Environment Makes All The Difference

I’ve been substitute teaching close to two months now, and it’s allowed me to observe an interesting range of students at several schools. Over these past couple of months, I’ve taught grades K-12, and I’ve taught in schools ranging in size from 600 students (K-12) to well over 1,000 students (9-12.) This experience has led to some interesting observations, especially with regards to classroom environment.

Most of my time has been split between two school districts. One of the districts is fairly large, containing nine elementary schools, two middle schools, and two separate high school campuses. The other district which—from which I graduated—contains grades K-12 in a single campus. For comparison’s sake, my graduating class in 2004 contained just over 40 students. At the other district in which I’ve spent most of my time, a typical graduating class would be well over 500 students.

This massive difference in the size of the respective student bodies creates a difference in average class size. Last time I taught at my alma mater (Friday), my largest class was 20 kids. Last time I taught at the local scholastic behemoth, my smallest class was 28 kids.

That’s the system working against teachers. Those extra eight students might not seem like many, but a larger class means that each student is given less attention. This in turn makes it tougher for the teacher to build relationships with their students, and then the students begin to feel like just another face in the crowd. Students in the larger classes were definitely more frequently disengaged.

The situation at my alma mater is completely different. Thinking back to my days as a student, it was an environment where everybody knew everybody, teachers and students alike. Small class sizes and a small student body allowed people to make connections quickly, which led to benefits in the academic arena. Teachers could share information on students, students felt comfortable expressing their individuality and asking questions.

In short, the more intimate environment seemed to allow for a two-way flow of information. Even as a sub, I feel like the students have quickly assimilated me into the school culture at my alma mater. I get the same treatment as any other faculty member, and that’s not the case at the larger schools.

Some of you might find it odd that an aspiring band director would be preaching small class sizes, but that’s a different issue. Music teachers are given the rare opportunity to see their students for several consecutive years. Where a core class teacher might see a student once in 10th grade, their music teacher frequently remains the same for their entire high school career. I had the same band director from 6th grade through my high school graduation, as did many of my classmates. That time together in the classroom creates a strong relationship.

I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not a hard and fast rule, just an observation made from an admittedly small sample size. But, there is some merit to the idea. Each student in a 15-student class will get more frequent opportunities to interact with the classmates and teacher than a student in a class of 25+.

Side Effects May Include…

A weekend that had previously been filled with football (a sad Michigan State loss and an exciting Cincinnati Bengals win) took a turn in an unexpected direction when a good friend and college classmate of mine posed a thought-provoking question.

I’m starting to feel like music is more of a hobby than a career. It’s a bit disconcerting. Do you feel that way sometimes, or should I be concerned?

This question came up because both of us struggled to find work as music teachers after graduating in May, and have subsequently turned to substitute teaching to gain experience and pay the bills. I guess it’s only natural for some self-doubt to start creeping in after failing to find work in your chosen field.

I thought about the question for a little while, and tried to give my friend a reasonable answer. I told him that he was probably feeling disheartened about his involvement in music because he hasn’t yet made the step from music student to music teacher. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’ll happen, but having to sub in the interim has stripped away some of the initial energy and excitement he felt upon receiving his degree.

After spending some time in a music classroom earlier last week, he was once again excited. The experience of teaching music, even for just a day, was enough to recharge his batteries and refocus him on his ultimate goal.

This whole situation got me thinking about my own experience subbing. So far, I’ve been surprised by the job. It’s yielded several unexpected benefits.

If anything, subbing has helped reaffirm my career choice. After the unsuccessful job hunt, the thought of going back to school and getting certified in another subject had crossed my mind—something a little more marketable than music. After spending time in several different classrooms—music included—I’m now more positive than ever that teaching music is my future.

Subbing has also created numerous opportunities to practice classroom management. Students aren’t always on their best behavior for subs, so I’ve had to quickly assert myself as the authority figure in the classroom. Sometimes this can be accomplished with a confident introduction, or sharing a fact relevant to the class. Other classes require more drastic measures at times, like separating students and showing that you won’t tolerate disrespect.*

*I ran into such a situation during a music class early in my subbing career. I overheard one student directing some nasty homophobic slurs at another student. The student was quietly asked to sit out of rehearsal for 10-15 minutes, and was talked to after class about their actions. I’ve been back in the same class a few times since that incident, and haven’t had trouble with a single student.