Recent months have seen an American society that is increasingly polarized, and we have come to have a greater understanding of the presence of intolerance and prejudice in our nation. Because our classrooms are a microcosm of society at large, it is worth exploring how issues of diversity and inclusion influence music education. Furthermore, when our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves. If we do not provide those models, we are not fully serving our students. This blog post provides ten ideas teachers can consider and incorporate into their teaching.
1. Create Safe Environments
Students cannot be expected to learn anything in an environment in which they do not feel safe (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Expectations for classroom decorum and behavior must be established at the beginning of the school year and should be in writing (in handbooks, classroom rule posters, etc.).
Students must know that they can exist in the classroom space free of discrimination and fear. Music teachers can enumerate specific groups that will be protected in the classroom. The following is an example policy statement from choral music educator Tim Estberg from New Trier High School in Illinois:
If any student feels that our classroom is in any way uncomfortable, he or she is strongly encouraged to speak with me as soon as possible. Together, we will create an environment in which each of us can grow and learn in a safe place for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, level, or physical or mental ability.
2. Create Community
Community has many layers of meaning in the music education. Community is created in our classrooms but also with groups including the community at large, our audiences, the other schools in our district, and our colleagues. Music educators can discuss and model the fact that music programs do not exist in isolation—that they thrive on connection and collaboration.
3. Be Inclusive
Be aware of the underlying biases and prejudices present in schools. Institutional racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism are rampant in American society. Teachers must be aware that these also exist in schools and be ready to step in. If a teacher hears defamatory (e.g., racist or homophobic) comments, action must be taken or students will likely assume that such behavior is acceptable in school. More broadly, music educators can be constantly vigilant about inequities and be ready to act.
4. Be Aware
Music educators must be aware of the diversity (or lack thereof) in their spheres of influence. Do we favor music only by dead white men? Do we disparage popular and vernacular musics that may be important to students’ lives? Do we program works by women, members of the LGBTQ community, and/or people of color? We must remain aware that words matter and that students bring multiple layers of identity into the classroom – a concept known as intersectionality.
5. What Does “Music for All” Really Mean?
Many music educators throw around phrases like “Music for every child and every child for music.” But what does “music for all” really mean? What about the ~80% of secondary students not enrolled in a large ensemble at the secondary level, many of whom have interests in genres of music like pop, country, beat production, hip-hop, etc. Are school music programs including them?
What about gender non-conforming students who don’t wish to join a “Men’s Choir” or “Women’s Choir”? If we really mean “music for all,” then we should change our programs and our rhetoric to match this philosophy in practice.
6. Reach Out
The good news for music educators is that many wonderful resources exist for teachers who wish to be more inclusive. A short list of resources and professional organizations are listed below. There are also many individuals who are willing to assist educators with questions that they may have about social justice topics that may arise in their schools/classrooms.
7. Jump In and Don’t Be Afraid
In discussion issues of gender and sexuality in the classroom, we often hear teachers say that they are afraid to say the wrong thing or use some term incorrectly. If your intentions are good and you are open to adapting your vocabulary, then a small mistake will almost always be forgiven. Remember that we learn from our mistakes—don’t be afraid to engage social justice issues in your school/classroom. It may be difficult or uncomfortable sometimes, but fear not (and remember that there are resources out there—see #6).
8. Remember It’s Our Job
Teaching is about respecting and caring for our students—no exceptions. Music educators often are able to form deeper relationships with their students than other teachers as students often stay in our programs for multiple years. This gives music educators an advantage and a special mandate to care. As Randall Allsup and Eric Sheih wrote, “At the heart of teaching others is the moral imperative to care” (p. 47).
9. Inclusion Is a Journey, and the Meaning Will Change over Time
Inclusion has a different meaning in different contexts. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to difficult questions of equity and social justice. Music educators should carefully consider their own setting and the needs of their community.
10. Champion Stories of Others
We learn through stories. Stories are a vital part of how we learn about others and gain new perspectives. Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is listen to marginalized populations. By hearing stories and learning about how issues of equity and justice play out in the lives of real people, we may gain a deeper understanding of these concepts and their meaning.
Music educators have an opportunity to make their classroom experiences about more than beautiful sounds. Through relationship building, knowledge of inequities that influence students, mentorship, and love, music teachers can be a force for social change in American schools.
- Dispelling Six Myths about Transgender Identity
- GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network
- Promoting inclusion, cultural diversity and tolerance in education
- Talking Race (from the Southern Poverty Law Center)
- The Trevor Project
- Women’s Rights in Education (from the ACLU)
Allsup, R. E., & Shieh, E. (2012). Social justice and music education: The call for a public pedagogy. Music Educators Journal, 98(4), 47–51. doi:10.1177/0027432112442969