music teacher tips for an engaging classroom

Teacher Tips for Engaging Students in Learning

Alex is a music teacher supporting three different high school choirs: Jazz Choir, Concert Choir, Varsity Choir; plus a middle school choir, and 6th grade music exploration. He also teaches a music theater appreciation class and a glee class. Overall, he has over 300 students in his relatively new music program. Like any teacher, he is engaging students in learning but he faces challenges also.

Alex and his students are breaking exciting new ground. In 2019 alone, 30 of his students were selected for city and state honors choirs. He was also able to take his students on tour, some of them for the first time, to cities like New York. 

We caught up with Alex to learn more about how he built his successful choir program by focusing on building lasting relationships with his students. If you would like to get more resources for engaging students in learning, learn more about our Teacher Program here. (AAC): What made you want to be a teacher?

Alex: It was the choir teacher I had in high school. He created the most welcoming, safe environment where students felt like it was OK to make mistakes. He created this environment where any student, from any walk of life, could come in and feel secure and be able to create and express themselves. It made me want to create an environment like that. 

AAC: What do you think is unique about your choral program?

Alex: A lot. My school is 6th through 12th grade, so I have students for six years. I get to start them really young and see them progress, possibly going into music in college which is really cool. 

Something that is different is that the district hired me for a completely new program. The district asked me, “What classes do you want to teach? What do you feel passionate about?” I tried to be really eclectic in my classes. I had some budget, but many things in my classroom I really had to win, find donations, or fundraise for. 

AAC: How are you engaging students in learning when they’re a diverse group and interested in different styles of music?

Alex: It might be picking music that the choir really wants to sing. Quite often that song is the least favorite of theirs because it doesn’t sound like the radio. I think the best way to engage students is to pick a repertoire that is diverse enough that each student can find something to relate to. Also, being approachable. I think students feel more engaged when they enjoy the teacher, when they feel they can talk to the teacher. So creating a good relationship with your students will keep them engaged, whether there’s 70 students in a classroom or 12.

AAC: Why do you think teachers are inspired to go above and beyond at their job?

Alex: I won’t speak for all teachers, but I think most of us have a passion for creating a better life for our students. We want to see our students excel and we’ll do anything to see that happen. We need to show them that we care about them. We want to invest in them. I’ve put in extra time and energy to provide my students with the same materials that other schools have so they can feel, “Oh Alex really is invested in us. He really does care about us.” I don’t think many teachers would go into teaching if they didn’t have a passion for inspiring their students and wanting to create an equitable environment for our students.

AAC: How do you think your music class impacts your students?

Alex: I think that the arts are one of the only ways students can learn to express and convey emotion. I think it’s a reflective class for students. They come and talk about cultural events and we get to tie that into music and into life. In some classes, students work individually. But with choir, you’re constantly working with maybe 70 people. As a director, I’m creating an environment where students feel safe to make mistakes.

AAC: Do you have any tips for first year music teachers?

Alex: If you’re coming right out of college it’s so important to remember that you’re stepping back into high school. Starting off easy, especially your first semester or quarter, and going over the basics is really important. Don’t get too ahead of yourself. Also, create relationships with students. They’ll tell you if something is wrong, whether it’s in the music classroom or outside the classroom. Create these relationships because they can help you out with things like filing music, taking attendance, or calling out their classmate that’s on their phone during class.

AAC: Do you have any tips on classroom management?

Alex: Go into the year with high standards. I tend to lean a little more strict at first and loosen up the reigns. It’s important to loosen up once they know the rules and expectations. The best classroom management I have is being approachable, creating relationships, and being engaging. If you can be those things, your classroom management will be pretty easy. 

AAC: Music classrooms often have to fundraise, what do your classes do?

Alex: We have a music cafe at school on Friday mornings. My Jazz Choir performs and we make coffee, hot chocolate, and sell donuts. That brings in a few hundred dollars every week. 

To pay for tour last year, we had a “Parent Prom.” It was a prom specifically for parents hosted at a local hall with 80’s music and everyone dressed up in 80’s gear. Students signed up for a silent auction providing services in exchange for a donation like babysitting, dog walking, dog sitting. A few boys signed up to make pasta for your family and tell jokes. It gave ownership to students to raise their own money. Kids are so creative. I never would have thought of those ideas. I think if students are really motivated they’ll figure something out and they’ll be creative about it. We just can’t underestimate them.

If you would like to support Alex’s choirs at Open World Learning Center, click here.

To learn more about how to register your classroom for funding and getting supplies for engaging students in learning, check out our For Teachers page.