Advocacy During Uncertainty: 4 Things to Consider
By Jen Rafferty | December 3, 2020
Music education has changed dramatically over the last few months. It seems that everyone has a different situation regarding how they are teaching their students this school year. Some schools are in person, some are at home, and still some, a strange amalgamation of both. It’s a weird time to be a teacher; particularly a music teacher. With all of these changes, music programs have had to make a major transition. What was once the heart of our program, bands, choruses, and orchestras shape-shifted into something that might not even be recognized as a traditional ensemble. As a result, many programs are in danger of cuts, and potentially many students will not get the school music experience that they deserve. It might take years for programs to recover.
This is grim. So what can you do? How can we ride this wave of change while advocating for our music programs? Here are three tangible ideas that can help with your advocacy efforts:
Acknowledge the Identity Crisis
We are having an identity crisis, both personally and professionally. So many of us have a strong connection between our role as a music teacher and our personal identity. When the world changed in March 2020 and we realized that music ensembles as we knew them would change, it was a difficult pill to swallow. I kept thinking, “if I’m not a choir director anymore, then who am I?” Did this ring true for you, too? The grief that followed was heavy, but important to feel. We all lost something, and I encourage you to feel the feels and mourn the loss of what we once had. This is the only way to move forward to start to think creatively about what needs to come next.
Secondly, our profession is going through an identity crisis. What used to be the center of our programs (band, chorus and orchestra) is now vastly different. The safety parameters make it impossible to have ensembles like they used to be. While it might be more comfortable to hold on to tradition, in order to save our programs we need to lean into this new reality and pivot. Remember, we teach music, not band, chorus and orchestra. Many of us teach music through band, chorus and orchestra, but now we need to adjust our paradigm. How can we teach the standards by other means? How can we use our current situations to reach our students in a way that still has meaning and value? This is not to say that we should completely abandon tradition altogether. For some programs, these ensembles are still working in large open spaces (like gymnasiums and auditoriums). However, use this transition time as an opportunity for innovation, to expand your offerings, and potentially reach more students - even within the traditional ensembles. Advocate for your programs by adapting to the circumstances.
Focus on What You Can Control
It feels comfortable when we have a sense of control over our environment. However, now more than ever it seems as if nothing is in anyone’s control. There is an incredible amount of instability and when we try to take on every challenge at the same time, the burden is just too much. Take a breath, step back, and find the things that are in your control. To be honest, the list will be short: your thoughts, and your actions That’s it!
You cannot control administrative decisions, state mandates, or student participation. However, you can control what you do with those situations. Our best advocacy efforts come from a sound understanding of our influence. First, initiate a meeting with the teachers in your music department and focus on a common goal. What are you, as a united front, offering the students of your community? What is your mission and vision for your program? Once you have answers to these questions, start to think of ways you can communicate this message clearly and consistently. If getting the group to agree on this is challenging, it is possible to individualize your efforts. Either way, every day is an opportunity to advocate, so showcase the positive things that are happening in your classes. Be loud with your efforts - use online platforms, and email board members and administrators about highlights of student learning. Advocate by making your program visible with a laser focus on your mission.
Look Closely at Programming
A private voice student of recently mine told me that he was not participating in choir this year because there were no concerts. He then went on to say “so if there are no concerts, what’s the point?” This was hard to hear, and he is not alone in thinking this way. Attrition is becoming a large problem in our ensembles. Unfortunately the sentiment of my student is shared with many of our students, administrators, and community members. We do so much more than just perform at concerts. We need to send a different message. Performance is part of the music education experience, but cannot be the final destination. It is a piece of a much larger pie. We need to shift our attention to all of the other things that can happen in music class and shout it from the rooftops.
Look at your programming and find pathways that lead to more participation in music-making that lie outside the band, chorus, orchestra paradigm. What opportunities are you offering right now? How can you expand your music courses or curriculum to reach more students? Perhaps virtually, you are actually able to reach more students. Maybe now is a chance to try something that you felt you never had the time to do before. Can your offerings be more student-centered? Ask your students how music fits into their lives at home, and start planning lessons that are relevant to the music they are already listening to. This will take time, and a lot of planning, however it is essential to lean into these changes and pivot. This change in your approach can ultimately save your program.
Although this might be your most challenging year yet, I encourage you to remain hopeful. Take things one day at a time. Maybe it’s one class at a time - just get through one class and celebrate that! It can be overwhelming when we can’t see the forest through the trees.
Take a second and recall the reason you started teaching in the first place. What inspired you to teach music? Why do you teach? The truth is, no matter what you are teaching, you still are that same music teacher. It might feel like your first year teaching again, but you bring all of your joy, passion, and wisdom that you had before March 2020 when everything changed. Reconnect with your “why”. That is who you are as a teacher. That is how you find your inspiration to advocate for your students so they can have the music program they deserve.
Jen is currently the Chair of Cortland Music Department in Cortland, NY and teaches middle school choir and general music. She is known for her excellence in teaching, receiving the regional Apple for the Teacher Award and the Cortland Peer Recognition Award. Visit Jenrafferty.com and follow her on instagram @jenraffertymusic!View Author Page
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