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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Music Teachers' Guide to Fostering Mutual Respect

Raise your hand if you have ever been told, in words or in actions, that you are somehow less than a "real teacher" by administrators, colleagues, or both! I think most of us have at some point felt disrespected for being "just a music teacher". I know this feeling all too well, and I think it is one of the biggest sources of stress in our line of work today. So I decided to get an outside perspective on this problem: I spoke with two of my administrators to get their perspective on how music teachers can build respect for themselves and for their program within the broader school community, particularly amongst other staff and administration.

The perspectives you will read below are a compilation of the answers I got from two separate interviews: one with my building principal, and one with the director of the district fine arts department. Both of them are amazing administrators who are very supportive and insightful, but neither of them have ever been music teachers themselves. I think hearing their thoughts gives good insight into how we can "speak their language" so that administrators and colleagues better understand and value all of the work we're doing as music teachers.

So here's the question I posed to them:

How can music teachers advocate for themselves as professionals and for the importance of the music program?
  • Get yourself, your students, and your program out there! Public performances keep you and your students' work in music in everyone's minds in a positive way. And don't be afraid to think outside the box- often creative ideas beyond the standard concerts and programs are what capture colleagues', administrators', and the community's attention. 
  • No matter what type of performance you choose to do, make sure it is enjoyable for the audience, musically challenging, and logistically smooth. Present yourself, the director, as a professional. Taking the time to make sure you know how you plan to introduce each song, how each group will enter and exit the stage, etc can make a huge difference in how the performance is received and how professional you and your program appear.
  • Collaborating with non-music colleagues will demonstrate your expertise and professionalism, which in turn causes the broader school community to think more highly of the music curriculum and program as a whole. And that collaboration should be a 2-way street: as you look for ways to incorporate things students are learning in their other subjects into your class, you can and should be offering ideas for how teachers can incorporate music into theirs (in fact, that is often even more effective in advocating for the value of music because teachers and students will see and experience it for themselves)! You don't have to (and shouldn't) scrap your own content to teach another subject, but you can (and should!) make connections to other learning when it fits with what you're doing.
  • Get involved in school- and district-wide discussions on engagement, behavior management, and even IEP and other accommodations for individual students. Music has a unique role to play in these areas, and you can help colleagues and administrators to see the value of music in students' social-emotional lives and in meeting specific learning and academic needs by sharing your knowledge and expertise and sharing ideas of the unique role that music can play in each of those areas. Music teachers often will also see completely different sides of students who may struggle in other subjects but thrive in the music room. Sharing your perspective will help advocate for the importance of music in those students' lives.
  • Be proactive in going to administrators and colleagues with ideas for things you can do to help support work they are doing. Whether it's offering an idea of something that seems to work for a behaviorally challenging student in your class, or a musical spin you want to put on a school-wide initiative, it's important to get out of your own world, be involved with the rest of the building, and put yourself in front of administrators and colleagues.
  • Speak positively about your work, especially when you're talking to colleagues and administrators outside of the music department. Talk about all of the positive things that are happening in your classes, how excited you are for your concert, and those special moments when a particular student is able to shine for the first time. It's easy to get sucked into the endless complaining in the staff room- try not to fall into that trap.
  • Invite administrators to come into your class to see the work you're doing outside of public performances, especially when you know you'll be doing something exciting and rigorous in class that day. It helps them see the more "academic" side of what you're doing and gives them a broader perspective on everything that goes on within a typical music class.
Important note: reading all of this can make it seem like all of the responsibility for improving the level of respect for music education and music teachers rests solely on the shoulders of music teachers themselves. That is of course completely untrue, and please believe me when I say the administrators I interviewed do not feel that way either! I believe reflecting on what we ourselves can do is ultimately the most productive way to get the ball rolling, but if you are looking for concrete ways to encourage others to treat music teachers more respectfully, this post is a good start:

I hope you find some ideas here that will help you make positive changes in your relationships with your colleagues and administrators and promote the importance of music education! It takes effort from all of us to foster mutual respect and ultimately provide a better school experience for everyone.

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