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Chris Gleason: Teacher of the year would have quit without mentor

April 22, 2018

SUN PRAIRIE — The day before my first concert, the student band was falling apart. I called my father, a veteran band director, for some last-minute advice.

He said, “Write up something about the music and give it to a student to read to the audience before you play the piece.”

The next day, with the band assembled on stage and the crowd listening intently, one of my students walked up to the microphone, read the first sentence of my introduction, and then suddenly stopped. She glanced over at me with a puzzled look and then said into the microphone, “Oh, that’s what the piece is about.”

It was a devastating moment. I felt like a failure and wanted to melt away.

Later that night, my father called and asked, “How did your first concert go?” I said, “I’m not sure I’m cut out for teaching.”

The remainder of the year didn’t go much better. In fact, by the end of the year, I was convinced I had made a huge mistake and needed to find a new profession.

If anyone should have had an easy start in teaching, it should have been me. My father was a well-respected band director in Wisconsin, and my mother had earned her doctorate in educational leadership and served as a dean at a technical college. Both my brother and my wife are music educators.

I grew up in my father’s band room observing great teaching taking place every day. I attended an amazing high school and university that prepared me well for this profession.

Yet after just one year, I was ready to quit the only job I had ever wanted to do.

In a last-ditch effort to save my career, I registered for a week-long summer teacher workshop. Patty, a veteran music educator and small group’s leader, told me, “Teaching isn’t the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

In the days that followed, Patty, along with the other veteran teachers in the room, taught me how to light a fire in kids. The professional development I received from those master educators saved my professional career and challenged me to become the educator I am today.

Teaching is one of the few highly skilled professions that expect you to teach like a veteran your first day on the job. There is no “wading into this pool.” Rather, you jump into the deep end and trust you can keep your head above water.

Mentors such as Patty are lifeguards who protect and assist young educators when they are most at risk. A recent study found that “92 percent of teachers assigned a mentor their first year returned the next year, and 86 percent were on the job by the fifth year. Only 84 percent of teachers without mentors returned in the second year, declining to 71 percent in the fifth year.”

I am confident that I would not be teaching if it had not been for Patty.

Professional development has a profound impact on new teachers. In addition to meeting mentors, as a first-year teacher, I had the opportunity to participate in authentic teacher-led professional development.

The workshop, Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance, just celebrated its 40th anniversary this past summer. It is developed and led by veteran music educators who volunteer their time for the benefit of teachers and students.