Understanding Transition Years

The Band Directors Group has provided interesting insights to the profession. If I had to name the most common problem faced by new teachers it would be the navigation of the transition year. A poorly handled transition often results in a student culture that takes years to correct, makes you miserable on a daily basis, and can even lead to early burnout or dismissal. I don't want to see these things happen to you. There are steps you can take to make the transition a more positive experience. The main point is understanding that teaching is not about you, it's about your students. And this is never more true than in a transition year.

Some veteran teachers who read this article may have personally suffered through a bad transition. What I've written here may or may not have saved you. Everyone's situation is unique, and everyone's skill set is different. If you have additional helpful thoughts you should add them in the comments section below.

The Key: Evaluating your predecessor

Most teachers who have gone through multiple transitions have come to recognize that the process is definitely more of an art than a science. But there are some concrete things you can be aware of during this critical time. One essential aspect is understanding the type of teacher you are following. Some might say not to worry about this, but to me it is a key component. Everything you say and (especially) do during the first year will be compared to the previous teacher by parents, admins, and especially students. So let's take a look at the possibilities (in reference to graphic above).

1. Following a good musician/teacher who was well-liked

This is generally a good situation for you musically (if you are a strong musician...and I hope you are) because you are going to be able to continue to teach good technique and repertoire. However this will be a challenge for you relationally because the students are going to be dealing with feelings of abandonment and you are going to feel the brunt of this. You must remember that students are not mature enough to do otherwise, especially those who are in their last year in the building (seniors, for example). Do not add fuel to the fire by changing much of anything. Keep things the way they are and instead, focus on building relationships with students. Learn names quickly, engage students in conversations about future plans and their interests outside of music. 

And here is another important one: building relationships with parents is just as important. Eventually the program will be yours but right now you are basically an invited guest, you need to realize that. You are going to have to work just as hard to build trusting relationships with parents as you do with the kids. Teach to the best of your abilities and be thankful that you are inheriting a strong program. Be patient.

2. Following a good musician/teacher who was disliked

After doing your research you may have found that your predecessor was a solid musican. You see evidence of good repertoire and a well-rounded curriculum. But if for whatever reason the teacher was disliked, you may find that students are resistant to things that make good musical sense because they associate those things with the former teacher. In short, they may desire change that is not good for them. 

Furthermore they may assume that you, like the last teacher, will show little care and concern for them. Building trusting relationships needs to be job one in this situation. Each and every day you need to build one-to-one relationships with students. You have to break the cycle of distrust while maintaining as much musical integrity as they will allow. Be patient.

3. Following an incompetent musician/teacher who was well-liked

This is by far the most frustrating situation, especially if you have high musical expectations. You must remind yourself daily that you are asking for trouble by moving too fast with your musical expectations. Slow down. When students like a former teacher they will associate everything that was taught to them as correct, so conversely everything you try to do differently will be considered incorrect. Don't dwell on this...accept it and get through the year with as little change as possible. The program will be yours soon enough. Do not ever disparage the former teacher. Much of quadrant number one applies here as well. Be patient.

4. Following an incompetent musician/teacher who was disliked

While not a no-brainer situation, this is by far the smoothest situation to manage. Students will be glad you are there (thought they may not show it) and they may indeed welcome some change, but you must still be strategic and don't forget to build relationships and consensus with students and parents. Make them a part of this exciting new era. Identify a few positive changes that will be widely accepted and take your time with the rest. Remember that the students' weak musicianship is not their fault. Be patient.

Being "You"

This is where the art comes into play. Given the situation, you may feel like you just can't be the teacher you expected to be this year (this is especially true for first-year teachers). You will hear a lot of people suggest to "just be you." I'm going to very carefully disagree with that. 

Your first concern in a transition year must be your students. If they are used to certain traditions, routines, practices that are not what you had envisioned for yourself, you need to consider their world first. If "being you" means doing things differently, think twice. There is a very fine line between being consistent with your predecessor and being too far out of your comfort zone, I get that. But if you stay focused on the fact that none of this is the students' fault, you will usually know the best way to proceed, and usually that is very slowly in regards to change. If your predecessor had high musical standards and the students liked him/her, well you'd better learn the extant repertoire, and have the score in your head and your head out of the score! If your predecessor chose substandard literature and was well-liked...breathe deeply and don't start programming masterworks this year. If your predecessor told a joke every Friday, and you aren't the joking type, suck it up for a year and tell some jokes. You get the idea. Put yourselves in the students' shoes...remember, even after the transition, it's not about you anyway.

Build trust, be empathetic, and be patient. You can do it.

Afterword: Several readers have mentioned the importance of never, ever, disparaging the former teacher. This is of course imperative. Don't do it... not in front of students, parents, or within the BDG. And if the students do it, don't condone it (and remember that ignoring it is the same as condoning it). 

Good luck, and never be too proud to ask for help!

18 responses
Wonderful article Brian. As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
As always Brian, great advice. It suits so many areas of education...namely administration!
Great article. I made a change after 7 years in another district - the positive, coming back to my home district. The challenge, being patient....
My first position was a 4 and my second position was a 3. Your observations and advice are accurate!!! What a great chart to help new teachers!
Nice article. But your chart...competent is misspelled.
Thanks Michelle, fixed.
Can't say I completely agree with the list as it stands. It depends in part on the students you're dealing with. Each community is different. What works in an urban environment may not work well in suburbia. One thing that does work across all situations is not talking badly about the previous director, even if he/she was a horrid director. My wife transitioned two schools in the past few years. At her current school, when she came in, she followed a director who had been there for 11 years and had performed a total of THREE concerts. He consistently got 4's and 5's at band assessment festival....yet somehow magically managed to keep his job until the union couldn't save him anymore (and the administration finally figured out they needed to document his behavior consistently). The worst thing she ever said to the kids was "well, Mr. so-and-so isn't here anymore and this is how we will do things now" in a very calm and respectful voice. In her case, any changes she made were considered radical and large-scale changes. But they were absolutely necessary and simply doing what the previous director did (nothing) was not an option.
Kerry, the situation that requires the most patience with change is box 1, and I think we can safely say in your wife’s case that she was not following a competent teacher. Change was needed and it sounds like she handled it brilliantly. Yes of course every situation is unique. This is a generalized overview especially designed for year one teachers who often pay little attention to past practices. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
The only thing I would add is figure out why there is an opening. Did the teacher retire on their own terms? Was the teacher removed/reassigned against their will? The removal is particularly difficult if they were liked by the students and community. Read the local newspapers from this spring and summer. If there was some sort of controversy you might find it there. You can also ask why there is an opening in your interview although most administration will sugar coat something negative.
This is generally good advice, especially when you relate everything to the point of you view of the students and their best interests. I do think however, it is dangerous to evaluate other professionals as competent or incompetent without defining what those terms mean. It is easy for any professional to write off another as "not as good" as they are.
Great article, Brian! I have had the privilege of following a director who was well liked and very musically competent (twice, actually). What I found helpful was meeting with the outgoing teacher (the former teacher was gracious enough to do this) and discuss what worked well and what the challenges were. He also gave me a list of students he considered leaders in the program. I set up a meeting with these kids at a local pizza place and talked to them about what they liked, would like to change, and what they wanted their year to look like. I then also had a parent/community meeting for parents and students for me to introduce my self, share how excited I was to be working with their community, and for them to ask questions. On the first day of school, I already knew a handful of students, and they knew that we were all playing for the same team.
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