Why I Left

There are many, many educators in this country dealing with stress and burnout. The reasons are many, as are the blog posts out there that address this issue. Many rightly point to the combination of poor funding, unscientific testing expectations, overbearing administration, and un-creative scripted lessons as reasons for teacher burnout.

I don’t see any point in re-hashing those issues here. Rather, I’d like to speak to the burnout that I specifically experienced, which doesn’t fit this mold, as there may be others out there with a similar experience. In a future post, I’m also going to speak to my approach to transitioning away from being a teacher, as many teachers feel “stuck” with no other marketable skills.

Why I Left

I loved my job as a music teacher. Getting hugs from little Kindergarteners, watching students master a difficult concept, blowing away families at concerts with our performances. I was respected by my principal and district colleagues, and even a leader and mentor to many other music teachers around the country. Easily 90% of students that I worked with enjoyed music class, and trusted me to lead them in interesting experiences. When things didn’t go according to plan, we would laugh and try again, or put that aside for something else. I had an excellent schedule and every instrument I could conceivably want to teach with.

In the end, none of this was enough. Every day I had levels of stress that were making me physically and mentally ill. It wasn’t the principal, or my colleagues (although there were a few that were difficult), or state mandates. It was the kids. The same kids that I loved and respected were literally driving me nuts.

If you’re not an educator, you may not get this, but every day, every single day, there was at least one student in my classroom who was angry and defiant. I saw 150+ students per day, in groups of at least 20, and sometimes 30. I was often the only adult in the room, trying to educate these children. What happened in my classroom was largely in my control, but what happened before that was not. Students would come with a lack of sleep, or having been in a huge fight with a parent, sibling, or other teacher. And even with carefully planned, differentiated activities, some students would get frustrated by their failures in my class, or have a negative reaction to another student in a group. Whether the problem started inside or outside the room, these students would shut down. At best, they would sit out and refuse to participate. At worst, they would act out, yelling and interrupting to the point that continuing the lesson was impossible.

(BTW: I am aware that not every school environment has quite as many children with such challenges, as I’ve taught in all types of schools: rural, urban, big and small. This is definitely a problem that is connected to poverty and other social ills. But I think these issues still exist, to a varying extent, in most schools.)

My natural reaction to a shouting or defiant child is to get angry and yell. After years and years of working on my own classroom management and building one-on-one relationships with students, my inclination is still to yell. Maybe it’s testosterone, maybe it’s a sign of my neuro-atypical brain (I’m genuinely curious about the experience of other teachers, especially men). Controlling my reactions to student behavior required a firm and proactive discipline approach, support from the school office (I could send a student out if I really needed to), and forcing myself to always wait when reacting to a situation. I became very good at management, a model for other teachers even. I had proactive routines, consistent expectations, and firm yet unthreatening consequences (such as sitting out for one activity).

Even with all this, I would occasionally get upset with a defiant student. What happened when I held in my anger? An adrenaline surge with no outlet, which as modern medicine will tell you, is a dangerous thing to have happen every day. If I let go and yelled at a student, an equally strong dose of guilt and shame would be my reward. It was a no-win situation, and I was harder on myself than anyone else could be. Eventually, I decided that something had to change for my own personal health. Moving to a less economically-stressed school community would have helped, but it is hard to find new job openings when you are a veteran teacher who costs twice the amount of a new teacher.

So I left teaching, my lifetime career. I still completely believe in the purpose and promise of public education. Private alternatives are not viable to replace the scale of our public schools in this country. They are band-aids put on specific sore spots, at the expense of the rest of the bleeding body. No, improving our schools requires more financial commitment, teachers who are prepared for these huge challenges, and a systemic governmental approach to guiding families out of poverty. And I feel that contributing 18 years of my life to this cause was a valuable contribution. But now it’s time to take care of myself, re-focus on my family, and have a much-deserved change in stress levels. I hope to continue mentoring future teachers as an Orff Schulwerk instructor in the summers, and I am thoroughly enjoying my developing skills and career as a software engineer!


PS, It turns out there is a medical/scientific diagnosis, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, that describes the way I personally react to stressful and noisy situations. I did not know this when I left, but having discovered it, I am glad that I made the decision I did. If you feel the same, you may want to look into this. Even if you decide to stay, understanding your own reactions will be crucial to planning out a successful class, day, and year.

For creative (and busy) Music Teachers

As an Orff Schulwerk teacher, I know how hard you work to develop student-centered, creative lessons for your students every day. Two things I loved about teaching with Orff Schulwerk: seeing my own ideas coming to life with the students, and even better, seeing the students’ ideas take over and guide the learning!

There were also some things I didn’t “love” about teaching. One was documenting my lessons and assessments. I never quite felt comfortable teaching from any one textbook, as the pace of my classes never fit the perfect model. For assessment, I would rather be “in the moment” with the kids, giving them direct and immediate feedback to improve their skills, than standing aside with a gradebook writing down scores.

So I designed Unison.School to be a tool for busy teachers like myself. The lesson planner gives me the ability to write unit/project lesson plans based on repertoire and the creative process, and share them on Google Drive with my principal and colleagues. The calendar and daily planner, which functions just like a paper planner, lets me keep track of what each class works on with minimal typing. Finally, I designed the melodic and rhythmic assessments to be completely objective and automated, allowing students to take an authentic, skills-based test, with immediate feedback, from any internet-connected device. This means I can send a few students at a time back to a computer station to take a test, while continuing the creative process for the class. Alternatively, I can bring in a cart of iPads and test an entire class in less than five minutes! The scores are saved to a grade book, and can be used for Student Learning Objectives, Common Formative Assessments, report cards, or whatever system your district employs.

I hope that Unison.School can make a few “less exciting” parts of your job easier, and give you more time to focus on creative student engagement. To get started, register for a free account, and follow my walkthrough video, or just start playing with the free tools!

One last thing. If you’re stressed out this last week before winter break, try sharing my Jingle Bells lesson with your classes! I’ll try to add more interactive video lessons in the near future.

I’m always open to suggestions and feedback to make Unison.School serve you better.

Have a wonderful winter break, happy holidays, and a joyous New Year with your students!

Children’s Abilities, Musical Community, and Technology


你好 from Shanghai and Taipei! I just returned from a trip to these vast cities on the other side of the planet, where I met with teachers and staff from the Motif Music Company to help them design curriculum for their teachers and the schools they work with. Motif offers marching band and musical theater classes to public schools. I had never seen a model like this before, where the company offers enrichment classes to the schools, but the classes were during the school day!

Young Children are Amazing

I also got to visit an after-school program in Taipei that included marching band instruction from the age of four! My initial assumption was that such training must be boring and/or too structured to allow students to learn creatively, but when I observed a pre-school class, I found it engaging, student-focused, and varied, including movement games, singing, and playing glockenspiels. When I saw a performance of slightly older children on mallet percussion, I was very impressed with the level of skill.

Seeing education outside of the American model allowed me to rethink many things that I normally take for granted. For example, I think many American school music teachers make assumptions on what and when students can learn that are based on the lack of musical experience before the age of five. When you think about all the research about how important early childhood music is, the concept of a child having little or no musical experience before age five is tragic and criminal. Yet, because our system of schooling starts at this age, and our culture has been moving further and further away from music made in the home, this has become the norm.

This isn’t new information for me. My wife is a Suzuki teacher, and my son started cello instruction at the age of 3. I have many friends in the Early Childhood Music and Movement Association, Music Learning Theory, and Dalcroze worlds who have done wonderful work with preschool children. But unfortunately, no one has created a society-wide system to address the gap.

Private and Public Partnerships

Another new perspective for me was the joint private/public partnership that Motif’s music classes represented. I am a second-generation public school teacher and strong supporter of our teachers’ unions. I served as a building representative and on the negotiations team of the Waterloo Education Association for several years. So the concept of non-district teachers coming into my school and teaching enrichment classes is troubling for several reasons. First, as private company employees, these teachers don’t have the same protections that unionized teachers typically enjoy. Second, this can be seen as a form of “outsourcing”, and is potentially taking away from the positions of traditional teachers. The history of privatized education in America is full of low-paid staff, poor-to-average student outcomes, and for-profit companies making money at the expense of children’s education.

After seeing the work that Motif was doing, however, I see that there is something positive about the ability to design, implement, and experiment outside the structures of a typical school-teacher’s day. Specifically, Motif takes the time to train their teachers on a method and curriculum, and keeps track of their progress. I can’t think of a single administrator in public schools that I’ve worked with that really ever understood my curriculum, and I know of too many teachers who basically stop pursuing professional growth when they graduate with their bachelor’s degree. What if we had a system where music teachers across multiple districts were supervised and trained by a music person? The quality of teachers might actually improve.

Private or public, I think the goal needs to be on quality education for all children, which means highly-trained teachers teaching with clear goals and creative, student-centered lessons.

Musical Community and Technology

Before I left for Asia, I attended the joint First Iowa Orff and Augustana Orff workshop with Doug Goodkin in Iowa City. I’ve been fortunate to see Doug teach many times, including during my Orff Schulwerk teacher apprenticeship at the San Francisco Orff Course. He has decades of experience in creative music making and teaching around the world, and is also a very insightful philosopher with much to say about the human experience. If you ever have the chance to see Doug speak/present, do it. If not, buy one of his fabulous books.

One thing that Doug spoke about was the negative effect that ubiquitous technology was having on our society and children. He proposed that drumming, dancing, and other forms of music-making were an antidote to the underdeveloped motor and social skills that came from staring at a screen too long. He reminded us that in cultures such as the villages of Ghana that he has visited, children learn music as part of everyday life, and are constantly active and involved. Asking a Ghanaian if they drum or dance is like asking someone if they walk or speak.

Of course, I completely agree with the dangers behind modern technology. Even before the smartphone boom, I saw how recorded music technology over the past century has largely moved our society from music makers to music consumers, and the myth of “talent” has grown with the increasingly popular view of music as a specialized profession, rather than a form of human communication available to all. (This is also connected to the lack of experience young children have to music as mentioned above).

Yet I also know that technology can be a tool to enhance learning. It can take something boring, such as memorizing facts, and turn it into an interactive game. My vision for Unison.School and other music education technologies is to offload some basic learning and assessments to digital tools, thus freeing the music teacher to have more time to be creative with students. Like it or not, the future will be full of technology, and we need to discover ways to harness its advantages, while avoiding the pitfalls.


Whether it’s the structure of schools, the influence of society, the abilities of students, or the influx of technology, being a music teacher in the 21st century is going to be all about change. I’m proud to be a lifelong learner, and hope that I can continue to help other teachers tackle the issues that arise!

Classroom Management for the Creative Music Room

One of the most challenging aspect of teaching music to children is handling disruptive and off-task behavior. A perfectly planned lesson with engaging material, exciting activities, and meaningful learning objectives can turn into a moment of questioning one’s career or sanity with just a few children disrupting a class.

When I was an undergrad, we learned classroom management in the Ed department, from a former social studies teacher. While he was an excellent teacher, many of his suggested techniques were difficult to apply to an elementary music classroom.


Seating is the first place where norms of most other classrooms cannot apply to a creative elementary music room. Desks and tables do not allow room for movement activities, instrument ensembles, and collaborative work.

What does work in the music room?

  • Rows – Some teachers use staff lines created out of vinyl tape (for hard surfaces) or Velcro strips (for carpet). Rows are nice for giving assigned seats and making a seating chart. This can certainly help with management issues, by separating groups that talk too much.
  • Circle – If you ever have the chance to design a new music room, ask for a large circle in the carpet! Circles allow all students to see and hear each other, and create a natural flow into activities such as circle games, rotations, or taking turns in the center. Plus, with a visible circle on the floor, you can teach your Kindergarten classes to simply “follow the leader” to find a seat!
  • Semi-circle – The semi-circle combines many attributes of the circle with the ability to all see to the front of the room. This is an excellent setup if you choose to use chairs or stools instead of having students sit on the floor, as the chairs can remain against the outside while leaving space in the middle.
  • Scattered – Many activities call for students to have plenty of personal space. You can achieve this with little vinyl circles (there are several commercial options available) or by training the class on how to find their own space (stretch out arms without touching). Be sure to establish boundaries, so students don’t make choices like sitting behind instruments!


At the beginning of the year, it is important to establish a routine for your students.

  • Greet at the Door – Regardless of how busy your schedule is, there is nothing more important for setting a positive tone than welcoming students to the class. This gives you a chance to greet them, give seating or opening activity instructions, and show them you are happy to have them there.
  • Opening Activity – Many teachers establish an opening song, warmup stretch routine, or even silent meditation as the students enter. Experiment with different routines for different age levels, but give your routine several months to see if it is helpful. The goal is to clear away baggage (frustrations, fears, anger) that the students bring with them from other classes or their home life, and have everyone ready to make music and learn.
  • Transitions – Children are naturally excited by much of the music classroom environment. They are not naturally careful. Anytime you are changing positions, especially when moving to instruments, it is important to not only discuss but practice the transition. The time spent up front to do this will save time later.


One thing that can ruin a class morale is when some students refuse to participate. Yet musical activities, especially singing and dancing, can feel very intimidating to students who are new to it.

  • Inspire – Often you can achieve full participation by simply launching into an engaging activity, and starting with the most enthusiastic students. The first reaction to those refusing to participate can be to ignore, and focus on those having fun. See how many you can snag with an excellent lesson.
  • One-on-One – Take aside those students who won’t participate and quietly explain your expectations, while acknowledging their feelings and concerns. Assure them that you won’t single them out or embarrass them if they are participating quietly with the class. A little heads up can really help them be prepared to be fully involved next period.
  • Set the Class Expectation – Despite student hesitations or attitudes, the bottom line is that your class is an expected part of their education, and they have an obligation to do their job. A good strategy is to begin the year by doing a “My Job, Your Job” review of expectations. Let the enthusiastic students set the tone that everyone is expected to participate, and then hold them all to that expectation.


Respect is a very vague term, that is rightly criticized by many as being meaningless to our students. However, we can teach students exactly what we mean by respect, and use it along with participation as the foundation of our class expectations.

  • Respect the Space – Teach students how to handle instruments carefully, practicing specific tasks such as removing xylophone bars.
  • Listen to Each Other – Describe the different types of activities in the music class. For example, if one person is talking to the group, others should not interrupt, and raised hands should be used. On the other hand, if students are asked to collaborate in small groups, it is expected that they only avoid talking over their own group. Role-playing these situations can help students understand when it is appropriate to speak.
  • Only Give Positive and Encouraging Comments – Teach students how to give each other feedback and suggestions without using hurtful phrases such as “I don’t like it.”


Children thrive on structure, and want to know what will happen when they don’t follow the expectations. If we don’t explain and follow-through with consequences, the students will understand that there is no authority.

  • Keep it Simple – Consequences do not need to be draconian or cruel. Often, the best consequence is simply a “time out” or break away from the class activity. For the majority of students, this will be effective, as they will want to rejoin the class and the exciting activities you have planned. Also, whether it’s time out, writing a reflection, or something else, make sure the consequences you choose are easy to implement. If you make it difficult for yourself (such as finding students during recess to bring back in, or calling parents for minor issues), you may try to give more warnings and put off applying the consequence because you don’t have time to enforce it.
  • Follow Up – Ask a student to stay after class, or visit with them during a time out, to discuss the behavior seen and better choices. Ask to hear their point of view, so they understand that you are listening. When appropriate (say, after 2-3 time outs for the same student), call the family and let the parents know what is going on. Discuss ongoing issues with your administrators, and ask for strategies that might work for that student.
  • Be Consistent – It’s fine to give warnings/reminders, as long as you limit it to one. Being consistent can mean having many discussions and phone calls early in the year, but this will save you 10x the amount of teaching time later in the year. Also, be aware that students will quickly pick up on any variation in how you treat different students. While certain students may require specialized plans, be sure not to excuse minor misbehavior based on your own preferences of “good” students.


The creative music classroom is filled with intrinsic rewards in the form of exciting games, instruments, and challenges. However, it is always better to praise positive behavior than have to discipline poor behavior.

  • Verbal Praise – A simple “Nice Job!” followed by some feedback on a project can really inspire students to keep working. Sometimes we can say “I like how ____ is sitting quietly” to indirectly remind others of the class expectations.
  • Tickets – Many schools or classes use a ticket or “buck” system, where students can be rewarded with a quick slip of paper, which they can collect to turn in later for a simple reward item.

Class-Wide Issues

Nothing is more disheartening than the feeling of a class completely out of control. Yet most teachers will experience this at some point in their career at least once, if not multiple times.

  • Stop and Take a Breath – It is pointless to continue on with content introduction when groups of students are being disruptive, disrespectful, or defiant. Often the simplest way to refocus the class is to stop, mid-sentence, and sit and wait. Many times the other students in the class will ask the disruptors to be quiet so that you can continue. This also gives you a new “starting point” for reminding of expectations, and a chance to identify individual culprits for using your consequence program. If a large group is arguing or talking, it can be hard to identify who should take a time out, but if you stop, get their attention, and remind them of the expectations, then you can immediately follow through with a time out for the first student that interrupts again. In order to truly have an impact on student behavior, it is essential to break it down into individual students, so that you can talk to them and their parents.
  • Switch Activities – Sometimes waiting doesn’t work, and the class will continue to talk. Take this opportunity to find a highly-prized reward for students who are on-task. For example, send a small group of focused students to have free instrument playing time, or hand out tablets for music game time. When other students finally pay attention enough to realize what is happening, they will want to join in the positive activity. This is when you explain that these activities are rewards for focus and listening.
  • Ask for Help – When you are overwhelmed, no one benefits. Ask your administrators and colleagues for solutions to help you get back on track. Invite the principal to come sit in the room and observe. If you do this proactively, the principal will hopefully understand that you are making an attempt, and will try to support you.

What are your go-to strategies for classroom management?

Vision for Music Education Part II

In my previous post Vision for Music Education I laid out my argument for what I see as the purpose of music education, and did so in the context of the new draft national music standards. After reading other blogs, comments here, and the ongoing facebook and twitter conversations surrounding the drafts, I feel the need to express my beliefs and argument even more strongly.

Then, I realized that I have already written it. So in the desire to further the public dialogue, below is the opening chapter to my book, Creative Sequence: Teaching Music with Flexibility and Organization.

The Importance of Creativity and Active Engagement in the Music Classroom

Children today are bombarded with “media” and “entertainment.” These passive and/or interactive technologies have, for over a century now, replaced many more traditional activities. Instead of playing ball, we watch a ballgame on TV, or use a controller to make a digital avatar “play” the sport in a video game. Instead of making music with our own voice or an acoustic instrument, we listen passively to a recording, or strum a plastic controller along with a prerecorded track.

While there are many ways in which the technological explosion of the past hundred years has enriched and expanded our lives, Creative Sequence is based on the premise that music, dance, drama, art, and physical activity are still essential human activities that every child should learn to DO, not just watch. Children inherently love to move, drum on things, make noise, and explore their environment. As teachers, it is our duty to engage this natural tendency, and to lead them to discover the joys of an active lifestyle.

The primary goal of quality music education is guiding children to create, love, and learn about music. Notice that, in this list, learning about music is the last item. The rationale is simple. Children who love and are engaged in a subject will want to learn more about that subject. Children who are not actively engaged will learn only when forced, and retain as little as possible when they leave your room.

All children can and should learn to make music.

To some, this statement may seem obvious. Yet, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, some still hold to the antiquated notion that singing and music-making are  “talents” gifted to a few children at birth. This flies in the face of modern educational psychology, cultural evidence from around the world, and the day-to-day experience of parents and educators with young children.

Children learn at varying paces, according to their background, interest, and attention span. Of course, there are students who struggle with certain musical skills. Many students also struggle to learn mathematics or reading. No one questions the basic assumption that all students (excepting those with serious disabilities) will master these skills. When it comes to music and the arts, we should accept no less for our children.

In cultures around the world where technology has not yet completely changed the pace of everyday life, there are numerous examples of entire villages where music is a community activity in which everyone participates. Even in more advanced societies, there are pockets of close-knit communities where music and dance remain vital to social events. Unfortunately, mainstream Western culture supplants community gatherings altogether with digital communication, single-family homes, and private transportation. No wonder we seek to fill our desire for artistic expression by turning to the pre-recorded music of professionals.

If musical expression is going to remain an integral part of the human existence, it must start in the home, the preschool or elementary school. By the time most students are given the choice to play in an ensemble like band or orchestra, many have already made up their minds about whether they consider themselves musicians or not.

All other curricular objectives, including music literacy, are secondary to a positive, expressive experience making music.

Toddlers must speak before reading language. They must be able to count before identifying numerals. Yet as trained musicians, we educators have spent so much time learning and perfecting our reading skills that we often equate notation with music. In fact, the English language encourages this confusion by calling paper notation “sheet music” or even just “music.” You hear trained musicians use this all the time. (“I forgot my music! Can you see the music?”)

Let’s be very clear. Music does not exist on paper. Music is human expression in sounds organized through time. Notation is the written record of what a piece of music should sound like. Therefore, music literacy should only be taught at the appropriate time, and following the appropriate development of musical skills.

Appreciation of music arises naturally from making music, and exploration of cultures, styles, and history should be interactive whenever possible.

The advantages of modern society and technology include affordable means to record, play back, and share music around the world, as well as access masterpieces from throughout history. What once required musicologists to travel the globe and attend universities with large research libraries can now be found online and for free. Music teachers must take advantage of these technologies, showing their children the songs, games, and styles of music from different corners of the globe. They should compile at least a cursory introduction to music history, highlighting famous pieces (Bach’s Prelude & Fugue, Pachelbel’s Canon, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, etc.)

The danger of teaching children music history and culture, however, is that it can be a passive experience. Children sit at desks silently for so much of the day, and have so little time in music class, that they should be actively involved whenever possible. Instead of simply listening and talking about musical examples, students can draw a picture while listening, or move expressively to the storyline. Choose musical excerpts from various styles that children can recreate and explore on barred percussion, recorder, or singing. When studying a time period or culture, look at not just the music, but the dances and games that accompany the music. By interacting and performing the arts of another culture, students can learn to embrace differences in all aspects of life.

Music should be a creative art, not simply a recreative art.

Our final guiding principle highlights the different ways of “making” music. When vocalists and instrumentalists in our Western culture traditionally perform a work, they are re-creating the music of a composer. All the basic musical elements – melody, rhythm, form, dynamics, tempo – are laid out in the score. Of course, great performers and ensembles make interpretations to go beyond the written notation. But the piece is essentially unchanged in any serious details.

This is not the only way to make music. Jazz musicians, folk musicians, and pop artists are much more accustomed to adapting, arranging, or even composing or improvising their own music. Composers create everything from lullabies to symphonies by writing new melodies, rhythms, and forms. By manipulating the very materials that make up a composition, these musicians gain a greater depth of understanding and sense of ownership in the resulting performance.

Children can and should be led to take this same ownership of their musical experiences. Rather than all of the decisions being made by the composer or the teacher/director, the master teacher guides his or her students to make creative choices. Students can compose accompaniments based on repeated ostinato patterns, improvise solos on given scales and phrase patterns, choreograph dances and games to accompany a song, and combine all of this to create longer performances out of simple songs.

Busy Fall!!!

This fall has been one of the busiest and most rewarding of my professional career. At school (Price Lab/NU), I had three concerts this month (3-5, 6-8, & 9-12), took two students through the All-State audition procedure (one was recalled, one accepted), helped the sixth grade and fifth grade write a rap and a song (respectively) about the Leader in Me initiative (Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits adapted for children) and still managed to do report cards, planning, and mentoring six college students through a field experience!

Outside of school has also been busy! At the Unitarian Universalist Society, I continue to lead a children’s choir, an adult choir, and a strings band, with three rehearsals and a service every week.

In September, my colleague Aaron Hansen and I co-presented an Orff Schulwerk workshop for the Sioux Valley chapter. That was an exciting first! Aaron presented on primarily movement topics, and let me tackle some big “process” ideas, and we managed to tie it all together beautifully. Participants were surprised when we told them this was our first joint session!

This month, I was invited to direct the fifth graders at the Dubuque Catholic Schools Choral Festival. Again, an exciting first! I had never guest-conducted a group of children before. I had two hours to work with the students on three pieces, plus I got to conduct a combined piece with the fifth grade, the middle school students, and two college choirs (Loras & Clark)! Definitely a fulfilling professional experience. I hope to do more children’s choirs in the future.

So what’s next? At the American Orff Schulwerk Association conference next month, I will be presenting with my good friends from the BW Orff Course, Laura Webster and Michelle Przybylowski. We are presenting a tale and background information on the Eastern Woodland Native American people of Pennsylvania. The story is Rainbow Crow, and my part of the session is guiding the creation of an original musical composition based on some of the musical traditions and styles of the Native American tribes. Can’t wait!