My July SBO column: Being Good is no Longer Good Enough
Why on earth do we need a Band Director’s Survival Guide? I have never heard of a Math Teachers Survival Guide or an English Literacy Teachers Survival Guide. And just what is it that band directors need guidance about to… survive?
Well, let’s pretend for a moment: You’re a successful instrumental music teacher at an intermediate school. You have been teaching in the same school district for the past 16 years. You have done such a good job building your program that nearly 50 percent of students attending the school (some 350 out of 700 students) elect to be in your band program. Fifty Percent! Your peers value what you do. As a matter of fact you have just been named teacher of the year. Not music teacher of the year – teacher of the year. And not just for the whole school… for the whole school district!
What’s your reward? What do you get besides some nice recognition, a plaque, and a pat on the back? Do you get the opportunity to look into the camera and yell “I’m Going to Disney World?” What did you win behind door number three?
Well, if you are Susan Walker, instrumental music teacher at LaSalle Intermediate Academy in the South Bend (Ind.) Community School Corporation the answer is: Parting Gifts! Or, in the words of Donald Trump… You’re fired!
(More after the jump)
That’s right. The South Bend “Teacher of the Year” was given a pink slip four days before she received her prestigious honor. Mrs. Walker, along with 400 of her teaching brethren, received notice that her position would not be renewed for the coming year due to budget issues. With an unsettled contract negotiation and tight budget the school district opted to eliminate all “elective” teachers.
Teacher of the year award + 50% student enrollment in band = Pink Slip
This is an equation that does not make any sense. But it is the perfect illustration for the theme of this issue of SBO and the point of this column. There is usually little logic and certainly no fairness in the way decisions are handed down that will impact you and your music program. In order for you to survive, this is a lesson that must be learned early on.
I highlight this point because of my own firsthand experiences. As I have traveled around the country and visited with thousands of music educators I have often heard the same refrain when I speak about advocacy:
“The only thing a music educator needs to do to keep their program is… to have a good program”
Many of my colleagues and I have heard this time and time again – and from some very successful music educators. There is only one problem with this line of thinking: It’s wrong.
Yes: having a good program that engages students, is grounded in a great curriculum providing sequential instruction that develops the musical skills and knowledge of students is critical. No program can survive for the long term without these elements. But they are not, and must not be, the only things you focus on. The realities of today make this single focus approach a recipe for failure.
Why? Based on our real-life example with Susan Walker it is safe to say she had a really good program. Did this keep her from receiving a pink slip? NO!
My point in all of this is: Being Good is No Longer Good Enough. You may not like it, you may complain about it, you may be disgusted by it… but you cannot ignore it. It is a fact (just like: the earth is round, Ashley Simpson lip-syncs, and most of your discipline problems come from your drummers… but I digress)
The plight of Susan Walker is a metaphor for a scene that has played out time and time again this year and in past years. You likely know someone whose program has been threatened or cut in the past three years. Most of these cuts have impacted solid music programs and the reasons have varied (budget cuts, testing, scheduling, reading and math focus, et cetera). The impact of these cuts is the same: children are denied the tremendous benefits of an education that includes music.
Ask yourself, “How long does it take to build a quality music program?” Three years? Five Years?
Now, how long dies it take an uninformed administrator or school board to take such a program away? Five minutes?
Nothing will change until our administrators are persuaded. Nothing will happen until we get out of our classrooms and recognize that there is a political world that we need to engage with in order to support and advance our programs.
As the plight of Susan Walker has illustrated, the reality is: No Program is Safe.
So, as you contemplate ways to “survive” the coming year I have some advice. The best way to keep your program safe is to be proactive in your efforts to promote music in your school and community by building a local district-wide advocacy effort and support network to help build and defend your work.
Do not look at advocacy as a thing that you do when you “have the time for it,” or when you are being threatened. Do not think of advocacy as someone else’s responsibility. Advocacy is not just something that you do; advocacy must be a proactive part of everything you do, from the beginning of the year. Every note sent home, every concert, every printed program, every staff meeting, every interaction with an administrator, school board member or parents, every performance, every fundraiser, every interaction with the public – everything.
Is it “fair” you have to do this? No. If you are reading this column you already know life is not fair… and neither is our educational system. In an era where no program is safe, being proactive in your advocacy efforts will at least help you tilt the odds in your favor.
As for Susan Walker… well, thankfully, her position was reinstated and she still has her job. That is the good news for her and, more importantly, for her students. The bad news is the fact that she was fired, and then rehired, and the process had nothing to do with the quality of her teaching or her program, or the impact her dismissal would have on students.
Something to think about.
(For a list of tools and materials to help develop advocacy strategies for your program go to http://music-for-all.org/survivalguide.html. Have a comment or question? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reprinted with Permission of SBO Magazine. Thanks Sid!