This spring, I had the opportunity to co-teach with my music colleague, Andrew Kendall. In our small school district, the two of us make up two-thirds of the district’s music teachers. I teach kindergarten through fifth grade general music, and Andrew teaches sixth through twelfth grade vocal music. We’ve had many planning conversations, we’ve taught collaboratively in each other’s classrooms, and earlier this week, we co-directed a concert. Collaboration across grade levels and across programs within a department may not be as common as collaboration between teachers with similar teaching assignments, but it’s equally, if not more, beneficial to students, teachers, and music programs.
Building a Cohesive K-12 Music Program
A strong music program is one in which students transition easily from elementary music to higher-level performing ensembles, but this is only achievable if their teachers are communicating and collaborating. Andrew and I chose to co-teach fifth and sixth grade to help students with this transition. My fifth graders were able to meet and work with their future music teacher while in a familiar environment with their elementary music teacher. In Andrew’s choir room, I gained an understanding of the abilities and expectations of sixth graders.
Our hope is to create a seamless flow through our K-12 music program. Moving from elementary classroom music to middle school performing ensembles is often considered a big “step up” in difficulty and behavior expectations. Ideally, it should simply be a move between two types of classes with connected content. When teachers in a department get to know each other’s teaching, they are better equipped to guide students from elementary to secondary music. Knowing my colleague’s teaching style helps me to prepare my fifth graders for the focus on performance in his classes and decide what elementary music experiences I want to ensure my students have before they move to middle school ensembles. Next year, those new sixth graders will know Andrew’s expectations and he’ll have an understanding of their prior knowledge.
Once we settled into our co-teaching routines, it was liberating to have two music teachers in one classroom. We each took the lead on one or two concert pieces with each grade while the other accompanied on piano. When the active teacher was able to be directly in front of the students, without the barrier of the piano between them, students were more focused and attentive. Meanwhile, the accompanying teacher was able to see behaviors and hear issues in the music that the active teacher may have missed while dealing with other issues in the ensemble. Co-teaching helps students learn content, but also models collaboration, professionalism, and respect to students.
Creating Collaborative Concerts
Andrew and I went into our co-teaching with the goal of co-directing a concert. When two teachers of different backgrounds choose repertoire, the result can be an interesting, multi-perspective program. Being able to divide the duties of set-up, logistical planning, promotion, and student supervision drastically reduces pre-concert stress. Concerts are a big deal for music teachers, and perhaps above all, it’s been nice to have someone to share that with.
Growing as Professionals
In a small, rural school like ours, there aren’t many professional development opportunities that apply to our content, and we don’t have department of teachers teaching the same levels and ensembles with whom we can share ideas. It’s important that Andrew and I work together for our own growth as music teachers, but working across grade levels and programs could benefit any music teacher, no matter what the size of their school. In addition to getting to know each other as teachers, we are getting to know each other’s content areas to enrich our own. Almost all of my training and performing experience is instrumental, but elementary music class includes both singing and playing. When we began co-teaching, choral conducting was outside of my area of expertise and my comfort zone, and therefore, this experience has resulted in me growing as a musician and as a general music teacher.
Co-teaching music across levels benefits the students, teachers, and the entire program. Students learn more from having two teachers with varied backgrounds, knowledge, and skills. Teachers learn to be better teachers from each other and from interacting with students outside of the grades that they usually teach. As Andrew and I left the stage after our shared concert earlier this week, we were already talking about how we can’t wait to do this again next year.