Topic for September: Building a Reference Base

It may seem like forever until you need to start searching for that first job and paycheck, but preparations beyond getting the right number of college hours are vital in securing the position that’s close to what you are wanting. Although many school districts are hiring new graduates because of costs, there’s still quite a bit of competition out there. To give yourself an edge, start working on your experience and reference base.

You should be working on placement files around your junior year, which will most likely include references from college instructors. But, except for methods classes, they won’t have much of a judgement on how you will act in a classroom. Also, you want your student teaching experience to be positive, and having some sort of experience with youngsters ahead of time will help in that avenue, too.

Where can you get this experience? For one thing, see if you can find the time to give lessons in your particular area. Often, colleges will have “prep” programs for students and instructors to give lessons to outside clients. The college will collect a percentage of the lesson cost and pay you. Of course, you can’t set your own price, but changes are good you’ll end up with good students. This will help you get involved in music festivals and other performances you’ll likely encounter as you start your teaching career.

If you have enough college hours, consider becoming a substitute teacher. At least in Missouri, college holidays don’t always exactly coincide with K-12 school schedules, so you can get in some days during your winter or spring holidays. Sign up at your home district or at the district where you attend school. This is a super place to see the “real world”. Substitutes have to be on their toes constantly and establish assertive authority in a matter of minutes. What a great way to build up your discipline! You can also pick and choose the days you go in (but be careful: many districts won’t call you back if you turn them down too often.) Finally, substituting will give you insight of what will be going on in a student’s life beyond their music classes. If you do this, make sure you get support from the principal, and walk in with your own bag of tricks. Most teachers are very good about being prepared for a substitute, but some aren’t! There are some very good resources out there on substituting, including “Teacher (Substitute) Survival Activities Kit Vol. 1; Emergency Activities Material on Class Control Guide” by Thomas J. Randquist and A Survival Kit for the Substitute and New Teacher by Jennifer Gaither.

If the secondary level is your interest, find out how you can get involved at the high school level. For instance, if you have any percussion or color guard experience, see if you can volunteer to help the local high school band during marching season (although this might interfere with your own college’s season!). If you’re a pianist, see if the choral director needs an accompanist, as long as rehearsal times don’t conflict with your class schedule. The drama teacher might appreciate assistance with the high school musical. There might even be a community theater or ensemble group with which you can get involved. My county has a youth theater group that performs Biblical-based musicals each summer. One of the directors is a college student majoring in English. This has given her experience and credibility that will go a long way when she looks for her first teaching position.

Your avenues of experience don’t have to be limited to music. Teach swimming at the Y, see if a church needs a Sunday school teacher, work part-time at the college daycare, or volunteer for a youth group or as a Big Brother/Big Sister. All of these services increase your people skills, which are just as important as your discipline skills with youngsters. After all, you’ll probably have to associate with difficult colleagues, parents, or even principals, so it never hurts to learn to be diplomatic, but at the same time, standing your ground!

Of course, if your area is performance, you’ll be needing a different experience base. Find out if there’s a local association for your instrument and take advantage of all the recitals and masterclasses. Audition, audition, audition as much as you can, but not to the point of burn-out. And don’t forget about giving lessons.

Cultivate these relationships with those in authority during this time, and ask for references as soon as your time with them is through. (Of course, be absolutely positive your job performance was satisfactory, and that you didn’t accumulate too many jobs and volunteer positions for the sake of having a lot on your list!). And, NEVER add a reference without permission. It would get very embarrassing to list someone without their knowledge, only to have them give you a less than stellar review. Whenever possible, ask for a written reference that can be filed. If an interviewer doesn’t call until 9 months after you’ve done the marching band volunteering, the band director’s memory may not be as fresh, especially if he/she’s had a student teacher in between!

These experiences not only give you a background to help you begin your teaching, but they also show you to be a well-rounded individual.

Next month, the College Corner topic will be careers in music. You don’t need to limit yourself to a certain career path, and there might be possibilities you haven’t considered! Contributions for this section are greatly appreciated, as well as topic requests. Please send your ideas in!