Student teaching experience strikes right chord with K-State music education major
By Beth Bohn
Music has always hit the right note with Deborah Donelan. Now, the Kansas State University music education major is learning what it takes to hit the right notes as a music teacher.
Donelan is fulfilling one of the last requirements to earn her teaching degree by serving as a student music teacher. She is spending the first part of the spring 2004 semester at St. George Elementary School, and the last part of the semester at Wamego's middle and high schools as a student band teacher.
"I want to be a music teacher because I love music and I love kids," Donelan said. "I believe that music has something for everyone, and that everyone can find something they can succeed at in music."
Music has long been a part of Donelan's life. As a child, she started playing the piano in elementary school. She briefly joined the choir in sixth grade but decided to switch to the band when her mother asked her if she wanted to learn how to play the flute. She's been playing the flute ever since, including in school bands, for her church, at weddings and at other events.
In high school, Donelan was a member of the marching band, concert band and pep band and was selected as a drum major her senior year.
"Becoming a drum major greatly influenced my decision to major in music education at K-State," she said. "I have been involved with K-State's marching, concert, symphony and university bands. I've also been a member of small ensembles at K-State. My last two years, I have been one of the leaders in all of these ensembles at some point."
Now, Donelan has gone from being a music maker to being a music teacher. She said her student teaching experience has convinced her she's made the right career choice.
"I'm even more excited about it. I better understand my strengths and weaknesses now," she said. I've really enjoyed teaching at the elementary level because the children are still at that loving/excitable stage in their lives where they can be taught the awesome power of music.
"I also think its important that children at the elementary level have a music teacher who will excite them and motivate them to continue with music in their lives," she said.
At St. George, Donelan worked under the guidance of Janet Armstead, who has taught music at the school for nine years and has nearly 25 years of experience as a music teacher.
St. George is one of the few schools in Kansas where students are taught music every day, Armstead said, which makes plenty of lesson planning time essential. Except for kindergarten, all classes at St. George are multi-age. Music classes are 30 minutes long. Armstead and Donelan start the day teaching two classes of fifth- and sixth-graders. They then get an hour of planning time before handling three classes of third- and fourth-graders. Then it's 30 minutes for lunch before teaching two classes of first- and second-graders. They get a 30-minute planning period before wrapping up the day teaching two kindergarten classes.
Donelan is discovering, though, that her days don't always go as scheduled.
"I am amazed at how much music teachers' schedules are varied during one week's time," she said. "I came in thinking that my schedule would be consistent from day to day. I learned quickly that teachers just have to roll with the punches. Sometimes you will have to take over for a fellow teacher, which cuts into your planning time a very cherished time during the day. You have to think quickly, be on your toes and always be ready for a fire drill at the most inconvenient time."
She's also had to get used to the different ages and abilities of her students.
"We just had our kindergarten program the other night. I learned it is very tough to get kindergartners to stand on bleachers and stay focused on one thing for more than two minutes," Donelan said.
"Therefore, you, as their teacher, have to be thinking and moving all the time. There really is a huge difference between kindergartners and first-graders in that when kindergartners first come to school, they do not know how to stand in line, not to talk, to listen and to sing. I've learned there's a lot of truth in the phrase, 'Everything I learned in life, I learned in kindergarten.'"
Armstead has been involving Donelan in the lesson planning and giving her more say in shaping the lessons as her experience grows.
"It takes a while to start lesson planning for all of the different grade levels because you have to remember to think on their level," Donelan said. "That was the problem that I ran into when I tried to explain things to first- and second-graders as I would college students my age. I had to learn to slow down and think about what they would and could respond to."
But the challenges her students bring are also among the reasons Donelan is enjoying teaching.
"The thing I like most about teaching so far is I get to work with children who are developing before my eyes," she said. "It makes me feel so good when my students understand a new concept that I am teaching. They are so creative, energetic and unpredictable. One could say that there is never a dull moment; if there is, there is something wrong."
There wasn't a dull moment one recent Tuesday afternoon in mid-February as Donelan was teaching a class of first- and second-graders. The focus of the day's lesson was recognizing tone. As the students filed into the room, they were greeted in a high-toned, singing voice by Donelan.
"Hello, Patrick," sang Donelan.
"Hello, Mrs. Armstead," sang back Patrick, trying to match Donelan's tone while grinning at the intentional misidentification.
"Who?" sang Donelan.
"Hello, Mrs. Donelan," Patrick sang, still grinning at his joke.
By the time the 30-minute class was over, Donelan had each of the students sing responses to questions, trying to match the same tone she was using; she had them play a tone identification game, where they had to guess what was in covered jars she would shake: rice, beans, pasta, popcorn or oatmeal; and even had time to teach them some steps to a Mexican folk dance that required the kids to know the difference between their left and their right and how to count beats.
"Among Deborah's strengths is that she really loves working with the kids. It's very obvious," Armstead said. "She's probably had the hardest time, though, being a disciplinarian. She doesn't want to be mean. But handing out discipline isn't being mean; it's just helping the kids learn."
Donelan agrees disciplining has been a challenge.
"It can get very frustrating when you have tried to discipline certain children over and over using different strategies and nothing seems to be working," she said. 'This is where your patience is tried during teaching. As the teacher, you have to teach a concept, make it interesting, have every eye on you and know what to say to influence your students in ways that will make them behave."
Her K-State education classes have really helped prepare her to teach, Donelan said.
"While I was in the College of Education's Block I sequence, l learned how to lesson plan properly and how to manage my classroom time," she said. "To finish my Block I experience, I was required to plan a team-teach lesson with three of my colleagues and share this lesson with an eighth-grade math class at Junction City Middle School. When I started taking my music education classes, I had to work on ear-training, as well as teaching actual music concepts."
Donelan said Practicum, a music education class she took at K-State, probably made the biggest impact on her.
"Practicum was the most enjoyable and enlightening experience out of my classes at K-State," she said. "In the class, I was given the opportunity to work with and learn from more experienced music teachers in the area. I really believe that the more you do, the more you learn."
Donelan says she can't wait to lead her own classes after she graduates from K-State in May.
"Every job has its drawbacks, but I still say teaching music to children is the best job that anyone could possibly want," she said.
Photos: (Top) Donelan holds a toy phone up to her ear and has her students at St. George Elementary imitate her high-pitched tone.
(Bottom) Donelan and students play a game listening for tones of different objects.