“In 20 Years, You’ll Laugh about This”
Experienced Teachers Share Their First Job Stories
By Karen Stafford

OK, the job search is over, and OH MY! Instead of the glorious marching band position you were craving, you have an elementary job in a small school. Or, instead of that wonderful choir, you have grades K-12, EVERYTHING! You don’t have a room. You have to travel. Your principal is a dictator. You’ve been assigned the Student Council or forced to teach girls’ basketball! This, too, shall pass. We, the experienced music teachers of this globe, promise! Check out some of the experiences shared by teachers. It’ll be OK, we promise:-)

Karen Miner:
Well, right out of college I couldn’t find a job, so I worked part-time at a little grocery store. The next spring, I started sending out resumes and found a job in a small, rural area in South Central Illinois teaching pre-kindergarteners through third grade general music, a sixth grade general music class that met for 11 weeks, and highs chool choir. I left there, discouraged after a rough year with a high school principal, superintendent, and school board all from you-know-where. I moved home the week after school was out and looked all summer for a job. At the beginning of August, I got a call from a school district I had gotten a call from two years previously, so I went to interview. I was offered the position on the spot, as school was starting in 3 weeks. I was lucky enough that my dad was at the time working in the area (and thought he and Mom would be permanently transferred there), and helped me find a place to live. I was teaching K-12 (K-6 general music, 7-8 grade general music, beginning band, 6th grade band, MS/HS band, HS choir, an elementary choir that met 2 days before school, and HS music appreciation!). I got 15 minutes for lunch (everyone else had 30, but due to my HS and elementary classes overlapping, I didn’t), and 2-1 hour planning periods a week. I had parents who butted in, 2 principals who were supportive, and a superintendent who let the parents tell him who to keep and who to let go. I was one who was let go. I was given the letter in my mailbox at school on a Monday morning before school started. There had been several who left. The women were let go, but the men were told they should resign as they may not be re-hired. I tried to find a job all that summer, but ended up moving home and subbing in my hometown that year. By spring, I was doing a long-term sub for an ill music teacher. I job hunted again, with the only offer begin a part-time position that was not worth the hassle. The ill music teacher was not coming back in the fall semester, so I went back to subbing. During contract negotiations, the board offered to hire 1 more elementary music and 1 more elementary P.E. teacher for extra “breaks”. When it came to interviewing, I was overlooked. The elementary music coordinator was very upset because I was already doing the job and should have been considered for one of the new openings and went to the elementary administrative assistant. She got me the chance to interview, and I was offered the job. I thought I wanted to teach high school band when I went to college, but I have found a job I TRULY love, a principal who is very supportive of what I do, and of my job, and also parents who support me.

Cheryl Elder
I got my first teaching job on Monday after I finished student teaching on Friday. In fact, I got the call that I got the job while I was teaching the advanced choir at the high school where I was finishing that assignment. This was in my hometown of Kenosha. I was hired on a temporary, non-renewing contract to teach elementary general music at two suburban schools. Talk about culture shock for those kids! The schools were, in one case, 99.999999% white (two black students out of 500 kids), and the other one was 100% white. They had never seen a real black person before me. After I showed them I would not do rap music (Hammer and Vanilla Ice were big then), they were kind of OK. But I came to Milwaukee, where the pay was a little better and there was more diversity. Plus, Kenosha was interested in offering me a permanent contract, whereas Milwaukee practically begged me to come up. They are always looking for music teachers. I have been here more than ten years.

Patricia Oeste
My first job in teaching music was here where I presently live. I had just moved here because my husband became opera director at the local university. I had nothing; no family, no friends, no job, no accent (!)…anyway, I saw a little note for a part-time music teacher at the local Catholic school……hmmm. Thought I would apply, but did I have a teaching license? I did NOT know. So, I called the Illinois State Department of Education and asked them! Yup, I felt pretty ignorant, but I got the good news that I DID have a license, even though it had lapsed. Ignorance followed me into the classroom, as on my first day of school-the first students in the door were first graders. I had NO materials, NO recordings, NO NOTHING. So, I wrote out the lyrics to “Heigh, Ho, Heigh, Ho” on a piece of white posterboard (I knew THAT one!). Well, of course, you know what I didn’t; first graders cannot read (for the most part) on the first day of first grade! So, I got no reponse from them as in my Vanna Whitish way I elegantly pointed to the words as I sang. I was heartbroken. I thought they didn’t like me. I went home every day for two weeks and cried. I couldn’t believe this is how I would be making my money. Two weeks was all it took though, to see through the frustration and lack of knowledge and envision something greater out there-out there, and within reach for once!

I had always known that there was more to life than standing on stage and singing (my husband and I had been employed in Germany singing in opera houses for ten years before returning to the USA). I was searching to fill an emptiness within me, a feeling that I wasn’t reaching my fullest potential. Well, let me tell you, these kids have pushed me daily to reach my fullest potential. I see on a daily basis that what I do makes a difference. I never saw that on stage. After the clapping, blah, blah, blah. Here, the little claps (those that I do on the inside when I see something that matters, some kid “gets it”, that light in the kids’ eyes when they are really moved by the music, pulling off a difficult performance…)these little “bravos” fille my life more than any amount of ovation ever did or could.

And now mine……………..
My first job was a small K-12 school, vocal and instrumental combined. (Happened to be at the same school where my fiance-now hubby of 16 years!-was teaching!). I was pretty disappointed. I was all set for the big, wonderful band position. (Never mind the fact that marching band wasn’t my strong suit. And in that area, marching band was the be-all and end-all) Anyway, I had 17 kids in my band, 7-12. When we went to music festival, we kicked. BUT, one judge gave us a III when the other judges gave us I’s because he said we were “too small to represent ourselves as a band”. When my kids heard those comments, they were steaming. They had accomplished so much in that little time.

Not everything was honkey-dorey that year. I had a rough crew of middle school general music students. I’m a highly emotional person, and arguments with my guy set off torrents of tears. One day, I was upset because had had an argument after school. School had been called off early because of sleet and snow. As I rush crying to my car, a snowball flew from nowhere and popped me in the side of the head. I saw one of the “untouchable” kids running off, laughing his silly head off. (Untouchable as meaning his dad wouldn’t have done a thing, and neither would the principal, because of his dad!). Today, of course, I would have probably grabbed the little “angel” (8th grade!) by his ears and worried about the consequences later. But, in my first years of teaching, I was really insecure, not that far removed from a high school student myself.

This small school had the usual very young girls expecting, drinking, a principal who cared more about working out and scheduling ball games than disciplining, and not too much to use to teach elementary (in which I had very little background at the time). The saving grace was my band. However, I decided to seek that brass ring on the merry-go-round and try for a band job, so I didn’t renew my contract. I got married that summer, but no job, no job, no job. Finally, in August, I got a call to interview for a high school/middle school band job, which would also have high school choir. I was second, but a man was chosen instead, a guy I knew. I was frantic. Newly married, with no job. (My husband had obtained a house through the Farmer’s Home Administration. The mortgage doubled when we got married because he lost his subsidy), and frantic. Then, I got a call from the same school again. The guy backed out, so I got the job. When I called my friend later, he told me he had prayed about it, and something didn’t feel right. I figured that’s cause it was really meant for me:-)

I should have stayed with the first job. I had a batch of high school senior football players that were in my choir in desperation for their fine arts credit. One’s mother was the head cook, and you did not TOUCH her sons. Once, I had sent him to the office, and she came looking for me, barreling down the hall. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just give them a grade and pass them. This school had worse drinking problems than the first. Students coming in late, with the principal doing nothing. Students coming to school drunk, with a slap on the wrist (especially if they were athletes). Rough crew all around. And, this small town was very suspicious of “outsiders”, even though they weren’t far from Kansas City.

I was living 40 miles from work and had been driving it to get to 7:30 marching practice. Rough going no matter what, but I was determined to make it. My saving grace in this school was my middle school band, some really sweet kids, and my girls’ chorus. We had a blast. These drinking athletes, however, were another matter. One day, the principal called me into his office and asked if my husband and I had considered moving closer. As a matter of fact, we had, and I told him so. He told me that would help the situation tremendously. The next week, he called me into his office again. Out of the blue, he said there were too many discipline problems, and he suggested I resign. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I had very, very little support from him, then one week he made suggestions to make my job better, then the next he all but fired me. Plus, the references they left in my placement file made it impossible to get a high school job anymore. I finally used my “it’s who you know” resource, a very good friend of ours who was high up in the education department at the college to look at my placement papers. (All my references were confidential). At his suggestion, I had the references from the second school pulled. (I should have listened to my friend’s prayer answer and made it mine, too!)

This principal did me a favor, however. I got mad.I worked at a habilitation center for a while and learned the very severe side of life with extremely mentally handicapped residents. (I had to leave when I got smacked in the jaw by a resident’s head when she head-butted me).I subbed for a while and learned how to discipline on my feet in a short amount of time. I got a real estate license and learned to either be assertive and conversational, or starve (I learned to make a lot of friends, but I was never good at closing the deal because I felt guilty about asking people to spend more money than I ever could!) I learned how much I loved teaching and how it was still my calling. I learned how to be patient. And, I learned how much fun elementary music was. After three years, we moved near St. Louis, and I got a part-time job teaching elementary music. I loved it, but once again, like a dope, I didn’t renew my contract after my second year, hoping to catch the brass ring, this time, in a suburban St. Louis district that was the Holy Grail of school districts at the time for my area. Whoops! Another three years subbing, then I got a part-time job teaching elementary at the district for which I teach currently. And, I’m happy. After a year, I got full-time. Sure, I got shuffled to other schools in the district. Sure, there are problems. But, from my past, I’ve learned about the old proverb to not look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m in my eighth year here and love it. I can still work with high school kids (the ones who really WANT to learn), through lessons and through a community youth theatre group I helped found.

So, if your first job is less than ideal, don’t despair. Build that reference base. Unless you’re truly miserable, try to last 2-3 years to show stability. It does get better. If you are truly meant for education, your brass ring will appear.