Teach Your Community

There's a unique concept that most great music education curriculums teach, and that's the neccessity of teaching to *your* community's needs. Over the past year, I've been in an extremely unique circumstance as the Low Brass Professor and Director of the Marching Band at the Nanhai Conservatory of Music in Haikou, China, and nothing that I have experienced in my educational career has come close to hammerring this idea home more. At the risk of writing auto-biographically, here's what I've learnt about fulfilling the needs of your community.

Set Your Ego Aside and Listen

Oftentimes when music educators come into the workforce for the first time, we tend to be full of idealism. We want to make a difference. We come from a background where we generally went to at a strong HS music program, are chock full of (relatively) newly imparted information about how to teach our own students and design our own program, and want to make a difference by being that inspiring music teacher that changes lives for the better. That's all outstanding, but then reality hits. The first gig we get directly out of music school isn't that top tier program. It's the school and program that that needs work. New programs. Programs that have had four directors in four years, and kids that may or may not have a solid (or any) foundation on their instruments, or know that you step off with the left foot on the marching band field.

At my first gig, I came in with guns blazing, ready to change the world. I got a some of what I asked for, well... erm... quasi-demanded... and you know what? The program got off the ground, but my administration saw me as difficult to work with, even though I absolutely had my students best interests in mind. I didn't fully listen to what the school was asking for from the band program, and as a result, future asks became more and more difficult to attain. It became harder to fundraise, harder to schedule, harder to put all of my students in the correct level of class. I was trying to create a program that the school wasn't ready for because of my own ego, and as a result, I ended up creating too much stress for myself, and burnt out at that gig, leaving flaming bridges in my wake. Don't be me.

There are certain types of programs that are right for certain demographics. Most schools cannot be Mt. Carmel High School or L.D. Bell, at least not right off the bat. Some will not be able to even support a full concert ensemble, let alone a marching band, chamber choir, or jazz orchestra. When you arrive somewhere new, ask questions about what the administration wants and needs. What hole are they trying to fill at their school? Ask the students if you can. How do they enjoy the music program? What do they like and dislike about it? Ask the parents. See what their attitudes are about music in their student's life. You might get answers that range from enthusiastic to apathetic from those parents and students. You might have various ideas in the administration about the role the music program should fill. It's your job to deliver the product that is needed for THAT COMMUNITY, not what you think is an 'ideal program'. We are all biased because of our past experiences. Don't let that bias prevent you from filling the needs of the students and school because you're hard headed.

Make Friends With Parents and Administration

Parents are the lifeblood of your program, but the administration signs your checks. Be nice. Make friends. Understand that both of these groups may have had bad experiences with past directors and you may be unfairly stigmatized for that. Your best bet is to be affable and accommodating. They will probably ask things of you that may be difficult on you or your students. Politely explain why what they ask isn't the best course of action, but if the administration insists, don't fight it. Make your objections known and move on. There is probably a reason they are asking you to do whatever it is, and beating your head up against a wall will not win you the battle, especially if you fight everything all of the time. We only have so much ammunition as a new face at a school. Remember that you're the music expert on this campus. The others are not willfully trying to sabotage you, they just don't know. You job is to educate them as much as it is to educate the students.

The best way to get what you need is to be likeable. Meet with your parents if you can. Have coffee with your administration if the school atmosphere is conducive to that. Make friends first, explain what you'd like to do with the program and why you'd like to do it, and then, maybe, you'll get a bit more of what the program needs to change for the better. If you're a butt when you first walk in the door, people will be immediately turned off, and that will hurt not only your program in the long term, but your enjoyment on the job. People that don't like you can absolutely hide behind the beaurocracy and make your life more difficult. Organizations are simply composed of people. If those people enjoy working with you, find you reasonable, and know that you're doing everything with the best possible intentions, you're going to get a lot further than constantly demanding this or that.

Design and Develop a Program That Meets Their Needs

You've listened, you've made friends, or at least established yourself as a reasonable and competent educator. What now? Based on all of those conversations you've had, the people that you've spoken to, and your own insight into the socio-econonic status, culture, and needs of the school, you should sit down and think about what would best serve your community. Is it a marching program, string chamber ensembles, barbershop class, or mariachi band? What structure is going help develop your students to become not only competent musicians, but productive citizens, leaders, and community members? Bring your parents and administration on board. If you're getting push-back on your ideas, why? What are their concerns? Can they be assuaged, or is there a reason they are pushing back? Does that mean you were wrong about the needs of the community, or are they actually clueless themselves? Ask these questions, develop truly honest answers, and move forward developing the structures that are most needed for your students and school community to thrive.

Introduce Change Slowly

There is a long standing trope among music educators. A new director starts at a program. They give instruction. Student chimes in "But Director So-and-so didn't tell us to do it that way." Cue long sigh. You're going to encounter this no matter what program you walk into, and the best way to deal with it is to slowly change the culture of the program rather than trying to force it all at once. Students are fickle, and as a general rule of thumb, they can only deal with so much change before they start to create drama as a way to deal with it. Especially if you're in a program that has had high instructor turnover, it is absolutely imperative that you create trust before making any super large changes in the way things are done. Don't fire all of the instruction staff on your first day. Don't restructure the music boosters your first semester. Start by showing that you know what you are talking about by creating a good rapport and product with the students, parents, and administration. Pick your battles by fighting for what will create the most change with the least amount of pushback and confusion. When things inevitably get better through those changes, point to those changes and then thank the students, parents and administration for trusting you with the small tweaks that have created disproportionate results to how uncomfortable they were. I guarantee that these invested groups will be more willing to consider larger restructurings and give you more leeway with how to run your program after you have created that trust.

All of this is not to say you shouldn't immediately change or fight against actively disruptive elements to your program. If you have toxic staff members or students that are clearly a drain on the future success of the program and constantly fight you tooth and nail, do your best to manage them first, and then get rid of them if the behavior persists. A positive culture will be your greatest tool towards creating a strong program.

If you have questions or comments about teaching towards the needs of your community, please leave them below. I'd love to hear them.

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