Beginning Teachers and Micropolitical Issues at School

Beginning Teachers and Micropolitical Issues at School

I have spent most of my research career examining the challenges faced by beginning music teachers and exploring strategies such as mentoring and induction to support new teachers (Conway, 2015). The studies in this area are consistent in documenting common novice teacher challenges such as classroom management, scheduling and resources, and the feeling of being silenced. In a recent study of music teacher induction, I asked experienced teachers who had participated in a beginning teacher study in their first year of teaching (11 years previously) to examine interview transcripts and journals from that first year. A key theme in the study was participant teachers feeling as if they “understand schools” better now than they did as beginning teachers. (Conway, 2012, p. 71)

In an effort to learn what it means for teachers to “understand schools,” I began to explore ways to study that notion. Researchers in general education who study beginning teachers have often discussed a concept called micropolitical literacy. (Curry et al., 2008; Kelchtermans & Ballet, 2002a, 2002b) Kelchtermans and Ballet (2002b) defined micropolitical literacy as the “capacity to understand, navigate and influence the micro-political realities of schools.” (p. 756)

Micropolitical realities include the challenges associated with engaging “proactively with colleagues, administrators, parents as well as the wider community.” (Curry et al., 2008, p. 661) Additionally, Curry et al. (2008) suggested that that micropolitical literacy is “necessary in order for beginning teachers to effectively contribute to school reform or advance transformative, critical visions of education.” (p. 660)

Jared Rawlings (University of Utah), and I used micropolitical literacy as a framework for studying the experiences of three beginning music teachers. The purpose of this blog is to share some of the findings of that study. The full details of the research can be found in Conway and Rawlings (2015).

Classroom Management

Classroom management is a well-documented challenge for all beginning teachers, both within and outside the field of music. Considering the large number of students in the music classroom and the “noise-makers” often in hand, it is no wonder that managing students is the most commonly discussed challenge for music teachers. When considering classroom management in relation to micropolitics, the concept of power is what comes to the forefront.

I learned in my research studies that beginning teachers often work to have power “over” their students and use words like “discipline,” “getting them to listen,” and “forcing them to behave.” More experienced teachers tend to consider power “with” students rather than “over” and work to empower their students to manage themselves.

Those who work with new teachers can help them make the shift from viewing the teacher’s role as having power “over” students to creating power “with” students. This type of power forms when the teacher is able to empower and motivate students to be engaged in the classroom, and the words like “discipline” and “force” are no longer applicable.

Scheduling and Resources

Beginning teachers are at the mercy of administrators when it comes to course schedules and program resources. Conway and Rawlings (2015) suggested:

Micropolitics, in this situation, helps us understand that there is an art to knowing how to secure the time and resources for music classes. Beginning music teachers know that there is a hierarchy, and insider knowledge is necessary to try to get what is needed to execute the curriculum. The notion of feeling supported was situational and reported by all participants as being connected to the administration. The participants knew that a hierarchy existed in the building and district; however, when it came to navigating the hierarchical building structure(s) for resources or time, the teachers who were more supported by the administration knew how to secure the resources for their classroom. Hence, the nuance of each participant’s teaching context affected the salience of resources and time. (Conway & Rawlings, 2015, pp 34-35)

New teachers who are lucky enough to have supportive administrators need to learn from their mentors how to recognize this support; those new teachers without administrative support will need a great deal of support from mentors and other colleagues when it comes to discussions of scheduling and securing of resources.

New teachers also need assistance in learning to consider themselves as part of a team of school professionals rather than a sort of “us versus them” mentality towards other teachers and administrators. Music teachers are susceptible to (taking on, falling into) the mindset of “my program” which leads to the “us versus them” culture.

Silencing of Beginning Teachers

Beginning teachers often report feeling “silenced” or feeling as if their opinions do not matter. This has been documented for music teachers in relation to their interactions with parents (comments like “when you are a parent, you will understand”), classroom teachers, and other music teachers. The quote below describes a first-year teacher in Ohio feeling as if the other music teachers he works with talk “around” him as if he were not even there:

So anyway, she [music colleague and team teacher] wants, well, her style of teaching seems to be she wants a barrage of people at her disposal to take kids out and do sectionals and team teach. But she doesn’t really utilize me, the way she could be . . . There are times when the three of us are standing there and she [same colleague] will look at Beth [another colleague] and say, “Do what you want with Nick today because I don’t need him, but I could really use him the next day,” and Beth will turn to me and ask me if that works for me. What do I think? What do you think about what the students need? So it’s more like I’m a library resource that is being checked out. (Conway & Rawlings, 2015, p. 35)

We have all heard the adage “The program won’t be yours for five years.”  However, new teachers want and need to have their voices heard in relation to their work.


The research in micropolitics confirms that schools can be difficult workplaces for teachers. It is hard for new teachers to know what they don’t know about working with students, parents, other music teachers, other classroom teachers, and communities as a whole. Conway and Rawlings (2015) concluded their work with:

What we do not know is how to prepare teachers in preservice and inservice programs for this need to adapt to an ever-changing micropolitical landscape. I (Colleen) have suggested elsewhere that teacher education needs to focus on figuring out what only it can do and then needs to leave much of the other work for on-the-job training (Conway, 2015). Continued study of recruitment of music teachers into the profession, preservice coursework and fieldwork, student teaching, mentoring, and induction are all areas where more research is needed with an eye on micropolitics. (Conway & Rawlings, 2015, p. 41)

Relying on “on the job training” as mentioned above means that inservice teachers must share the burden for supporting new teachers. It is my hope that experienced teachers take every opportunity to assist new teachers in grasping the intricacies of micropolitical issues. Think out loud to the new teachers to let them in on your thinking and good luck!


Conway, C. M. (2012). Reflections on “beginning music teacher perceptions of district-sponsored induction programs”: Ten years later. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 193, 63-76.
Conway, C. M. (2015). The experiences of first year music teachers: A literature review. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 33(2), 65-72. doi:10.1177/8755123314547911
Conway, C. M., Hibbard, S., & Rawlings, J. (2014). The potential use of micropolitics in examining personal and professional experiences of music teachers, Journal of Music Teacher Education. doi: 10.1177/1057083714539768
Conway, C. M., & Rawlings, J. (2016). Beginning music teacher induction and the attainment of micropolitical literacy. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 204, 27-45.
Curry, M., Jaxon, K., Russell, J. L., Callahan, M. A., & Bicais, J. (2008). Examining the practice of beginning teachers’ micropolitical literacy within professional inquiry communities. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(3), 660-673.
Kelchtermans, G., & Ballet, K. (2002a). The micropolitics of teacher induction: A narrative-biographical study on teacher socialization. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18(1), 105-120.
Kelchtermans, G., & Ballet, K. (2002b). Micropolitical literacy: Reconstructing a neglected dimension in teacher development. International Journal of Educational Research, 37(8), 755- 767.

Editor’s Note: An earlier draft of this work appears in the Spring 2017 issue of the Michigan Music Educator. It is used here with permission.

Colleen Conway is professor of music education at the University of Michigan. She has published over 90 research articles in music education. Book publications include: Great Beginning for Music Teachers: A Guide to Mentoring and Induction (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); Handbook for the Beginning Music Teacher (GIA, 2006); Teaching Music in Higher Education (Oxford, 2009,); Handbook for the Music Mentor (GIA, 2010); Handbook of Qualitative Research in American Music Education (Oxford, 2014) and Musicianship-Focused Curriculum and Assessment (GIA, 2015). Her most recent book, The Oxford Handbook on Preservice Music Teacher Education in the United States, will be available from Oxford in 2018.

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