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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Administrator Music Teachers Love

A year ago I interviewed my administrators about the kinds of qualities they view as important to being a successful music teacher. But what qualities do good administrators have that make them successful leaders for music teachers? After years of working with mediocre administrators, supporting some friends who worked with horrific ones, and now working with one of the best administrators I've ever come across in my career, I've nailed down a few key traits that I think are important to music teachers for administrators to have.

The points below are in no particular order, and they are all strictly my own personal opinion. Obviously different teachers with different personalities will work better with certain types of administrators, but I tried to think about those qualities that are most universally-important to successfully leading music teachers within a school or a music or arts department.

If you have a good administrator that you appreciate, when is the last time you told them? If you ever have the opportunity to contribute to hiring an administrator, what will you look for? And if you've had to work with some particularly bad administrators, what will you look for in an administrator when you're looking for a new job? Most importantly, if you're considering going into administration, I hope you'll reflect on how you can be the best possible administrator for music teachers!

1. Strong Leadership

As much as we, as teachers, may think we don't want to be told what to do, in my experience good leadership requires a certain decisiveness and control. Of course administrators need to be able to back up their decisions and opinions with insight and experience, but there needs to be clear leadership for any organization to run successfully or nothing will ever get done, and we need a clear direction and vision to work cohesively. The beauty of working under strong leadership is it takes so much of the guess work and stress of decision making off of our shoulders!

Part of successful strong leadership, however, involves responsibility and ethics as well. A strong leader without ethics is an evil dictator. A strong leader without responsibility to their commitments is a lazy tyrant. To be a good administrator, strong leadership must go hand-in-hand with a commitment to all the responsibilities that come with the job and a strong sense of ethics.

2. Genuine Support

Music teachers are always underappreciated and often are an island, the lone music teacher in their building or even their district. We need to feel genuinely supported and cared for by our administrators! One of the most basic ways to show support for music teachers it to attend our concerts and events (and pay attention during the program). Even better are those who offer to help in practical ways, whether it's setting up/ tearing down equipment, managing students back stage, or helping with crowd control in the audience.

Beyond that basic level, though, great administrators listen to and address our concerns. So often within schools- elementary schools in particular- homeroom teachers' concerns are prioritized over music teachers'. Showing genuine care for our concerns, and demonstrating that with action, will go a long way! Even better: an administrator who has good enough interpersonal skills to show genuine interest and concern for us as people and not just workers.

Support doesn't always have to mean agreeing with everything we say and do. But when a good administrator sees areas for improvement, they will offer constructive feedback, give us direction for how to improve, and provide the resources we need to address those areas. And the feedback should be based on accurate insight, not baseless personal opinion- they need to know what they're talking about before telling us how to improve!

3. Good Teacher

Good leadership skills alone will not get you anywhere as an administrator if you aren't a great teacher yourself. To be able to give feedback to teachers, make good decisions for the school/ department, and support music teachers, you need to know what a great music teacher looks like and have experience doing that yourself. I don't think you have to have been a music teacher specifically to be a great administrator and mentor for music teachers, but experience in the arts will give a lot of insight because music teaching is different in many ways from other subject areas!

All too often, the great teachers who are passionate about children are, for obvious reasons, the ones who stay in the classroom, while the ones who don't have as much of a heart for students are the ones who end up in administrative positions. Great administrators are the ones who still have a heart for students- they will be able to keep their priorities in the right place even when they're surrounded by adults, and they'll be a better mentor for teachers.

4. Seek Input

It will be rare for an administrator to be a former music teacher, so there are going to be areas of music teaching with which administrators are unfamiliar. It's possible to still be a great administrator for music teachers, though, by seeking out input from teachers. We certainly don't want to be explaining everything to our administrators, but great administrators are willing to admit they don't know everything and ask for advice!

It's also important for us to feel heard and included in decisions- seeking out teachers' input, including us music teachers, regularly in meetings, individual conversations, or even emails before making major decisions that affect our jobs is so important. We will be a lot more likely to be invested in new initiatives and willing to go along with changes in policy if we feel genuinely included in the decision-making process. Similarly, great administrators also foster collaboration among teachers. As music teachers in particular, we crave opportunities to collaborate and contribute to conversations with colleagues!

5. Advocate

As music teachers we constantly have to justify our programs and promote the importance of our classes to students, parents, and colleagues. It is so important to have an administrator who advocates for the importance of our program and curriculum to higher-up administrators and politicians, parents, and our non-music colleagues! Promoting our performances and events, sharing the great things that are happening in our classrooms, and talking about the importance of music in the lives of our students is a key element to successful leadership of music teachers and programs.

6. Promote Teacher Agency

Teaching is an art, and so is music- there is no way to standardize or script music teaching! Music teachers need administrators who understand that good music teaching will come in many different forms, and will be able to foster great teaching regardless of the form that may take. A lot of that comes down to giving teachers agency- give us direction, hold us accountable to high standards, and then give us control over how we make that happen. Yes, we need strong leadership, mentorship, and vision, but we also need to feel like we have agency over our classroom. No teacher wants to be micro-managed!

Besides giving us agency in our own classrooms, great administrators will also draw on the strengths we have and foster teacher leadership. Music teachers are often very good at managing schedules and organizing events because we do it so much in our jobs. Many of us are good at managing large groups of students, public speaking, or organizing community volunteers. I'm not saying music teachers should have more tasks assigned to their already busy jobs, but great administrators give music teachers (especially the veteran teachers) opportunities to take on responsibility and leadership in areas they enjoy and are passionate about. We will feel more like we're working alongside instead of under our administrators.

What do you think of this list? Are there things you don't agree with or think are not important? Traits that I missed? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Color Teams in the Music Room

If there is one thing that I do that has the biggest impact on my classroom procedures, it is color teams! Color teams make everything easier: transitions between activities, beginning and end of class procedures, student jobs, managing student supplies, assigning instruments, seating arrangements, small groups, and so much more. Today I'm sharing how I use color teams in my elementary/ middle school music classes- if you're looking for ways to improve your classroom procedures, this is one thing I would highly recommend.

There are many benefits to assigning students to groups/ teams, but I think that using colors, specifically, for the groupings has a lot of benefits too: the colors work easily into a bright and cheerful classroom environment without creating more visual clutter, and lots of typical classroom items already come in different colors so you don't have to label things as much. I've seen teachers who label their groupings with composer, instrument, note, or time period names to promote the use of music vocabulary, but those tend to add to the visual clutter when the seating is labeled with those words or symbols, it's harder for students (especially the youngest ones) to remember their team, and you end up having to label everything if you want to assign items to specific groups (more on that in the supplies section below).

1. Seating

The foundation of the color groups begins with seating- I have assigned seating in all of my classes, both for the Kindergarten classes who sit in a circle on the floor and for the older students who sit in chairs. I tell them from the very first day to notice the color to which they are assigned, and I refer to the colors regularly.

I am a big fan of assigned seating for a multitude of reasons:
  • I find that many difficulties with individual student attention, personality conflicts, etc can be solved by changing the seating arrangement, 
  • I can take IEP accommodations and other individual needs into consideration without drawing attention to individuals who need to be in a specific spot, 
  • it gives structure and predictability for students (which all young students need),
  • it makes it easier for me to learn student names if they're new,
  • and it makes the beginning of class a lot faster because there is no confusion or discussion about who is going where.
The other benefit of having color groups with seating is that you have the option of giving some flexibility within your seating arrangement- if you want, you can assign students to a color but not a specific spot, giving students choice while still having most of the advantages of assigned seating I already discussed above.

I do assign specific spots most of the time, but I like being able to incorporate choice when, for example, students move from their normal chairs to the circle- I tell students to pick a spot from their color group, so they have some choice but with limited options, which limits the time it takes to choose and the potential arguments that can arise.

2. Teamwork/ Belonging

The advantage of having designated colors assigned to groups of seats/ spots is that it creates a sense of camaraderie- instead of being forced to sit in a certain spot, which might feel limiting or constricting (at least initially) for some students, they're being given membership into a team/ group/ club! The more I refer to the color teams in class, the greater the sense of belonging it creates as well. Because so much of how I manage procedures is tied to the color groups, it fosters teamwork within the groups.

This aspect of the color teams is really the biggest advantage of the system, especially for older grades. As students approach middle school age, the importance of having a sense of membership and belonging cannot be overstated! Having these small groups established and incorporated into the running of the class promotes that sense of teamwork for everyone. For younger students it gives them the opportunity to practice cooperative skills like shared responsibility, group decision-making, and collaboration. These are critical skills that need to be practiced regularly, and having these teams established in the classroom gives students more opportunities to practice.

This same team spirit plays into incorporating the teams in how I offer positive reinforcement in class. I have moved more and more away from value statements as a form of "behavior management", but there are still certain times when I find positive reinforcement (like, "I see the red team is ready for the next step", or "Everyone on the yellow team is playing on the beat!") appropriate and helpful, and I find it is often more effective to talk about groups rather than individuals. 

3. Classroom Jobs

For elementary teachers, student jobs can be a great way to empower students, and foster important character traits like independence, responsibility, and leadership. It also makes our lives a lot easier and improves the running of the classroom if we as teachers aren't the only ones doing everything! Almost every elementary homeroom teacher I know uses student jobs in some way in their classrooms, but it can be difficult for music teachers and other specialists to use them because we don't see students as frequently.

The solution I've found is group jobs, and I use color teams for that too (duh)! Rather than assigning jobs to individual students, I use jobs that can be shared (in one way or another) by a small group of students. I've written several posts detailing how I do this, but it has been a game-changer for me since I implemented them a few years ago.

This past school year I changed out one of my jobs to add the job of "warm-up leaders" and it was a huge success- I am definitely keeping it for the upcoming school year and this is the happiest I've been with all of my jobs since I started! Here is my post on how I have students lead warm-ups at the beginning of each class:

4. Managing Supplies

One of the procedures that can be time-consuming and difficult for music classes is managing supplies, whether it's pencils and other writing/ drawing supplies, manipulatives, clipboards, or anything else that needs to be passed out and collected. Because we don't see students as frequently as homeroom teachers, it takes longer for students to learn procedures (and for us as teachers too!), so the process takes longer and things get lost, damaged, or disorganized.

Color teams help with this in two ways: by having students assigned to help with passing out and putting away supplies, and by having specific supplies assigned to smaller group of students. Two of my classroom jobs are for handing things out and collecting things, which makes the procedures a lot easier by limiting who is getting things out and putting things away. But the key (and the main reason I like color teams specifically and not just any sort of team labels) is being able to assign specific supplies to smaller groups of students. It's a lot easier for the students putting supplies away to keep things organized if they know to put all the blue pencils in the blue box. It's a lot easier to keep track of who hasn't turned something in yet if you can see that you're missing one from the green team. And students are a lot more responsible and careful with their supplies when they have shared ownership- if they damage something they are damaging "team property" rather than school or teacher property, which is psychologically more removed.

Having supplies assigned to specific color teams also limits arguments over who uses what when there are different colors of the same item. I apply this same strategy to as many supplies as I can (which, again, is why I advocate for using rainbow colors specifically for teams because many items come in those colors to begin with)- I have colored djembes, ukuleles, ukulele picks, and cups (for cup games), for example, all in the same team colors. There's no need for the "you get what you get" discussion with my youngest students with these items because they already know they're using the color that matches their team!

5. Small Group Assignments

Before I had color teams, I often struggled to effectively come up with student groups that would work well together when I needed to do a quick small group activity. Because I take time to think through my student groups when I assign their teams at the beginning of the year, if I'm doing a quick activity in small groups I can easily have them work with their color team and know it will work out well.

I don't always have them work only with their color team though- that would get monotonous and doesn't encourage students to learn to work with different people- and color teams help with the process of assigning other groupings as well. I will sometimes have one person from each team work together, or group 2 colors together, to quickly mix up the groupings without having to think too hard. I can also split the class in half more easily too- warm vs cool colors, or primary vs secondary colors- and get in some visual art vocabulary in the process!

As you can see I'm a big fan of color teams- do you use color groupings in your music classes? How do you use them in your classes? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, July 5, 2019

June Favorites 2019

Well that was fast! It's hard to believe a whole month even just happened, but it certainly did- here are some highlights from the month of June.

1. Endings and beginnings

June marked the end of the school year and the beginning of summer break! Of course I love the time I have to spend with my daughters, visit extended family, and work on all those things I just can't get around to during the school year, but I honestly do miss my students and miss teaching. Thankfully I don't have to entirely pack up my classroom for the summer but it is always sad to see the room so empty as I leave.

2. Inherited treasures

A close colleague of mine retired this year and he passed along quite a few of his personal collection of instruments, books, and recordings! I was completely overwhelmed and so grateful. I've already added the instruments to my shelves and can't wait to look through the books and resources. Hopefully someday I can pass along the favor to another teacher when I retire (many many moons from now!)- I feel so privileged to inherit all of these treasures.

3. Summer planning

While leaving the classroom for the summer is not my favorite, one thing I do enjoy is the chance to change up my planning routine with no lessons to plan over the summer! Although I do still have to keep track of meals, kids' activities, and other plans, there is not nearly as much information for me to keep track of so I can be creative with the weekly format I use and be a little more decorative than functional. I love having the chance to do things differently in my planner! I've been using a condensed one-page weekly format in the summer time for the last few years but this year I'm using a different one than I have in the past and so far I'm enjoying it! All of these undated weekly and monthly calendars are in the business planner section of the #PlanMyWholeLife planners (here's that section separately) if you're curious where it came from.

4. Music education blog posts

I am always so inspired by the articles I find each week from other music education blogs- click each picture to read the posts. They are all fantastic!

Games in General Music:

Dreaming of You: Identities of Me:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student:

What were some highlights from June in your life? Here's to another wonderful month ahead!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Summer Listening List for Music Teachers

Last week I shared a summer reading list for music teachers, with my recommendations of books that I have found helpful in reflecting on my teaching practice, especially in addressing marginalized people and perspectives. Books are great! But what about the music we're listening to? Summer break is the perfect time to explore new genres and artists to bring into our lessons!

As I continue to explore the topic of equity in music education, the idea I keep returning to is the importance of listening. More than anything else we can do, listening to different perspectives- not just hearing but actually listening- has the power to foster true empathy. For music teachers in particular, one area where we tend to be most overtly exclusionary is in the musical material we consider worthy of using in our classrooms. Not only does that severely limit many of our students from feeling connected to our lessons, but it also presents a hierarchy of musical genres that is rooted in our own personal biases. Taking time in the summer to dive into genres and artists with which you are less familiar will give you a chance to gain some appreciation and understanding that you can bring into your teaching!

With that thought in mind, here are some suggestions of music that you could explore this summer- I recommend picking a couple of the ones with which you are least familiar right now to focus your attention. You need to have the time to really get to know the music if you are going to get to know it well enough to use in your teaching! It can be hard during the school year to push yourself out of your comfort zone- summer is a great time to expand your horizons and try something new.

1. Local Radio

How much do you listen to your local radio stations? I know I was not always the best about this in the past, but I've found there are a couple of radio stations that the majority of my students listen to outside of school. Pick one or two local stations and set your car radio to them this summer- besides the music they play, local stations will also keep you more in tune with your community!

2. Hip-Hop

I've written already about the importance of bringing more hip-hop into our teaching. I believe it is one of the most glaring disconnects between the typical music curriculum in schools and our students' musical experiences at home. If you normally don't listen to the genre, I highly recommend spending some time with it this summer. Most places will probably have a hip-hop radio station you can listen to. You can also look up current hits with lists like this and listen to specific songs on any streaming service.

3. Current Non-Western Music

It's pretty common for music teachers to only present traditional/ folk music when we incorporate music from cultures outside our own. But doing this presents a distorted view of the rest of the world to our students (read more about how to respectfully, accurately, and holistically bring the world into your music classes in this post). One of the great things about the modern age is the ease of accessibility to music from all over the world! One of the easiest ways to find the latest popular music from any country is to type in the country name and genre in Online Radio Box- you can listen free online. You can also explore stations by region, and often you can get song information as you listen so that you can find out more about songs and artists you might want to include in your lessons.

4. Music by Artists of Color

Don't limit representation of Black musicians to hip-hop, or East Asian musicians to "world music" and string quartets! Use the summer to seek out musicians of color in all different genres to include in your lessons. For younger students in particular, start with artists like Desmond Dennis, Black Violin, and Andrew Huang. You can discover more current artists with classroom-appropriate music in this post.

I'd love to hear about what you're listening to this summer, or new artists you've discovered recently that you're looking forward to bringing into your music classroom next year! Share your ideas in the comments below.