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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

5 Things to Stop Saying to Music Teachers

In the spirit of Music In Our Schools Month, today I'm sharing some of the things I've heard people say to me that bother me as a music teacher. And I know from talking with colleagues that I'm not alone! I hope these thoughts help at least one person see how their words may be unintentionally hurting and belittling music teachers, and learn how to more effectively and respectfully work together!

"I loved that concert- the kids were so cute!"

Sure, this is definitely a well-meaning comment. But for music teachers, cuteness is not the goal with musical performances. Saying the performers were "cute" is actually quite demeaning- we have put a lot of effort into their level of skill as performers, so we would hope that those skills would be noticed more than the little smiles or fancy outfits they had while performing them.

Instead of telling us that the students were cute, we would love to hear a compliment about the performance itself. Something like, "The students were singing so clearly", or "I was so impressed with how well they performed such difficult music", or even "The students were so focused on stage" are all wonderful ways to acknowledge the preparation of the teacher and the students.

"Music should be a fun break!"

Actually this comment is most often directed to students by other school staff but it's worth including here because of how it is taken by music teachers. And there are times when I've had coworkers and administrators say this to me in the context of saying that I shouldn't be experiencing behavior difficulties in music class because it is a "fun break" akin to recess. When other staff say that music is a fun break from their "academics", it puts music in a separate category from their other, more serious school subjects. There's definitely nothing wrong with acknowledging that music class is a change of pace from math class. And yes, we agree that music is and should be fun. But don't you think other subjects should be fun too? There's an implication that because music class is fun, it is less rigorous. We think all learning should be both fun AND rigorous, and every subject should be its own unique learning experience, because of the nature of each subject, that appeals to different personalities and styles of learning. With our subject being so marginalized and degraded, we as a profession have had to work hard to focus on both fun and rigor in our classrooms. If you'd ever like to have a discussion about how we use games and songs to develop skills and teach concepts, we'd love to share!

"Could you teach them this song about ___ today? We are learning about it in ___ class this week and I found this cute song on YouTube."

*deep breaths* First of all, making last-minute suggestions to another teacher about what to teach in their lesson implies that you either think we are magicians who can take any song material and use it to teach whatever concept students need to learn that day on the spot, or you think we don't have a lesson plan (at least not one that is worthwhile). Now, most of us music teachers love to integrate music with other subjects (and we hope you love to integrate your subjects with others, including music, as well). And we fully support the idea of deepening student understanding of important skills and concepts through cross-curricular teaching. But if that's what we're going for, two things need to happen: 1) we need to sit down and have a conversation well in advance so we can both make adjustments to our curriculum sequencing to line up the timing of particular lesson content, and 2) this needs to be a two-way street: I'd love to talk about how to reinforce the concept of meter through your poetry unit, or how to help distinguish beat and rhythm through your lessons on syllables.

The second problem is that you're assuming you have enough of an understanding of music pedagogy to suggest appropriate material for my lessons. By suggesting that we use this "cute song" you stumbled upon that happens to incorporate a concept you're working on, you're implying that all musical material is of equal value as a teaching tool. It's not. We music teachers are very intentional with the songs we teach our students- we can't use just any song to teach the skills we need. And the reality is that most likely that song you stumbled upon that talks about recycling or George Washington or multiplication facts was written with the lyrics as the starting point and the musical material- the melody, rhythm, form, etc- was secondary. Most of the songs that get suggested to me this way are actually just different words set to "I'm a Little Teapot", "Twinkle, Twinkle", or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (and often clumsily). If we do sit down in advance to arrange a cross-curricular connection in our lessons, you can expect us to probably use more musically meaningful material.

"Oh by the way, we need the students to sing these 5 songs at this public event next week."

This one is similar to the last comment- see above for the problems with last-minute suggestions and suggestions from non-music teachers of musical material to use in music lessons- but this one has the added element of assuming that musical performances can be thrown together without much preparation time. We don't expect you to understand what all is involved in preparing students for a musical performance if you haven't done it yourself but trust us, it's a lot of work and requires a lot of advance planning. Ideally, you need to let the music teacher know months in advance (minimum) if there is anything you want the music teacher to prepare students for, but we also understand that last-minute requests do come in sometimes. If that happens, please just come and ask for our input into whether we can do it and how. Something like, "Hey I know this is last minute, but I just got an email from _____ asking if we could have our students perform at _____ next week. Is there anything the students could do that would be appropriate for this and would work into what you're doing?" would be a great way to approach the music teacher respectfully.

"We're changing your class schedule because the classroom teachers need their prep time."

There are two things in this sentence that set off huge alarm bells in music teachers' brains: the phrase "classroom teachers" and the overarching concept of "prep time" and who gets it when and how. First let's talk about how we categorize teachers/staff with our vocabulary. I have never understood the term "classroom teachers" being used to refer to non-specialist teachers. I teach in a classroom... Please stop using that term. It makes it sound like you don't think my class is a "real" class. If you really must refer to the teachers in elementary schools who teach in just one grade level rather than teaching one subject to a wider range of ages, then the best term I've come up with is "homeroom teachers". The distinguishing factor in most schools is that they have one "homeroom" group of students for whom they are primarily responsible rather than splitting their time between classes, so it makes some sense.

OK, now let's talk about the issue of prep/ planning time. I don't have a problem with being flexible and making adjustments to things to accommodate special events etc and ultimately benefit the students. But if the primary reason for changing a schedule, or making any other decision, is to benefit a particular teacher or group of teachers (particularly when it is to the detriment of another teacher or group of teachers), that's not what I'd call best practice.

Now I also understand that there are things called contracts and unions and all of that and certain guidelines have to be followed. And I understand that because of those realities sometimes situations like this come up. I also believe that it's important to protect the rights of teachers and consider teachers' needs in making decisions. But too often when these things happen, it is presented to music (and other specialist) teachers in a way that communicates a hierarchy of teachers, and that the homeroom teachers need planning/prep time more than others do. It's important to understand that we are on high alert for these things because we have so often been treated as less important. It's also helpful to understand that it is pretty standard in music teaching to end up "giving up prep time" to do things like set up the stage for a production, run auditions for soloists, or prepare students for a special performance. Of course teachers of all kinds do "extra" work and go above and beyond the call of duty for their students, but the difference is that ours has historically gone unrecognized.

The basic point is this: treat all teachers as part of the same team, and as equally important members of that team. It's much easier for us to do what's best for the school as a whole, and our students in particular, when everyone treats each other as equals.

Now it's your turn: what are the things that people say to you as a music teacher that you wish they'd stop saying? Click here to sign up for the Organized Chaos newsletter!


  1. I just heard this one last week..."Oh, you just teach music, not reading or math or anything like that." As if music were sub-par to other subjects.

  2. I always have people assume I play the piano and they'll ask me to accompany them last-minute... and when I tell them I don't play they get all condescending.

    1. It's funny to think about the assumptions people make about what a music teacher "should" or "shouldn't" do (even within our own profession). But even more than that people have no idea how difficult accompanying is! I am a piano player myself and I would still never say yes to accompanying last-minute like that- it's too stressful to do on the spot!

  3. I'm a music teacher and a gifted support teacher...we had an unexpected meeting with parents of a gifted student, and the third grade teacher said, "Well, I'm not getting covered to come to the meeting - but really there should be a teacher in attendance." Hmmm, I guess I'm not a teacher??? (and I've taken several graduate level classes about working with gifted students)

    1. I get so riled up when people use the word "teacher" to mean just a small portion of teachers. It's so degrading! We have to continue to counter those comments because I doubt most people intend malice when they do it but it really does reveal some serious bias!

  4. Have you ever been asked "Do you have a 2-year degree or a 4-year degree?" People don't realize that many, if not most, of us have a Master's degree or higher. Not to mention the additional hours needed to practice our primary instrument(s) in order to perform a recital AS WELL AS student teaching!

    1. I've definitely encountered people who don't realize how much education and training we have to have for our jobs! It's crazy.