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The Best and Worst Job in Public Education

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 22, 2006


By D.L. Johnson

This is kind of a tough topic to cover. I know most educators will say they have the best and worst job in public education. However, there is nothing similar in education to the trials music educators face. The extremes in “highs and lows” that high school band and orchestra directors experience day by day would challenge even the best of educators. Ask yourself: how many classroom teachers are required to put their classes up in front of the general public (performances) and be judged directly by colleagues and parents as to whether they meet the subject standards, or for that matter, are a good or bad teacher? This has a direct impact on the longevity of music educators in the profession. I have heard the average high school band director lasts as little as four years in the profession before getting out. (I believe the longevity of school superintendents is just about the same.)

This summer, I attended the final concert night of the Monterey Jazz Festival Summer Jazz Camp. As we watched seven complete jazz bands perform their hearts out to an ecstatic standing-room-only audience, one thing prevailed over the entire auditorium – “Smiling Parents.” It was the same jubilation I had seen and heard over and over at the many concerts I had conducted or performed throughout my teaching career. I know many of you know what I am talking about.

As the concert proceeded, I wondered how many parents knew the incredible sacrifices the directors of these fine young musicians had gone through just to get their child into a camp like this. Just how many of those parents knew the real battles each and every high school and middle school band and orchestra director was going through nowadays? Battles faced every day by directors throughout the education world. Battles not even conceived of by regular classroom teachers. The teaching of music has changed. There were other band directors at that jazz concert. I know they were getting one of the few rewards we get as directors – “A tremendous sense of accomplishment.”

Problems and Solutions
Today’s director has a whole new realm of battles to fight.

1. PROBLEM: Inappropriate basic budgets with which to run the general operation of their programs. And yet, the director will still be expected to do all the great things the band/orchestra has done in the past. Do you feel like a locomotive flying down the tracks but the tracks are running out? At my school the train has left the tracks.

SOLUTION: As your principal becomes more aware of your special financial needs to make things happen, he or she may be more willing to dig into the general operations budget for the music program’s needs. What is important for you to do is take the time to meet regularly with the principal. Let the principal know your problems, but don’t expect an immediate answer. Give him or her time to work things out.

2. PROBLEM: Administrators who do not understand the complexities of creating an outstanding program. Many school principals still require music directors to do outdated requirements – in particular, where that ensemble should or should not perform. I still get a kick out of school principals who still require their band directors to have their bands at ALL football and basketball games (home and away). What makes administrators think that kids went out for band so they could go to all the games? I, however, must remind everyone that I do not take kids to the football games to help support the football team or the principals’ egos; I take them to the football game to help support the band. Politics are important. However, sometimes we go too far with our requirements. Students get tired of fulfilling performances outside the context of the primary music program. I got out of doing basketball games when I asked the school principal, “When do the kids, who cover basketball, often twice a week (who are also in the jazz band, pep band, concert band, etc.), do their homework? Don’t we want higher test scores?” Amazingly, no one asked me for four years why we didn’t go to the basketball games anymore. Talk about not being appreciated. Now wait a minute: I know what you’re thinking, but they really were a good pep band. Funny thing – as soon as the band got national attention, suddenly everybody wanted us back.

SOLUTION: Again communicating the feelings of your students and parents to your superior may lead him or her to reconsider requirements that are having a negative effect on your program. The principal may have alternatives, or suggestions. If the event is important, he or she will also let you know just how and why that next event is important enough to require the ensemble’s presence. It gives you the opportunity to explain it to your students. It also moves the blame off of you and on to someone else. Again, politics are important to the future of your program.

3. PROBLEM: Schedules that do not take into account the special needs of the band program. “The Band/Orchestra needs to be given priority when setting up the school schedule.” That doesn’t mean it is more important than any other class on campus; it is just affected more by scheduling than most other classes. Oftentimes the band and color guard make up a large percentage of the student body. The schedule must accommodate this group of students. Not just anybody from the student body can be in the music program. They need to have mastered the basic skills of how to play their instruments before they join the band or orchestra. There are still people out there who think you hand an instrument to a student and, magically, beautiful music comes out. I truly believe that it is scheduling that has the biggest effect on the success or failure of any good program. I also believe that it is the principal of the school that is to blame for the failure of the schedule to work for the music program.

SOLUTION: I spend a lot of time expressing the special needs of the band and color guard to everyone involved in building the next year’s school schedule. You will be surprised how many administrators really want the schedule to work for the band/orchestra. For example, they can move singleton AP classes off the band period. They can even make special periods (or blocks) especially for the band. I have one of those now. We teach band at a time when there are absolutely no conflicts.

4. PROBLEM: It will be up to the director to find funds to replace instruments, uniforms, etc. I know this is true because of the large number of contacts (more than 350) I had after I wrote the article “Grant Writing For Music Teachers” in the April, 1997, issue of SBO, and the more than 300 e-mails I got after working as a National Networking Mentor for MENC. We are still expected to create remarkable bands again and again without the funding. What about booster groups? True, band booster clubs do bring in funding. However, at most high schools, I bet you’ll find there is less to spend on the band because the boosters are now paying basic operational costs the school district no longer covers.

SOLUTION: I’m afraid finding funds outside the school district will be necessary for many of our band programs. I would side again with the school and district administration to come up with ideas and plans of how to bring in funds for those projects. Every state has different approaches, such as special aide programs like GATE (Gifted And Talented Education), booster groups, Title Programs, grants, sponsorships, etc.

5. PROBLEM: In many of the larger super band programs, the program runs the director, not the director runs the program. This past summer, I had the rare opportunity (particularly this year in California, when there are few good music jobs available) to hire a new instrumental music teacher for our middle schools. To my surprise, we had more than 25 people apply for the same position. Two were directors of premier high school band programs. I finally called one of them and asked why he wanted to move from such an outstanding high school band program to a middle school program. The first thing that came out of his mouth was, “To Have A Life.” He then asked me if my program was an extensive competition program. I said, “We do three band reviews (street only) and the section concert band festival in the fall.” I guess that is what he wanted to hear. He said his program is in competition all year long. The competitions control what direction the band goes in. Even music was sometimes not at the discretion of the director. He wanted to start teaching again. Overly competitive music programs start digging into the personal schedule of the students and director. I wonder how many students we have lost from music education because of overzealous competition-formatted band programs.

SOLUTION: Somehow we need to grasp the concept that “We run the program” – not the other way around. If you feel the program is running you, and you don’t like it, go find another job. You are not alone. If you feel you want to stay, meet with your supervisor or principal, and explain that the program is going to burn you out.

6. PROBLEM: Great salary? NOT! A few years ago, I made the mistake of monitoring every hour I spent outside the regular school day. I, of course, gave the school the first hour after school. One year later, I had collected more than 1,150 extra hours to the job. Divide that by that incredible extra duty stipend, and you’re not even half way to minimum wage. Regular teaching salaries of beginning teachers are becoming a major problem in many areas throughout the country. One of the questions I had to ask when interviewing new teachers for the position I mentioned was, “Can you afford to live here?” Beginning teacher salaries are by far way too low.

SOLUTION: As with all jobs, it takes time to move up the ladder. Teaching salaries are set by years of teaching and college units earned. My suggestion to new teachers is to get as many college units as quickly as possible.

7. PROBLEM: Budget cuts always place the music program in jeopardy. Back in the mid-1990s, California was going through a tremendous financial crisis, very similar to the one we are going through now. Several teaching positions were in jeopardy. I remember we had a meeting of all the teachers who would be getting pink slips. One of the teachers asked a union lawyer what he thought would really happen. His response: all but one of us would probably be retained in the position they were already teaching, or take other similar positions in the district (due to retirements and teachers leaving the district). He was then asked which position was in danger. He replied, “The high school band director.” That was me. I was the last music teacher hired in the district, and therefore the first to go if a music teaching position was cut. Why did I bother to join the union if they couldn’t help me? The lawyer was then asked if in his career had he ever seen a district refuse to release a teacher. He said, “Yes, a high school band director.” How about that! I have a job that you can be dismissed from when you want to stay, and won’t let you go when you want to leave.

SOLUTION: Budget cuts are a part of teaching. What you must do is make sure your program is in the right place. School districts try everything they can not to cut good programs. A music program that is moving forward and is meeting the standards of the school and community is usually left alone. However, if cuts or changes are going to be made in your program, make sure you make the recommendations. Keep the strength in your program in place. Those kinds of decisions are tough but will work out down the road. The lack of a solid budget can also allow us to make needed adjustments in our schedule – without having to get permission.

8. PROBLEM: Teacher-to-student ratios not anywhere close to the average class size. I presently teach around 240 student contacts a day in a three-block schedule. That is not an unusual count for many music teachers in this country. How is that possible, when the average teacher probably sees fewer than 90 student contacts a day (in a three block format)? I know this scenario. That is one of the marvelous quirks in our profession. Most teachers want fewer students, we (music directors) want more. School principals take advantage of that and use the large band classes to justify small classes in other subjects. I’m beginning to wonder if we have been taken advantage of. P.E. classes seem to be in the same situation. Extremely large classes. I really don’t mind the large classes. Especially when I ask the principal for more money. I usually get it. He knows I’m pushing a large load of students. The sad part of this is: where is the professionalism in all of this? Music kids, who are often the best kids in a school, also need attention. Am I the only band director who gets envious when, attending a competition, I see other school bands come in with a specialist in every section? Too bad the equality of music education from school to school is far from equal throughout the school spectrum.

SOLUTION: We are always going to have more students than anyone else. That is what we want. That is also our strength. Any good principal knows that, and wants to keep it going. By doing so you are strengthening your position and theirs.

Being a band or orchestra director really is a great job. The question is, “Why do so many stay in the profession?” Could it be “the challenge of the battle?” All of the above situations are workable. You just need to have the patience to work with the system to make things happen. It is not the trials we go through that will live on in our memory, but rather, “the victories made.” Every profession has obstacles. The answers are all around us. We must be willing, as directors, to share and answer the questions made.

D.L. Johnson is the director of bands at North Monterey County High School in California. A music educator for 30 years, Johnson is a past president of the California Association for Music Education.

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