Starting at a new school can be tough - and not just when you're a student! Starting work as a teacher at a new school can present lots of challenges. Where are the bathrooms? How do classes run here? How on earth will I learn all these students' names?!
I believe being a new music teacher is especially challenging, because you never know what kind of program you might have inherited. Unlike subjects like Maths and English, we have a very broad, unstructured (some might say unhelpfully vague) curriculum and a myriad of ways to implement it. I have started at schools where I have inherited programs with a thriving choir, bands and classes full of musically literate kids. .Then again I've also inherited a program where the previous teacher thought music education meant playing the kids YouTube clips from the "Just Dance" PS4 games. It takes all sorts.
One of the biggest challenges, however, can be starting at a school where you're not inheriting a program at all. Starting at a school that is itself new. Building a program from scratch. One person who has done this is the lovely Anna Van Veldhuisen.
Anna teaches music at the Alice Miller School, an independent alternative school in Macedon opened by John Marsden in 2016. She and I sat down over coffee to discuss her work.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, what drew you to music education in the first place?
Well, I never intended to become a teacher, because both my parents are teachers and I'd always said I didn't wanna do that. I started off as a percussionist, picking it up in Year 7 band and then pursuing music for Year 11 & 12 at VCASS (Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School). I then did my Bachelor of Music Performance at VCA and initially got into arts admin. I wound up working for the Foundation for Young Australians and found that I really loved working with the kids, so I wound up following in my parents' footsteps and did a Dip Ed.
I was really lucky to land my first teaching job back at VCASS and they really helped me grow as a teacher with lots of mentoring and team teaching meaning I was able to observe great teachers in action. It was there that I met Jenny Gillan and first got introduced to the Kodaly philosophy,
What do you love about the Kodaly philosophy? How does that inform your teaching practice?
Well, having been a student at VCASS for the last two years of my schooling, I've experienced Kodaly from both sides and funnily enough I didn't actually take to it as a student. Being a percussionist I thought "well, my rhythm is already really solid and I don't need to worry about pitch" plus I'd been introduced to it quite late compared to some of my peers so it really didn't grab me.
It was only returning to VCASS as a teacher and seeing the results Jenny Gillan was getting out of her kids that made me go "wow!" She encouraged me to go up to the Queensland KMEIA summer school and take Secondary Level 1 and I was just blown away by James Cuskelly's program.
Nowadays, I wonder what on earth I would be teaching if I hadn't done that! I can't imagine teaching music without using Kodaly - what would I do?!
I guess that's another element that attracts a lot of people to the Kodaly methodology is that it provides a very clear framework and structure to a sometimes vague subject. Here in Victoria, especially, our music curriculum is so non-prescriptive that it's almost problematic and the Kodaly approach has a structure that offers relief from that.
Tell us about your position at Alice Miller. How did it all get started?
Well, my contract at VCASS was nearly up and I had seen an article in the newspaper discussing how John Marsden (celebrated author who opened the Candlebark P - 8 school around a decade prior) was looking at opening a Secondary School in the Macedon Ranges.
I emailed the school and set up an interview with him where I was able to lay out my ideas for a Secondary Music program. He was very receptive as a key idea for the school as a whole would be creativity and an emphasis on and support for the Arts.
Did you encounter any challenges along the way?
Well, we were literally starting from scratch. John had bought the land and buildings of the old Macedon Grammar and so when I started, my first job was to gut my classroom and set it up from scratch as a music room. Over the past three years we've been gradually adding resources - though that's one of the beauties of a Kodaly-based program, even if we don't have instruments yet, we still have voices!
What does your program look like now?
It's changed a bit over these last three years, but we have compulsory music for the entire year in both Yr 7 (2 periods a week) and Yr 8 (1 period a week). These classes tend to follow the structure and sequence of a Kodaly Secondary Program - I mean, not all of them look like a typical Rita Klinger lesson, but that overall sequence of prepare, present, practice and an aural approach to any content that I'm teaching is there.
In addition to this, however, the school also has a huge elective program. There is a combined Yr 7/8 elective block and a combined Yr 9/10 elective block (3 periods a week) where students can choose to add additional music programs to their study. These tend to have more of a listening/analysis or composition focus, a bit like a pre-VCE class.
We also offer VCE Music Performance and Styles as well as instrumental tuition and ensembles such as choir, rock band, woodwind chamber groups etc.
What advice do you have for someone starting a music program from scratch?
Make sure you access the people around you for help. Make use of your teaching network and ask questions. It can be quite isolating, being the only music teacher in your school so make sure you connect, don't be an island.
Also have faith in your teaching practice and believe that what you are doing works, just remember that a good culture, any culture, but especially a culture of strong music education doesn't just spring up overnight. Know that it takes time.
You can catch Anna presenting on her work at Alice Miller in more detail at the 2018 KMEIA National Conference in Perth, Oct 1-4.
For a sample of her work, check out her website