Behind the Music: Life as an Elementary School Music Teacher

Music Specialist, Band and Chorus Teacher, Johnny Appleseed Elementary School

May   2015



What is it like, being an elementary school music teacher? Well, here’s an analogy: running is my sport of choice. I’m a sprinter. I can do long distance but I much prefer sprinting; I like the adrenaline rush of running full speed for a short amount of time and I’m pretty good at it. Now, imagine right before I’m about to run a short race, I’m told that I will also need to do a set of hurdles, climb a rope, swim, and throw a javelin in addition to running . . . cue profuse sweating!

I teach general music, band, and chorus to grades K-5 which, for a classically trained soprano, is definitely a challenge. An invigorating challenge that has improved my musicianship and understanding of musical pedagogy tremendously, but a challenge nonetheless! The sheer knowledge and skill sets required for these three subjects is substantial, not to mention remembering which “Johnny” is in which second grade class, what the ELA Common Core Standards are for kindergarten (important for planning lessons involving spelling and letter identification), when state testing takes place, how to upload evidence to your teaching portfolio, which teacher likes which seat in the lunch room, and how to handle yourself around percussionists.

Initially, I felt overwhelmed and underprepared for such a position. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: would my students discover that I needed to take extra grad classes or needed to spend hours practicing and researching instruments that I hadn’t learned how to master in undergrad? I spent countless hours trying to stay afloat and slightly ahead of my students my first year as a full time teacher.

However, I made sure to join music teacher networks and surround myself with people and resources that inspired me to be more musical and creative. Eventually I got a better handle on how to plan and structure meaningful lessons for the students (thank you, Pinterest), how to manage multiple musical ensembles, and how to create opportunities for students of all walks of life to have a meaningful experience in the music classroom.

It is the juggling act of all juggling acts, and there were times when I thought my creative and intellectual thresholds had been met or exceeded . . . but like the beginnings of most journeys, I was wrong. The most important thing, to me, was to maintain perspective and keep things “musical.”

There has never been a time when I haven’t been invigorated by an innovative way to teach solfège or musical texture or the anthropological implications of music and its function in society. And yes, sometimes my lessons still totally bomb but I’m able to reflect on these experiences objectively and go in the next day with a better, reinvented plan in mind. Keep yourself centered, and remember that it’s about the students’ musical experience after all is said and done.

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About Kaara McHugh

Kaara McHugh is a Music Specialist/Band and Chorus Teacher, teaching grades K-5 at Johnny Appleseed Elementary School in Leominster, Massachusetts.