Monday, October 30, 2017

by Ari Taylor
Editor's Note: This is the script for a speech given at the OKNAfME Fall conference on 10/18/2017.
The fact is, even with all the education and preparation to enter this rewarding field, you cannot prepare for all of the questions and issues that you will encounter.

nicholsonPNGAs I began thinking back on my first year of teaching, there were so many memories that I had forgotten. I had so much fun and a lot of nostalgia thinking back on that time and I decided that I wanted to find something that encompassed the way I felt during my time as a first year teacher...this is what I came up with.

Now don't get scared if you are a teacher at the beginning of your career. There were extremely rewarding moments throughout that time. I still get more than ridiculously excited that I get to show up and do the job I get to do every day, that I get to impact wonderful children everyday through music. But, I remember much too often feeling like the guy in the picture...overwhelmed!

I have spoken with many other educators, both music educators and non-music educators, that expressed the same sentiment about the start of their career. The fact is, even with all the education and preparation to enter this rewarding field, you cannot prepare for all of the questions and issues that you will encounter.

Each school has its own set of rules and procedures. Each program has its own set of unique students, parents and situations, and there is always more to learn. All of these questions and figuring out these new situations can quickly become quite stressful along with all of the other jobs that being a teacher encompasses. Too often young teachers quit this career they invested so much time in because of that stress that develops during their first couple of years.

So, how do we combat feeling overwhelmed? How do we change the face of that teacher above?

We reach out into our community of incredible educators and get ourselves a mentor. We have a ton of truly outstanding master teachers all around us that we can learn from. This is what I did and I could not be more grateful for the advice, support, and guidance of my mentors that have helped lead me on a successful path and helped shape the teacher I am today.

Here are just some of the many reasons to have a mentor:

First and foremost! Mentors have something that young teachers don't...experience!

And yes, I am sure that all of the young teachers just cringed a bit...I remember as a first year teacher and as someone just finishing student teaching placing quite a negative connotation on that word "experience". For instance, I am sure some of you have heard..."Well you just don't have enough experience yet." Or, from other teachers at your school that have taught longer "Don't worry, you'll understand once you get more experience."

The fact of the matter is though, every teacher you ever meet will express thanks for the growth they have had each and every year. On many occasions I have spoken with colleagues about their first year of teaching and we always laugh about that first year. That first time getting in front of a group of rowdy students and thinking..."Oh my, what have I gotten myself into?" ...and then given thanks to the teachers that we are now.

I have never met a teacher that has said in seriousness, "man I just had it figured out from year one." If you ever do, I would caution you to maybe not trust that person's advice. Like any new thing you encounter...the more you do it the easier it becomes and the more confident you become doing it.

The experience that you gain each year as a teacher includes so many things. With more experience comes getting more comfortable in front of students, learning how to better communicate with parents and your administration, learning what discipline strategies work best for you, figuring out exactly what your teaching style is, learning how to get support from your colleagues, administration, and community. And the list goes on. These are some of the many things that your mentors will have already experienced and they can help guide you through. Yes, you can strategize and develop solutions to problems you and your program face alone, but why not utilize a mentor that can make your life so much easier and take away some of that stress if you are not afraid to reach out and ask for help?

This is what it really all comes down to: Don't be afraid to ask questions! Don't be afraid to ask for help!

This goes for more experienced teachers as well but so many first year teachers, in particular, are afraid to reach out and ask for help. This was something that I remember feeling and something that many educators I have spoken to also sympathized with. We were all afraid that someone would think we didn't know what we were doing. The truth is, they know that is how you are feeling because they felt the same way once too!

Another benefit to having a mentor is that they often serve as great motivators in our personal and professional endeavors. They often inspire and instill a confidence in us we may not have had otherwise. There have been many things that I would have been afraid to try without the help, guidance and encouragement of my mentors. There have been many situations that I haven't exactly known how to handle, especially during that first year. to talk to that student that thinks you look too young to be an authoritative figure, personally I still get mistaken as being a student by my principal in the hallways. to handle that first trip to the principal's office on a real issue.

Each time in those situations, I spoke with a mentor who offered their time and experience to help me better and more confidently solve or approach the problem. I still reach out to my mentors for that guided support when unique situations arise and I encourage all teachers to continue reaching out to other master educators throughout their careers.

Find a mentor that exemplifies the educator you are striving to eventually become. Watching them can give you a goal of where to set your standards. Reaching out to them can help you determine the steps you need to take both professionally and personally to get there.

Another benefit to having a mentor, but definitely not the last one, is that somewhere in between all the phone calls, coffee, and conversations, mentors often change from just an advisor to a close friend, confidant and someone who looks out for you. All of my mentors have personally become some of my closest friends. They are people I look up to both professionally and personally. These are relationships that may not have become what they are if I hadn't sought them out as mentors and asked for help. Does this mean that we hang out all of the time? No, we all know how busy we are in this field, but that relationship has been forged and I know that I can count on them for advice and encouragement.

Furthermore, as your mentors get to know you, they get to see your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, but they also get to know about your personal and professional goals as well. They know what size and types of programs would fit you best and, vice versa, what types of programs would benefit from you.

In creating that relationship of knowledge and trust with your mentor, you also have gained a great professional reference who can vouch for you when the time comes. Mentors often have eyes and ears in the music community. They can point you to that job opening that is the perfect fit. They can recommend you for that special award, or they can recommend you for many different professional opportunities.

So these are just a few of a plethora of reasons to have a mentor. Now the question is, how does one go about getting a mentor and forging these long lasting relationships?

First off, your cooperating teachers in your student teaching experiences should be mentors that continue on even after you finish your semesters with them. My cooperating teachers still make it a point to see how I am doing from time to time and have met with me on different occasions to help encourage me during the highs and lows of my career. They encourage me to ask questions: why they do things, what I feel are the dumb questions, the big questions, the small questions. They have allowed me to be comfortable to ask them all of these questions and have encouraged me in all of my teaching endeavors. This has meant so much to me and has taught me to do the same for my student teachers.

So don't be afraid to give them a call again after you have begun your career. Most likely, they would love to hear from you. And remember to pay it forward once someone is relying on you for that encouragement and guidance as well.

As another way to find a mentor, I highly encourage you to get plugged in to your school's regional organization. I will be forever grateful for the support and friendship of the other directors I met through my region band organization. It is really imperative to find mentors in your area that can give you an inside or similar perspective to the one that you are in, and I had gone to the perfect place to find them.

For instance, my first job was held in Holdenville, Oklahoma, and I absolutely loved my time there. They are a community full of great people and were really supportive of the band program. But, for those of you that don't know, Holdenville is one of those small towns that takes all of 3 minutes to drive through. You arrive and then realize you passed through everything and have to turn around...that kind of town.

There are many challenges that come with teaching in a small town like that. You don't have a private life...they will know what you bought at Wal Mart the other day. Many times, you don't have much help. I was teaching 5th-12th grade band by myself and also served as the assistant choir director at the high school. All of my many beginners were in the same small classroom at the same time. A band director at a 5 or 6A school with multiple people on staff, which is the situation I currently work in, may not have understood my situation or have had much advice in the way of these smaller school issues. Again, this is why it is imperative to also find a mentor that can relate to the unique circumstances that come with your specific setting.

Third, reach beyond your area. Don't be afraid to reach out to other educators you may not know. Be brave and just ask! Whether they are at your school or maybe at the university level or elsewhere, many educators enjoy working with and learning from other educators in their field. They have figured out that in helping other teachers succeed and grow, they also continue to thrive and improve their own teaching.

And finally, you all have something that I and a lot of other young educators were not fortunate enough to have. Something that many educators wish they had. Programs like the OkMEA Mentorship Program and the Palen Music Center Mentorship Program help match you with educators that will be great mentors for you. Take advantage of these incredible opportunities! Sign up today if you haven't already and they will get you paired up with a master educator that best fits your teaching situation.

In closing, I encourage you to get out there and enjoy your first years of teaching. But I challenge you to do this: Become a thief! Now, don't go driving off with someone's car or shoplifting. Even though, yes, I do understand the teacher pay in Oklahoma is unfortunate. But, become a thief and steal or absorb as much as you can from the master teachers around you. I can attest that every mentor I have had has expressed that they are the teachers they are because of the mentors in their lives. Anything a mentor can help you get better at or make more efficient, is rewarding for you and most importantly is rewarding for the kids you teach. Which is what it's all really about, continually striving to be better for the students we teach.

wegotthisPNGSo, I challenge you to continue growing as people and as teachers. I challenge you to find the right mentors that can help you succeed. I challenge you not to be afraid to ask any and all questions that plague you during your first years of teaching and even as you continue teaching. I challenge you to one day pay it forward and be that mentor for someone else.

Do yourself a favor and turn that overwhelmed, stressed teacher into the one below, with the help of a mentor.

Ari Taylor is Director of Bands at Moore West Junior High and an Assistant Band Director at Westmoore High School. Prior to working at Moore Public Schools, she taught band and choir at Holdenville Public Schools. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with her Bachelors of Instrumental Music Education in 2012 and is currently in her 6th year of teaching. Mrs. Taylor teaches private clarinet lessons in the OKC metro area, has served as a conference clinician, adjudicated solo and ensemble events, and conducted an honor band.