Saturday, October 19, 2013

One Chance? Make Your Impact

Post by Mike Dynes: Mike has been a high school band director for 20 years, serving students at Bettendorf High School the last 11 years.

Like any other teacher, I am always trying to reflect about the impact that I am having on my students.  Did my rehearsal go as I thought it should?  Are we ready for our next performance?  What can I do differently next time in order to reach more kids, help them improve, and inspire them to grow as both people and musicians beyond their perceived capabilities?  As I near the completion of my Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership, I have learned that there is a significant parallel between school administration and teaching students.  I have also been forced to reflect on my own personality and teaching more than I ever have before.  In both cases, I have realized that some of the most important aspects of each job really boil down to effective communication, building meaningful relationships, accountability to high expectations, and a “win-win” mentality that is continually focused on student’s best interests.  Most recently, I have found myself reflecting about the presence of these specific qualities in my teaching and myself.

At the request of our principal, I've recently been spending time reading Dave Burgess’ book, “Teach Like A Pirate.”   One of the things that has resonated with me the most about that book was the idea that we get basically one chance to try to instill a love and passion for our curriculum in students.  In my case, there may never be another person that comes along in their life with the opportunity to foster a lifelong connection to music.  Personally, I see this as both a great opportunity and responsibility.  It is a heavy load on my shoulders to consider that if I don’t do it for them, no one else will – and they will miss out on something that can have such a profound effect on their lives.

When I am up in front of kids, directing an ensemble, as well as in any of the other classes I teach, I try to bring it with 110% effort; demonstrating my true love and passion for the things that I'm trying to teach them.  For me, this comes in the form of holding students accountable to very high expectations.  I play extremely challenging, college level music; demanding perfection in technique and musicality.  Being a music director is never about the final performance or rating for me, it has always been about the process of creating something beautiful with kids that they can be proud of.  The most amazing experiences for me as a teacher come when the band is performing at a level that conveys the true emotional and spiritual connection to a piece – it literally brings tears to my eyes.  It is one of the proudest moments for me as a teacher and the higher purpose of music that I attempt to instill in my students above everything else.

One of the greatest things about being a high school music teacher is the ability to have the same students for four years.  The relationships that I get to develop with kids are just as important as the curriculum to the success of my program.  I know that all good teachers in any content area have meaningful relationships with their students.  However, students and directors in music programs are really like members of a big family.  Students become invested in each other’s lives – both from a personal and team perspective.  They form life long friendships with others rooted in a mutual passion for music and without barriers due to class or ability level. 

There are weeks that I end up spending more time with my students than their parents and assume what I would consider to be a familial role in their lives.  It is during the many hours of rehearsal, performances, lessons and bus rides that I truly get to know my students; their interests, passions, fears, problems, and future goals.  The countless hours of work with them allows me to discover their personalities, and they also learn about me as both their teacher and an individual; my family and experiences, the kinds of things that I'm passionate about, my idiosyncrasies, and what drives me.  This interaction is what makes the experience dynamic and real for them.  Music is an extremely personal art form, and it is inevitable that this also makes its way into our relationships.  As we learn more about each other, we are then more able to form mutual goals and expectations, know when to push each other or pull back, and interject personal experience into the numerous teachable moments that present themselves during our interactions.  Being involved in music becomes about so much more than playing an instrument.

Every spring during pre-registration, and again in the fall, I personally go through a ritual of looking at rosters to see which kids have signed up for another year of band, as well as those that have not.  Of course there are many variables as to why students choose not continue being involved in the program, but the primary reasons at our school seem to be schedule conflicts and other interests or opportunities pulling them in different directions.  I find myself spending a great deal of time in conversations with students, parents, counselors, and administrators trying to work out issues and uncover reasons behind why a student chooses not to continue in music. 

Like any other music teacher, I have so much of myself invested in my students that it is difficult not to take it personally when a student decides to drop out of the program.  A lot of time is spent reflecting on where I may have let these kids down or how I did not sufficiently meet their needs.  I do my best to be understanding in these situations and offer potential solutions or alternatives.  Sometimes it becomes an all out “fight” to keep a student involved in music.  I’m sure that this is sometimes viewed as selfish on my part, but does always have what I believe are the best interests of the students in mind; not wanting them to let go of that passion for music or have it disappear from their lives all together.   It is an emotional issue that I take home every night.  It eats away and consumes me; detracting from my ability to be a good husband and father. 

The power of the relationships I have with students was really solidified for me a year or so ago when I had a student confide in me about a serious incident in her life:

One Friday evening, as the rest of the band was changing into marching band uniforms for a football game performance, one female student sat quiet and disengaged in my office.  I could see that she was holding back tears and after asking her what was wrong, a story unfolded where she confessed to being the victim of a sexual assault.  As a new father to a baby girl, my initial instincts took me into father figure mode.  I wanted to defend her and punish the person that inflicted such harm on one of my “family members.”  As we talked through her feeling about what happened, it was difficult for me to contain my own sadness and anger.

I spoke with my principal about the incident, and we discussed various avenues for her to pursue, both from a legal perspective and obtaining crisis counseling.  During our conversation, he also helped me to realize that this student confided in me solely because of the relationship we had built.  She needed to tell someone who cared and would listen in a non-judgmental way to help her to move forward.  In the end, she decided not to take any action; something that was initially very troublesome to me.  I realized, however, that because of our strong relationship, I was the one that needed to help her find the closure that she really needed more than anything.  I followed up with her on several occasions and we would discuss her feelings about the incident and its impact on her.  To this day, I believe that she would tell you that her trust in me helped her to find resolution in a potentially life altering situation.

It is not often that I get chance to consider how my job as a teacher has impacted others.  For all the students’ lives that I have touched throughout the years, I am sincerely hopeful that I have instilled a love for music and all of its benefits in at least some of them.  At the end of the day, I don’t view myself as any different from the numerous other dedicated teachers in our school.  Like others, I am working hard everyday to set and hold my students to high expectations, develop meaningful relationships with them, and consider their needs as the primary focus for everything I do.  I am extremely fortunate to be able to do all of that through music – something that fills my own life with a great sense of joy and accomplishment.  


  1. Mike, what a powerful story you have shared! Your passion and love for music and your students is evident. You are right, you get one chance to make a lasting impression on a student and you should feel proud that you have taken advantage of every opportunity to do so. Keep the music alive my friend. - jimmy

  2. Mike,
    What a great post and powerful message on the impact we can have on our students. You said it best when you spoke about the chance to instill a passion within our students. That one chance often connects you on an entirely different level with your kids. Keep doing great things within your program and continue to grow that wonderful "family!"