My years spent teaching in a Title I school district were the most rewarding of my K-12 career. While I cherish and have wonderful memories of former students at my other schools, my mission as an orchestra teacher in a Title I School went beyond teaching music. I focused less on traditional concerts and spent more time concentrating on students’ social, emotional, and musical needs. As a result, I was able to create a nurturing environment where students felt safe and welcomed. It also allowed them to participate in meaningful musical and social activities that they would not have typically experienced. Working in a Title I School allowed me to have an impact that went well beyond music.
While some people believe it is difficult to succeed as a music teacher in a Title I School, I disagree with that belief. I believe teaching in a Title I School provides more opportunity to build an impactful music program that positively influences students’ lives. To accomplish that goal, music teachers in Title I Schools have to overcome some common challenges. I am not saying music programs in other socioeconomic areas do not have issues, but I know there are common hurdles that hinder program growth in many Title I Schools. Below are a few strategies that helped me build a successful music program at multiple Title I Schools in my district. Some of the strategies below may cause uneasiness as you read them, but I feel they must be addressed to create more music education opportunities for students in Title I Schools. I am hopeful you will find the strategies below helpful as you work to develop your music program.
Recruit Every Student
Every student deserves a quality music education. Let me say that again, every student deserves a quality music education. All too often, I hear stories about music educators who only recruit students who fit their preconceived notions of what a “successful” music student looks or acts like. They cultivate this misguided perception by purposefully or subconsciously only recruiting students who they think will succeed in their music program. Some teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time with students at recruiting events based on whether or not they believe the student will succeed. Others may only recruit students who look like they can afford an instrument and lessons. Some teachers may only recruit students from the “good schools.” I know these may appear as extreme examples, but I have witnessed these appalling behaviors during the recruiting process.
To me, this type of recruiting is a travesty and educational malpractice at the highest level. Colleagues who recruit in this way should be called out. By purposefully dismissing or ignoring any student during the recruiting process because we do not think they will succeed, teachers are potentially extinguishing the musical excitement of a child. As educators, we must connect with each student when recruiting. My goal was for my students and I to personally engage each potential member at recruiting events. This helped potential members feel comfortable about joining our program.
During the recruiting process, I also believe it is extremely important for potential students to see themselves in your program. They need to look at the students in your ensemble and see someone they can relate to. This can be a student with the same ethnicity, or someone who dresses like them, or who has the same color hair, or who has a similar disability. I accomplished this goal by allowing my students to show off their individual style and personality when we visited other schools. My students rarely wore their concert attire at recruiting concerts. Instead, they wore school appropriate clothes of their choice. I did not ask them to hide their wildly-colored hair, or to conform to what some view as the “ideal” orchestra student. I wanted potential students to see the different types of people, identities, and personalities in our ensemble. To get this point across even more, I built in opportunities for my students to interact with potential future students before, during, and after recruiting events. I found this was vital because it allowed potential students to personally connect with an older student who intrigued them.
Remove Financial Barriers
The cost of participation deters many students in Title I Schools from joining their music program. Many families with children in Title I Schools have limited discretionary income and some children are unfortunately aware of their family’s financial situation. As a result, they carry this burden with them when choosing what activities to participate in. In many cases, students hear music teachers talk about renting an instrument, purchasing supplies (e.g., a method book, reeds, a shoulder rest), and participating in festivals/trips during the recruiting process and decide not to join the ensemble purely based on how their participation would impact their family’s financial situation. As teachers, we should strive to remove participation costs as an influence in the decision-making process. Students should choose to participate or not based on their personal ambitions, not their family’s financial situation.
Teachers, school administrators, and district administrators can help with this by limiting the financial impact on families. While some families can supply their child with the proper instrument and accessories, others need assistance from the school. Some Title I Schools are lucky enough to have an adequate inventory of school instruments to outfit every student in need. However, most do not. One way I overcame this barrier was by convincing my school and district administrators to increase our instrument inventory so we could provide each beginning student in need. My administrators found Title I grant funds to support my mission and purchased additional instruments for my beginning students as I needed them. I also built a collection of method books and other accessories by asking older students to donate the materials they were no longer using or had outgrown. I still purchased some materials with school or personal funds, but it was always on a limited basis.
Removing this financial barrier allowed me to highlight during the recruiting process that I could provide any student with the instrument and materials they would need. I did my best to remove this concern from students’ minds at recruiting events. I also made sure I communicated the school’s ability to provide instruments to students in need in all messaging to parents. The limited financial responsibility on beginning students’ families allowed more students to join my program. After students’ first year in the program, I learned many families were willing to invest in their child’s music education once they knew their child was committed to learning an instrument. In many cases, these families rented an instrument from a local music store at the start of their child’s second year of instruction.
Show Flexibility and Compassion
No matter where you teach or what level you teach, students enter our classrooms with life experiences that can negatively impact their learning. For some students in Title I Schools, these issues can include financial hardships, unstable housing, food insecurities, a difficult home life, or even abuse/neglect. As teachers, we must understand and acknowledge what our students may be going through outside of our classroom. It is imperative for students to know we care about them beyond learning an instrument. We can accomplish this by taking time to listen to our students and support them through difficult days and situations. In many instances, we can achieve this by just being available in our classrooms before or after school so students can stop by and talk with us.
I have also learned that something outside of our students’ control can negatively impact them in our class. For example, it is also common for some students in Title I Schools to miss after school rehearsals or concerts because they watch their siblings while their parents work. In most of these cases, the student is not missing the rehearsal or concert by choice. They are watching their siblings because they are not given a choice. As teachers, we must decide how to handle this situation and what is more important: (1) forcing the student to attend the required concert/rehearsal, or (2) showing compassion for why the student will miss the required concert/rehearsal. As a young teacher, I would choose the first option way too often. I quickly realized that getting frustrated with the student over a situation that was out of their control only drove students out of my program. I learned it was more important to listen to the student, understand what was really going on, and show compassion for the difficult situation they were in. This built trust with my students and opened the door for them to talk to me in other difficult situations. It also led to more students staying in the program through difficult times and improved enrollment because I had the reputation for being an understanding teacher.
Teaching music is a privilege, and I think those teaching in Title I Schools have a profound responsibility to their students. Teachers in Title I Schools have to remember: the student is more important than the music. We can do this by making sure we recruit all students, by removing entry barriers, and by showing flexibility and compassion to our students. If we follow those philosophies, we can create a welcoming program in any school that will thrive over time.