Northwest District Musings: Learning from Retired Teachers

Don Mordecai, Northwest District President
Don Mordecai, Northwest District President

As a Kansas Band Director in a public school, there are many people I admire.  My colleagues come to mind, because day in and day out, they are at school, making the world a better place for the students!  This includes teachers, coaches, administrators, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, cooks, nurses, well, you get the idea.  But there is one group of people that has always been special to me; retired band directors.  I only see a lot of them once or twice a year, but when I do, they really make an impact on my life.  I wanted to write a short article that had something to do with retired band directors, their experiences, what they found most worthy of their time, and what they may be doing now.  As I began to explore this topic, I reached out to three such individuals, and what I found is very interesting to say the least.  This piece is more about what I learned, but in the future, I hope to have my internet conversations with them published so that you can read for yourselves what makes them tick, and what they remembered most about their careers.

Maybe the biggest reason I thought to write about retired Band Directors is because of one conversation I had with Lyle Dilley, years ago.  I saw him at KMEA, and he asked me where I was playing currently.  He was very disappointed in me because I had to tell him I wasn’t playing anywhere, except with my students.  This was unacceptable to him!   All of the retired Band Directors that I interviewed said that they played their instruments during their careers, and some are continuing to play.  Throughout their careers, they played in Community Bands, Military Bands, an Orchestra, a Jazz Ensemble, and more!  We can learn a lot from this.  Teaching should not mean we case up our instruments.  On the contrary!  Let your instrument (or your secondary instrument) shine!

Participation within the profession was another common denominator among the retired directors I interviewed. These fine educators all worked with KMEA in some capacity over the years, as well as KBA.  One still has a roll in KMEA today.

Another common factor I found among those who I interviewed was not surprising to me at all. Their educational backgrounds were all founded in solid music education experiences in public school and college.  They also, at some point in their careers, stayed in one district for a long time (10+ to 30+ years).

When they were confronted with uncomfortable teaching situations, they wisely asked for help.  That brings up a good point for both young and old to consider.  Today’s Kansas Music Educators have a wonderful mentoring program!  If you are an experienced or retired teacher, you could volunteer to become a mentor.  If you are new to teaching (first or second year) you can be paired with someone who has had experience teaching in your area.  If you have not heard about the mentoring program, talk to the Mentoring Chair in your district and find out more.

I asked all three of these retired directors if they played instruments with their students during class and during band lessons.  They told me that they did and they agreed that younger students should hear how an instrument should sound.  One director’s philosophy was, if he could play it, then the student should believe they could play it, if they practiced it.  One of the retirees stated that he would arrange for someone else to direct so he could solo with his HS Band!  I would say that if you have the ability to do this, it would be a great way to interact with your group!  Playing with them is one wonderful level, but performing with them as a soloist would be that much greater.

I know all three of these men learned to fix band instruments over the years, allowing their students to continue playing rather than waiting for their instruments to return from the shop. Band teachers must learn how to fix instruments.  If unsure how to fix an instrument that a student brings to you, you can always call someone and ask or post a question online in one of the band teacher forums and see if anyone can tell you what to do.  If you try to fix it and it’s worse, you can always send it in, but chances are, you will be able to fix a lot of small issues that occur.

When asked about the highlights of their careers, all of them commented on how they had wonderful students.  I am sure that no matter where you are currently teaching, you would have to admit that you have wonderful students as well!

One director commented on how he learned to discipline students without putting them down or embarrassing them.  This is something that all of us should strive to learn how to do.  It takes a lot of work and practice to have enough patience to do this all the time!  I thought this was a wonderful comment about this person’s career.

I asked them what changes in education have hurt the arts/music programs, and here is how they responded:

“The only changes in education that have hurt the arts/music programs (in my opinion) are the requirements that have increased for other subject areas.  The basic problem with the drop in participation in music programs (again in my opinion) is students involvement in other curricular and extra-curricular activities AND the lack of involvement of students in anything not required AND their parents being okay with that.”

“The tests that all schools have to take. So many times, students are pulled out of arts classes to try and help them get a better score on the test. Block schedule also took time away from rehearsals.”

“Lack of student self-discipline, which has hurt education in general. Arts funding. It is less than when I started. The extreme amount of time students spend on the internet. This used to be practice or study time.”

These three directors have had success in their programs, at contests and concerts, and with pep band!  They made an impact on student’s lives; in fact, one of them commented on how former students sometimes contact him just to catch up, and find out how he is doing.  One of them commented that it was his hope, as a teacher, that his students would become “life-long musicians”.  Perhaps this may be a big part of why we do what we do!

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