I was asked to write a back-to-school article from the principal’s perspective; “What can music educators do – before the year starts – to improve their relationship with their principals?” That is quite a question. While I can think of many things that would be great for music educators to do before school begins, I came up with one thing that I believe could make all the difference.
I just finished my thirtieth year as an educator. For the past eleven years, I have been fortunate to serve as the principal at Westview Middle School in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado. In addition to being a principal, I am also a parent, and to begin, I’d like to share my daughter’s experience in music education.
In her freshman and sophomore years my daughter’s choir was her home and her community. She loved going to choir class, and performing, and traveling with the group. Her choir ensembles were regularly awarded with superior ratings at festivals. The “cool kids” at her school were in the choir program, and many students chose to participate.
At the end of her sophomore year, her choir teacher retired. The new choir teacher came in full of energy and best intentions, determined to make her mark. She was very directive and authoritarian and focused on things such as arriving on time to class, perfect silence, and total compliance. Her classroom was a tight ship, and high expectations were evident.
Unfortunately, student engagement and enthusiasm were missing. By the end of the school year, more than half of the choir students had left the program. This, unfortunately, included my own child. Choir no longer was her touchstone.
The Big Question
I share that experience so you can understand one of the filters that I apply as I write this. I believe that music education must find that delicate balance between musical excellence and creating a fun and engaging classroom. Above all, our goal must be dedicated to developing young musicians with a love and passion for music. My advice to you would be centered around a simple question. Are students excited to come to your music class? Is your classroom a touchstone for students? If not, why not?
On one extreme we have the example portrayed in the movie Whiplash, a compelling story of musical excellence at all costs. I understand this is an exaggerated example but I think sometimes music educators feel compelled to create a “Julliard School” experience. They believe that if they are not creating that level of excellence then somehow they are not doing their job and their program does not have worth.
On the other extreme, we have the example of a music educator that I worked with in the 90’s. Her class was fun and engaging. Students loved to come to her class each day. Unfortunately, they were never even expected to learn to read music. Students memorized very easy music and consequently sounded great at performances. Unfortunately, many of these students struggled and dropped out of choir in high school because they were simply not prepared. They were never challenged to be excellent.
Finding the Sweet Spot
So how does a music teacher find that sweet spot between musical excellence and a fun? I don’t have an easy answer. What I can offer are a few examples of teachers who have this figured out. I am lucky enough to work with three extremely talented musicians: Nicole Kmoch, Connie Delen, and Chue Vue. Together they comprise the music department at Westview Middle School. They have absolutely created classrooms where students have a blast and create excellence every day. They have taught me what an excellent music class looks like.
Advice from a Principal
I believe that teachers become excellent by learning from other excellent teachers. My advice from a principal’s perspective is to find a teacher who has found the sweet spot, and learn from them. Invite successful music educators and/or your administrators to come and observe your classes and provide feedback.
Evaluate your program. Is your program growing, or is it dwindling? Survey families at the end of each school year. Does their feedback indicate that you are indeed finding the sweet spot? What you can do to make your principal happy is to build a program that creates musical excellence in a fun and engaging environment. Not an easy task to be sure, but certainly a job worth doing.