it is very direct.
2. Have a “call to attention.” Chances are, some chaos will reign at the beginning of class when you are tuning instruments and getting ready. But have some kind of signal, which you teach the kids and practice with them (preferably on the first day), which tells everyone to be quiet and be ready to play. I'll give you a few examples: Suzuki kids are trained to stand in “rest position” and bow at the beginning of class. For one class, I would say, “Hello everyone,” and they said together, “Hello Mrs. Niles,” then, “I am ready to teach you,” and then they said “We are ready to learn,” and bowed at the same time. Then whenever things got unruly during the class, I said “Rest position!” and mostly, they would comply.
Another call to attention: the “Magic Four.” “Zero” is sitting at rest, “One,” sitting up straight, instrument and bow upright on knees; “Two,” violin up; “Three,” violin hand ready; “Four,” bow on string.
It can also help to have a “call and response,” as in this (rather grainy) demonstration video, where the teacher (me) calls something like “One!” and the student (my son) actually says, “stand straight!” or some other reminder about the position, as well as doing the action. You can apply this in any way you'd like, with students actually saying the instructions, reinforcing their activity.
3. Be consistent, have a routine. Make sure that you have time for reviewing skills they already know, and that there is a certain rhythm that your activities follow, so they know approximately when to expect what kind of activity.
4. Have a variety of possible activities planned for the class, especially in the case of very young children. As we all know, even the best-laid plans sometimes simply don't work as planned. You may find that a certain activity that you planned is causing the kids to get too hyper, or it's causing the kids to get too sleepy, or it is frustrating them. In this case, you need to switch gears, ASAP. They are falling asleep? Stand up. They are frustrated with playing? Put down the instruments and clap it, or sing it. Or have everyone come sit down and read them a story about Mozart. Or if they aren't reading their music well, do a few rote exercises to help their playing.
There are so many facets to music education: technique, reading, theory, history, performing. Let's say you wanted to teach them a certain piece today, but everything went strangely and you ended up teaching them a one-octave staccato scale. Or you ended up in a long discussion about how you can transpose “Twinkle” to any string. If you kept them engaged and they learned something, do not sweat it. You have to teach the people in front of you; better that they are engaged and learning a good lesson than to have them check out and learn nothing while you teach the “real lesson” you were “supposed to teach.”
5. Perform, perform, perform. What is more fun than walking across the hall for a spontaneous performance for another class? Of course, check with the teacher of that class; you can't do that every day, or even every week. But performance is what makes most of us tick – and concentrate, and care. Look for opportunities to perform, and do it. You don't have something ready to play? Even seeing 12 kids playing a rhythm together in perfect unison can be impressive, if you use your showman skills and build it up right. Be thinking toward performances, big and little.
Now teachers, I invite you to share your ideas below!
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