If you’re just about to start your career as a music teacher or have only been teaching a few years, here are some tips I hope you’ll find helpful. Some of these I implemented from my very first lessons, others I have learned along the way during 39 years of teaching!
1. Plan and reflect
I have taught both classroom music and one-to-one flute lessons, and for all lessons I write a plan. In the early days I had more detailed plans, now I have just a few dot points. During the lesson I put ticks and crosses for what goes well or not so well, plus I circle anything we didn’t get a chance to complete. Later, when planning the next lesson (whether individual or class) I reflect on the lesson - What worked well? What didn’t they enjoy/understand? What do they need a lot more work on? Also, keep a record of the pieces/songs/games you have done with each student/class.
2. Get organized
Before each block of lessons, organize your music and playback equipment needed. This really helps things run smoothly when you have back-to-back lessons, otherwise you’ll quickly find you lose their attention if you’re fluffing around searching for something. If you teach class music, the students can help with setting out the instruments and tidying away at the end of the lesson. I make this a routine and find that even very young children are able to help with this.
3. Vary activities
To keep your students’ attention, mix it up! Remember that your younger students have a shorter attention span and will especially benefit from different activities within the lesson. You can integrate music games, composition activities, listening and aural skills, with playing, singing and/or movement components.
4. Don’t talk too much!
I think we’re all guilty of this at times. If we are passionate about something and we want to tell our students about it, we sometimes don’t realise that our audience doesn’t always share our interest. Try to use concrete activities rather than wordy explanations of abstract concepts (What is a beat?) – your students will grasp the idea more quickly and have a better understanding if they hear/play/sing and experience the concept.
5. Be flexible
As we have found during the pandemic, things can change at a moment’s notice. One minute we’re teaching in schools, the next we’re teaching remotely from home. Even when at school, there can be disruptions to your schedule, or in a private lesson a student might arrive with a broken arm.
Flexibility is also required particularly for groups, as some students might have a music background, others will have none. Remember too that you need to cater for all your students, including those with special needs. Sometimes, a song/piece we thought the kids would love, totally flops, so always have Plans B and C for emergency use!
6. Start strict
I’m fairly strict with a new class or student, then as I get to know them, I ease off. It’s much easier to manage a large group starting this way than to try to be their best friend in the first lesson and lose control of the class. I’ve found we can do much more creative and free work if they know the boundaries, and everyone enjoys the lesson more if it flows smoothly, rather than being chaotic.
Whilst we’d all love our students to be in intrinsically motivated, many need a little encouragement. Music sticker rewards can provide that extra bit of encouragement when needed, especially with younger students. Challenge Certificates can provide great incentive for repertoire development, and for school classes, a points tally works well. Whilst older students may not want stickers, remember to give plenty of verbal praise when appropriate; we all like to hear we’ve done a good job.
8. Believe in yourself
Some of your lessons may not go well, some may be awful, but most will be good, and you’ll get better and better at deciding what works. So, hang in there and know that you are making a really important contribution to our society!
Another aspect of teaching is managing the parents. Most parents are wonderful and supportive, but there are always some that will get you down. Just keep your cool, and don’t reply to aggressive emails for 24 hours. If you are speaking in person with a difficult parent, try to keep calm and use a quiet voice.
9. Keep learning
No matter how many years we have been teaching, we can all keep learning. Even though I have many years’ experience and present international workshops myself, I still attend sessions by other teachers and often pick up something interesting. Many teachers in schools are required to attend PD days but in addition, keep an eye out for workshops or conferences which might be of interest.
10. Enjoy yourself!
If you have fun, your students will have fun. Enthusiasm is infectious, so really get into the music you are playing/singing, and chances are your students will too. Even on days when you feel below par, try to act as if you are enthusiastic.
I wish I’d done some of these things better in the early years of my teaching, but we learn as we go, so don’t beat yourself up! This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few points for starters, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comments please.
Bringing music into the lives of our students is a privilege, so enjoy your teaching!
Karen North has been teaching flute and class music for 39 years. She is the author of the popular method series "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and has recently worked with specialist consultants to publish repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.