R – One of the great joys of my life is catching up with alumni who have moved on and begun their adult lives. Over vacation I had a chance to sit down with one of my alum who is also a first year music teacher, and she was sharing war stories of her experience to this point. There are threads to her year so far that are painfully familiar to me, having experienced them myself and seen other music teachers go through the same thing in their first year in a new job. The overarching concern I have is that new music teachers are by and large set up for failure before they even begin. Not always, and not often in ways that can’t be overcome and turned around, but set up for failure just the same. Here are the three strikes that music teachers have on them before they even step up to the plate in a new job setting:
strike #1) There’s no set definition of what music education should look like. My alumni was telling me that her mentor teacher (a science teacher) told her before school began how amazing the chorus was and how she had such big shoes to fill from her predecessor. She got in there and lo and behold, the kids had no idea how to read music, had never sung 4 part harmony before (they struggled mightily at 2 part – – – this is at a High School by the way), had NO idea of tone, and routinely had their problems fixed by having their accompanist play louder. This was “the big shoes” she had to fill? And this scenario is remarkably common. The problem is significantly greater than the fact the program was a sham: the bigger issue is that it was accepted as what music education was supposed to be. The pointy little apex of the problem is that incompetence in music education is rarely viewed as such; nobody knows any better to call it out, or the problem is viewed as a lack of talent on the students’ part. Other academic subjects can track their teachers through performance standards, and often do. Matter of fact, this is now being implemented formally across the country. Music? “I went to the concert last night and the kids were ADORABLE! What a great job that teacher is doing with them!!!”
Issues of competence aside, go into any 5 schools of the same grade range in Maine. Take a peek inside their classrooms and tell me if I’m wrong here… every English class is fundamentally identical. In curriculum and content and perhaps even delivery. Math and Science? Even more so. Music? You can’t get more diverse. Scheduling, staffing, pull out programs (I always laugh when I hear of pull outs being eliminated due to the “academic” teachers throwing a fit – it must be awful having students pulled from your classes from time to time to do other things… music teachers have no idea what that must feel like), concert expectations… none of this is set in stone in Maine. And precious few administrators know what should be happening in the music classroom. Consequently, music education is perceived as a rather subjective endeavor with subjective outcomes. Which leads me to my next strike.
strike # 2) Communities have a preconceived notion of what music education should be. “Hi, nice to meet you, we’d like to hire you to teach a subject that is completely subjective, but we’ll question anything you do that we don’t like. You know, since you’re just making it up as you go anyway. And we already know what we want from the program.” Yeah, good luck with that. Strike two is a pretty brutal reality for many music teachers in their first year at a new gig. When an incompetent music teacher does their damage before moving on, they’ve established a “norm” that the new teacher coming in has to eradicate. But for the more normal scenario of a new teacher coming in to replace someone who did a good job, perhaps the dilemma is even bigger. “You can’t do it that way, ______ did it this way instead and it was awesome!” My alumni was talking to me about how she is battling this very problem with regard to class policies on academic expectations and attendance. My first year at York I was easily the most disliked person around, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these was that I eliminated the traditional audience sing-along of the Hallelujah Chorus due to the small, inconsequential detail that it turns High School sopranos and tenors vocal folds into shredded wheat. I wasn’t “allowed” to make this change in the mind of the community though, because it was an essential part of the program. I had one person tell me that people would stop coming to the concerts if they couldn’t sing it! And administrators? If I had a nickel for every elementary or middle school teacher who has told me stories about their administrator making it clear to them that the role of music class is to provide the other teachers’ prep time. I had one colleague last year at a Middle School tell me about an initiative that the administrator there asked the staff to undertake. She did so and found a way to implement it to a high, successful degree! She went to the administrator to tell him about it and was told, “Yeah, but, I wasn’t talking about your classes, I was talking about the academic classes.” Alrightythen. Sound familiar? Preconceived notion of what the music education program is or isn’t? Now, to make things even worse, this second strike is tied in closely to the perception that the music program is personality driven. And unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to that, and this leads me to strike three.
strike # 3) Students have a preconceived notion of what music education should be. Students’ involvement in music beyond 4th or 5th grade is based largely on how much they like doing so (and the other academic subjects whine because of pullout programs?!?!). If the student likes the teacher, they’ll stick with it. If they don’t like the teacher, it becomes more of a problem. But the problem is even worse than that. Students often arrive in school with a preconceived idea that music is fun, they know what they like, and the music program’s job is to perpetuate both. I would argue that this point is compounded in choral music. Instrumentalists inherently understand that they need to practice their instrument in order to improve; an accepted rigor component. But singers just “like to sing”. I’ve written before on this blog: music class – academic rigor = co-curricular activity. Music class + academic rigor = academic subject. Students do not instinctively view music as academic, and there’s the rub. Take out the academic rigor, and you’ve got the kids. Add the academic rigor, and all of the sudden the kids either dislike music or think the teacher is mean or that they’re “being told what to like”. On top of all this, students don’t like change – they like what they already know and are used to. My predecessor at York changed the name of “Select Choir” to “Chamber Singers”. She was raked over the coals for that! My first month at York, one of my Chamber Singers raised her hand as I was attempting to rehearse and said, “Excuse me, but we won’t sing music until you play it for us first”. This was the auditioned ensemble, mind you. Many of my students over the years have heard of the love letter I received from my very first choir in Vermont three weeks into the job telling me that if I didn’t change the music in their folders they were all going to quit… “and we’re not kidding!” This third strike is the one that virtually every new music teacher will have to confront on a weekly if not daily basis. Sometimes it’s in the form of passive aggressive behavior, sometimes it’s overt lashing back (my first two weeks at Winnacunnet High School in 1996 was World War III…. and you can ask any of those alumni if I’m over-exaggerating here). But at every turn, there’s going to be push-back in some form.
This blog post is intentionally being written in two parts for a reason. I believe that these three strikes are very real and very daunting. I hear and read all the time how my colleagues battle each of them in many different guises and variations on a regular basis. But the second part of this blog post will be to talk about strategies in addressing and overcoming them. That will be a fun one to write!