How do you create a “safe environment” in the music classroom? This is so important and is hardly ever referenced in any kind of teacher training. And this also ties in with other, universal questions about student discipline. The answer is complex…you might want to get comfortable.

THE UNSPOKEN RULE: This all begins with YOU and a variant of the Golden Rule: “teach others as you wish to be taught…”.

Someone asked me what to say at the beginning of the year to “spell out” the rules and boundaries. Very little, I think. It’s much better to live it instead. Students have been so inundated by rules by the time they get to music class, that your lessons will be unique in that they will be laden with delicious sounds and brevity of wit. A brief set of personal rules with body percussion accompaniment will do very nicely, thank you; these can be added to along the way, in rhythmic strata. Haim Ginott said it nicely: “Shape to joy, sound to fury, release to tension”.

Some “rules” for the music room – such as “consideration for instruments” etc. – can be introduced when needed as a rhythmical thing and you can turn the rule into a playful musical element (i.e. “use two hands to (clap) remove a bar”).

SETTING THE TONE: Somewhere early in the year you might alert children to the times you will be creating music as a class. All student suggestions should be able to be made without fear of any ridicule or negativity. So you tell the class, “See that invisible 2 ft. high message on the wall: NO MISTAKES ARE EVER MADE IN THIS CLASS? You can do no wrong; music and ideas bend and it’s all how you shape them. Never be afraid to give an idea or an opinion about the music we make, as you will never be wrong. And always be thoughtful and respectful of someone else’s vision.” Then you immediately do a lesson that requires evocative input from your group – deciding on a particular accompaniment for a speech piece or some such – and you demonstrate that invisible saying on the wall through YOUR responses: interest in every idea and REALLY listening with your whole body; sometimes repeating the idea of a student in a way that makes kids think about it…and the person who contributed it feel good. Be positive and considerate to every offering, and then boil it down to 2 or 3 ideas to vote upon (making sure students understand you’re voting for a musical idea, not a person.)

DEMONSTRATING HUMANITY, AND A POSSIBLE WAY TO DEAL WITH THE ANTITHESIS: Fundamental to all this is that you start (and continue) your lessons humanelyThe power that teachers possess honestly brings tears to my eyes. We control whether students will feel good about themselves, or feel shredded; whether they will grow and evolve into productive, happy humans, or be stunted by unkind words or overly harsh words.

So, how does one deal with students who are less than cooperative without affecting the entire class? The first time you notice someone “pulling at the fabric,” bear with him/her until the end of the class, ignoring the bad behavior as much as possible. When you finally have the opportunity to take that ONE child aside and speak in a voice none of the others can hear as they are leaving, that’s when you do the remedial behavior work. Tell that child (unemotionally – just the facts) specifically what it was that he did that will not work in your classroom; that kept others from being able to think clearly and make music joyfully; or that created a hurt feeling in another person. You spell it out and ask the child to simply stop whatever the poor behavior was, and to come up after the next music class and tell you how she thinks she did. This feedback is critical, because you and the offender may not agree on an acceptable standard. Depending on the results, you may have to up the ante, such as: “I’ll give you one more class to get your act together, and if you can do this, there will be a tangible reward in it for you after class.” You decide the rewards: an eraser, a pencil, an opportunity to have a one on one with teacher during lunch and be “allowed” to help clean the room, an ice cream sandwich, a GOOD letter to the parents. Only after all this and lots of one-on-one eyeballing with the miscreant, come those “parent letters home” and pressure from the outside. These were very rare with me.

BECOMING THE CLASS “PROTECTORATE”: The point is to KEEP YOUR ATTENTION ONLY FOCUSED ON THE POSITIVE WITH THE MASSES – while tweaking anything negative privately with your left hand. Enjoy laughter when things are funny and offer comments like, “What a good idea that was,” to a kid with a good idea and “What a vivid mind you have,” to the kid who gives “off the wall” suggestions. Little by little the kids of any age understand you are the class protectorate and you will never allow negative stuff in the room; you will not allow bullies; you will not allow behavior that keeps the class from moving forward; you will not allow sabotage (e.g., kid singing off key on purpose…unless it was a funny moment that becomes a time when you can all giggle); you will never allow sarcasm or practice it yourself. You will only allow safe, kind, funny, generous, playful, interesting, positive, helpful, constructive responses. As teachers you are the kings and queens of The Positive Atmosphere and this is where the trust is bonded. And it starts day one and continues with reminders throughout the year. It never ends.

GOOD THINGS TAKE TIME: This palpably happy state is NOT BUILT OVERNIGHT… but never let the anarchists get you down. NEVER go down to a miscreant’s level by yelling at that person in front of the group because in doing this, the teacher has subliminally yelled at the WHOLE group – even the straight ‘A’ types – and you have unintentionally “thrown paint” over all the class. Because of this – having a pleasant demeanor on my face (not wreathed in smiles, but approachable); making pleasant personal comments to the kids as they enter…about anything (weather, their clothing, their hair style, chitchat); noting if a child seems “down” and asking if anything is wrong; being willing to be wrong in the course of a lesson and say, “Whoops, I gave you something too hard; let’s park that and come back to it another time,” and a willingness to be human (“ Let me say that again more positively…it didn’t quite come out the way I intended…”); and because of my love of music and fascination in it for myself and others (and CONSISTENCY of response) – I CAN truthfully say I have had few discipline “problems” in my career.

A SALIENT EXAMPLE: It wasn’t always so. As a first-year teacher I was highly indignant and upset if inappropriate words were hurled at me. During this seminal year of teaching, a young man in 7th grade told me to go do something that is physically impossible. It was in the days before that expletive was so common, and I was incensed beyond belief! The lad was standing by the door as he said this, and before one could say, “Fired,” I had grabbed the top of his shirt and pushed him against the wall. I thought I heard every vertebra in his back ripple, and in that second saw my career shortened by about 40 years. Further, it turned out he was the son of the principal. Subsequently we made a gentleman’s agreement: I would not tell his father what he said to me, and he would not relate what I did to him (he was mercifully not physically damaged). Very important lessons learned that day: Important to turn such moments around through humor– the playful comeback, “Physically impossible,” would have ameliorated the moment and maybe even gleaned a laugh. I also learned to never, ever touch a child in anger, and honored that wizened promise through my entire 37-year elementary career.

Still with me? Good luck to you all in your creative, tremendously positive careers in music. (Note: Judith Thomas is a 37 year veteran of the K-6 classroom music scene.)