My first two years of band directing

My first two years of band directing began in 1988 in Northampton County, Virginia. I was offered a contract to be the middle school band director at Northampton County Middle school and I jumped at the chance to begin. The school is located in the thriving metropolis of Machipongo, Virginia.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

The biggest store I kew of in Machipongo. The school was on the other side of I-13

Moving in

I was given the contact info for a wonderful older couple who had a garage apartment that they would rent for $250/month. The apartment was furnished which was a big plus since I had just graduated from college and had no furniture.

This was 1988, and we had no cell phones. If you wanted to talk on the phone you needed to pay the phone company to turn the service on and I didn’t have enough money to get things hooked up.

My parents lived over 1,000 miles away in Naples, Florida. If I wanted to talk to them, I had to go to a local gas station and use a pay phone. Some of you won’t understand. At the time you could put money in a pay phone and call someone. There was also this thing called a, “collect call”. When you made a collect call you had a human being called an “operator” who would ask you your name and the name of the people you were calling. They would dial the number and then ask if the party being called would like to pay for the call.

The local gas station had a pay phone and that is what I used when I wanted to talk to my parents.

In a month I was able to get a phone hooked up.

My entertainment system was a 13 inch black and white tv with rabbit ears. I was able to pull in a few television channels and I believe that I had a radio. If I wanted to see a movie, I would drive around 60 miles to Salisbury, Maryland so that I wouldn’t have to see any students.

Band directing

I’ve described my first day of band directing in a previous post, but suffice it to say it was terrible. The students did not behave well and I honestly didn’t know what to do about it.

One day was particularly taxing. The students didn’t want to do what I asked and I didn’t want to give in. There was a great deal of yelling from both sides. At one point several students stood up and announced that they were going to drop the class. I think I could actually hear the Hallelujah Chorus. They stood up and said that they were serious. I gleefully pointed at the door.

The remainder of that class was glorious. The remaining students did as I asked and things went smoothly. I was walking on a cloud as I headed out for the day. But, before I could leave, I was flagged by one of the assistant principals. He motioned me into his office.

I walked in and he began, “Mr Dunn, I know you think that having these kids drop the class is a good idea…” I interrupted, “No, I KNOW this is a good idea!”. He continued, “Mr. Dunn, we’re not letting these kids out of your class.”

The music in my head changed from the Hallelujah Chorus to the Psycho theme. I brooded all night and into the next morning. What was I supposed to do with these kids? The next day, we gathered for class like two armies on a battlefield forced into an unwanted armistice. I knew they didn’t want to be in class and they knew I didn’t want them in class. I wish I could say that things got better, but it felt more like a scene from High Noon, minus the physical violence.

Duty station

So, band directing was not going well. If you’re a teacher you know that you don’t just teach classes, you also have ‘duties’ that you have to perform. One of my duties included being in the hallways in the morning. No problem, right?

One morning the bell rang for everyone to go to homeroom. Everyone filtered into their rooms except for one young man. I looked at him and said, “Ok, time to go to homeroom.”. He just stood and stared at me. I repeated myself a few times and each time received the same cold, Clint Eastwood stare.

So, what do you do? You can’t physically lay hands on a student. That is a big “No-no”! I walked away and went to find someone with greater authority.

In today’s schools we have security. You can find someone in a yellow shirt and tell them what is going on. In 1988 we didn’t have security. I needed to find someone who could help so I went to the office and found the principal. He was standing at his desk but his attention was on his desktop. (That’s a physical desktop. We didn’t have computers on everyone’s desk. It’s 1988, remember?). As I spoke, he pushed some paper around with his finger. He never looked directly at me when he said, “Write him up!” and then he asked that I close his door as I was leaving.

Mug shots

I walked back down the hallway and couldn’t find the student, but I intended to “write him up”. How would I write up someone when I have no idea who they are?

It occurred to me that I could use a yearbook from last year. I went to the library and looked in an old yearbook for what I affectionately refered to as, “mugshots”. I found my guy and wrote him up.


An assistant principal approached me later that day. (Not the same one as before.). He had my referral in his hands and asked me if I knew anything about this student. This young man had just been released from a juvenile detention center and didn’t know which room was his homeroom.

I took the referral and crumpled it up. “That’s your choice.”, the administrator said. I didn’t feel supported, but I honestly did think it was the right thing to do. The kid obviously didn’t know how to respond appropriately to the situation he was in. Frankly, neither did my administrators. Everyone was in over their heads and I’m sure he was eager to get back to his office.

Tearing it up

My classroom was hot. Literally hot, I’m talking about the temperature. Class took place on the stage in the auditorium and we used stage lights for our basic lighting. Adding to our discomfort was the fact that our school was very old and had no air conditioning. And,… we had one wall in the auditorium with some windows that could open, but there was no way that air could make it over to the stage.

I sweat when I teach. It’s a physical job and you need to be animated and engaging especially if you’re trying to win over an ornery class. My daily uniform was: dress slacks, long sleeved shirt and a necktie. I would just soak through.

If you’ve ever worn polyester dress pants, you know that they can stick to you when you’re sweating. One day I was writing on the chalkboard and I crouched down to write on the bottom section. The dress slacks stuck to my legs and didn’t move…but they did tear.

That seam split a cavernous 3-4 inches. The ripping sounded like a quick burst from a chainsaw. My first thought was, NO! My second thought was, “What a wonderful breeze. I feel much cooler now.”.

I paused and waited for the inevitable eruption of laughter from the students. No one reacted. They just kept talking. No one had noticed!

Now what?

I had survived the initial humiliation, but now what? Time to improvise. I swiveled around while still in the crouched position and continued my lecture. Then I stood up while keeping my back to the board. I spent the rest of the class in that position, fearful of being found out while enjoying the newly found ventilation.

Class ended, but this was only the end of first period and I didn’t have anyone that I could call to bring me pants. So, I went into my office, dropped my pants and stapled the seam. I wish I could say that I found a permanent fix for those pants, but I didn’t. I wore those pants for well over a year with staples in them.

Do I get the prize for most creative use of a stapler?

Slip sliding away

I have mentioned that I sweat when I teach. Part of the reason that I sweat is that I try to stay moving and animated. If a class tends to be rowdy, I pour more energy into my approach.

One day I was moving around the stage (my classroom) and as I went around the corner I hit a slick spot.

One of the trombone players had a habit of using a lot of slide oil. I had mentioned to him that he didn’t need to use as much as he did, but he continued to pour it on. On this particular day he had used enough oil to create an oil slick that would qualify as an environmental disaster.

I hit that slick and time stood still. I remembered thinking, “Why am I looking straight ahead but I’m seeing my feet?”. The next moment I was looking up at the stage lights.

The room became instantly silent for the first time all year. I laid there, staring up and seeing a few students looking at me. After a moment I said, “It’s ok, you can laugh… It’s funny.”. They launched into uproarious laughter.


Our classroom was hot in the early fall and late spring. The rest of the year was another story. You would think that the stage lights would provide enough heat for us in the winter, but you’d be wrong.

In order to have heat, I had to go to a closet and throw a switch. We didn’t have a thermostat. In order to see the switch for heat, you had to turn on the lights and there was no faceplate for the light switch.

I walked in one day, and put my hand on what I thought would be the light switch and missed. I got a jolt from those bare wires that left me in no need for caffeine for a month!

Join the Army

Discouraging. That’s a good word to describe my first two years of teaching. But, it doesn’t seem to describe the depths of despair that I felt.

While in college, my parents had bought me a beautiful professional model Willson euphonium and I was a pretty good player. On numerous occasions I considered driving to the Army recruiter and joining an Army band.

I would daydream about driving past the school and pulling up to the local recruiter. I would join up and not go back to the apartment for my things. No one would ever know what happened to me. I would just disappear.

I’m not kidding. I hung on by a thread for two years

Moving on

After finishing my second year I was offered the high school position. The kids I had moved to the high school would now be mine for four more years.

During the summer our teacher contracts were held up for some reason. While I waited I received an offer to be a band director at a school in central Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity to move on. That became the next chapter of my teaching experience.


My first two years of band directing taught me that you have to keep your sense of humor. One day a flute player was banging her flute on her music stand. Her flute looked like a prune. It had dents and bumps all over. She was banging her flute in the middle of class one day and suddenly yelled out, “LORD bring back Ms. —!” (The previous director).

I stopped and looked up at the ceiling. Then I looked back at the door of the auditorium. I paused for a moment or two, then said, “I don’t think she’s coming.” and I went back to what I was doing.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. If you can’t laugh, flex and bend, you will break under the stress.

Final reflection

When you are starting out at anything you will not do that thing well. Everything is a learning experience. In my situation I knew that I wanted to be a band director so it was easier to work through the initial, bad years. My dreams kept me from leaving the profession and motivated me to become a better director.

You may be in a bad situation right now. But, hang on there are better days coming.

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