Everyday music educators experience some type of stress. It may come in the form of dealing with rowdy students or unhappy parents. It may be the result of performance demands or schedule conflicts. Whatever the source, we face it and make the best of it. Sometimes, however, the stress originates within the music department. Not only can this impact those within the department, it can also be detrimental to students, parents, and non-music faculty and administration.
In my experience, dealing with conflict within the music department has been among the most difficult challenges to grasp and resolve in a low-impact way for all concerned.
Some of the most common causes of conflicts in the department include:
- Lack of communication
- Being territorial
- Sharing students
Let’s look at these separately with a goal of maintaining harmony in the music department.
Lack of Communication
Issues of communication are the most common cause of problems I experience as a music education mentor and are often a contributing factor to every other conflict listed above. Failure to communicate effectively often results in loss of time and organization, creates uncertainty, reduces confidence and credibility, and spreads unhealthy rumors or gossip. A person who cannot communicate successfully is rarely a good leader.
Some general guidelines to improve communication include:
- Listen first and be a good listener.
- Ask questions to make sure you understand both sides of every issue.
- Strive to always maintain a calm demeanor; avoid being negative, defensive or interruptive.
Nowhere are good communication skills more vital than in conflict resolution. Let’s look at an example.
In a small school setting, the football team has just advanced to the regional game which is scheduled away and occurs on the same date as the upcoming fall choral concert. Mary is the drum major AND has a solo in the choral concert. Both events carry weight in determining grades. Both the band director and choir director have given Mary the ultimatum, make a decision between the two.
The situation has reached an impasse and Mary has gone to the school principal to ask for a meeting including the principal, the activities director, both music directors, and her parents.
Whew. Who’s looking forward to that?
Take a Step Back
Let’s take a step back from the edge and see how improved communication could have prevented some stress.
First of all, a clearly communicated written policy for school activities (or the music programs) could have provided an answer from the start. It might, for example, state that when students are in two events on the same night:
- Students are allowed to choose between the two programs with no penalty, or
- District, regional and state events take precedence over local events.
Creating such a policy is not easy but agreeing on the best solution for all involved is much less stressful when it doesn’t occur in the middle of an emotionally-charged event.
Secondly, when a conflict like this occurs and it’s not covered by policy, it’s best to start the conversation between the invested parties. Rather than wait for the issue to escalate to include a room full of people, either director could reach out to the other director and decide how to work together.
When you need to meet, choose a day and time that is convenient for both parties. Here are some communication best practices that you could take into such a meeting.
- Be a good listener and learn everyone’s concerns
- Make a list of your concerns – keep them short and to the point
- Don’t be “picky”; stick to the most serious issues at hand
- Be prepared to suggest resolution and give a little
- Strive to remain calm and positive, and avoid becoming defensive.
Always remember that it’s a team effort. This is not about your wishes, it’s about what will best benefit the students and your program.
If you come to an impasse, it may be necessary to ask someone to serve as a mediator. Should this happen, consider asking a colleague both parties respect (ideally someone outside the department) before going to your administration. Ideally, this would be someone outside the department.
In my experience, being territorial is the second most common cause for conflict in music departments. With limited budgets, resources and facilities, it’s easy to become protective of your territory. This quickly can result in problems maintaining shared equipment, classrooms, and/or office space.
Again, the best way to prevent issues of territory is to effectively communicate expectations beforehand. You might create an equipment schedule and/or a room plan. Even better, share a rough draft of the schedule or plan with your colleagues, asking for their feedback and input. By doing so, you’ve made it clear you’re willing to do some of the heavy lifting (by creating the draft) and their input is vital for it to be complete and successful.
However you approach it, work together to come to an agreement about the respectful use and maintenance of the equipment. Similarly, in room planning, be clear about every detail. This can include where and when to put things away (from sheet music, chairs and music stands, to large instruments), transition responsibilities between classes, end of the day procedures, etc…
Ultimately, some groups (and teachers) are simply not as neat as others. This is a common problem. When this occurs, even the “less neat” teacher has to hold students accountable for maintaining a respectful classroom. Same goes with sharing desks, office space, computers or copiers.
A few quick, final tips about territory:
- Be aware of each other’s personal space and possessions
- Avoid “borrowing” items without asking
- If you must, borrowing a stapler is one thing – but rummaging through a desk looking for a stapler is another
To a certain extent, we all have a small amount of jealousy. When we don’t get things our way we start looking for reasons, and sometimes jealousy can creep into the equation. Jealousy may develop around class schedules, unequal budgets, department regulations/policies, booster organizations, uniforms, and more.
When this emotion occurs, the best resolution is to address it head-on and discuss it. Let your neighbor know how you feel, and you may be surprised to discover they feel the same way. Or not.
Either way, starting the communication can help – keeping the frustration to yourself does not.
Today, when it comes to protecting programs from being cut, it’s about numbers. Sometimes we share students like the band and choir do in Mary’s example above.
The best music students are often involved in many school activities, especially in smaller schools. These students may be active in the music department, sports, clubs, and organizations. As described above, no matter if it’s inside or outside the department, it’s best to do everything we can to avoid forcing students to make a decision between one activity or another.
One example many band directors face is the football player who is also in band. As a band director, at the beginning of the season I would meet with the head coach and discuss which students we shared. Many times, we could come to an understanding.
For example, we might agree that a football player could march — in his football uniform — if he wasn’t needed in 1st or 2nd team and playing in the second half. Otherwise, he’d go with the team. If a student was going to play a JV game in the next day or two, then he would march with the band.
These sorts of mutual compromises can really take the stress out of the situation for the directors, and eliminate the drama of conflict from students, parents, and administrators.
Build Music Department Unity
Perhaps the best way to avoid departmental conflicts is to continually work to build strong relationships. Here are a few of my favorite ways to do so:
- If schedules allow, share performances.
- As a director, attend other performances and encourage your students and boosters to attend those events. Your attendance shows your respect and helps you to learn to understand the needs of all concerned.
- Parent/booster organizations can also be helpful in bringing a department together by sharing fundraisers, supporting concerts or events.
Developing open relationships and communicating effectively will result in the harmony you need in your programs. Remember, we are all here for one reason: our students. The better we communicate and operate, the better we serve them, the music, and our world.
A veteran of 27 years of successful teaching in public schools, Joseph Pappas currently serves as adjunct professor at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, MO., and Southeast Missouri University, Cape Girardeau, MO. A winner of multiple Teacher of the Year awards, in 2016 Mr. Pappas received the Outstanding Music Educator Award for Missouri from the National Federation of High Schools and was elected to the St. Louis Music Education Hall of Fame.
A prolific composer of more than 200 compositions, he devotes most of his time to composing and working as an educational consultant and publishing editor for his own company, JPM Music Publications, which he started in 1992.