Plotting a Course for Professional Development

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 18, 2013

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by Matt Parish


From online distance learning to major clinics and graduate coursework, there are plenty of options for a music teacher seeking professional development.

A music teacher’s education is never over. In fact, as technology continues to evolve at an increasingly faster clip and education standards play a growing role in curricula, it’s more important than ever for educators to stay engaged with programs designed to keep methods and knowledge up to date. With shrinking arts budgets in school districts across the country, though, the onus is shifting more toward individual teachers to make the most of the professional development options available to them.


SBO recently invited four professional development experts to talk about their thoughts and experiences on the current state of opportunities available to music educators: Dr. Glenn Nierman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (also president-elect of the National Association for Music Education); Elizabeth Peterson of Ithaca College; Chelcy Bowles of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the North American Coalition for Community Music; and N. Carlotta Parr of Central Connecticut State University.


SBO: How have you seen professional development change in recent years?


Elizabeth Peterson: When I taught in the public schools about 15 years ago, “professional development” meant one or two days with all of your school’s faculty. A lot of times, the development wasn’t focused on music or arts at all. So creative school districts or music programs at schools that I felt had a leader or music administrator would often try to bring in a guest speaker who could talk to people about music or something that was music-specific, maybe even about developing a curriculum in music education.

Glenn Nierman: These days, a new major goal is that we want to make our teachers into knowledgeable consumers of research. The idea is that they can read some things and know the difference between a correlation, for example, and something that’s just been tested through cause and effect.

Distance learning is also improved and very easy nowadays – you can often take these modules and do them at your own pace. I have almost as many students in my distance learning section as I do in my face-to-face section of a core research class.

N. Carlotta Parr: The biggest trend I’ve seen, which will of course change a lot with the implementation of Core, is a stronger push toward finding ways to assess students and assess learning and curriculum because of the accountability trend in schools. It will be just so much stronger. Learning how to integrate the arts into the curriculum is also a trend that I’ve seen beginning to happen in the last two years.


SBO: Technology is changing rapidly, and so is the way it’s being implemented in the classroom. How would you assess the gap between teachers on board with newer technologies and those who haven’t yet gotten the hang of them?


CP: Six or seven years ago, there may have been a huge gap. Technology is such a critical part of all undergraduate curriculum now that pretty much everyone that comes through the undergraduate programs has a basic functioning competency in software like Finale and Sibelius. Everyone seems to have a need for knowing how to use the cloud. Everyone is getting SmartBoards.

GN: Teachers should try to become familiar with the technology in small, incremental steps. They need to feel successful each step of the way. They need to have support available immediately when they have questions.

EP: I actually think the public schools have a better handle on that than the colleges because many of them already have SmartBoards and are learning on their own how to use them. At the college level, we’re just now figuring how to teach new teachers how to use them, because they’re definitely going to be used in the public schools.


SBO: Is there any general strategy toward professional development that you try to impart among students?


GN: I have a number of students come every year who just can’t make up their mind. So I usually say they should try to pick out what they’re most interested in; give that a shot in the job market in that specific area; and then if they want to make a change, they can always go back and do that.

I will often hear people say things like, “I’m not really interested in starting a degree program. I just want to take six hours to renew my certificate.” I don’t think that’s good advice. If you start a degree program, you haven’t lost anything with regard to what you need to know, salary advancement, or anything of that sort; but then you also don’t end up with a “hodgepodge” of classes that you’ve taken that an advisor has to try to fit into a program somewhere down the line.

EP: My students will often ask me about this when they become seniors. My advice almost always is, “If you know you want to be a teacher, go teach first.” I think that’s really important, because that’s where you’re going to find out what you need to know. Young teachers, by the time they’re seniors in college, they’re so excited about teaching and they know a lot and want to try out all these great new things they learned in college, and they should. They should fail at some things and be great at some other things, and that’s what’s going to drive their professional development.


SBO: How do you advise educators to assess themselves when thinking about their next steps in professional development?


Chelcy Bowles: The teachers here in Wisconsin now have professional development teams that get together and work with the teacher in deciding what the best professional development would be for each individual teacher rather than simply conforming to state requirements.  I think it’s fantastic that teachers now are able to choose from such a huge variety of suppliers and formats for professional development – online, blended, face-to-face, for-credit, or non-credit – offered by people who teach in communities or universities. I would love to see it open up even more.

GN: The best time to begin their professional development, I think, is early on. After you have maybe a year or two under your belt. I’ve found that those young people who come back to us after a year or two have a real purpose for coming, not just to get salary advancement or their permanent certificate, but because they have questions grounded in the real world for real reasons. I’ve found that those are the people who we end up retaining in the profession.

EP: I think that’s partly just a matter of getting out of one’s own school district to see what else is out there. Go to festivals, even if it just means taking your band to the state assessment or adjudication area just so that you can hear other groups. Stay current with new music – that’s really important. It’s really hard to do if you can’t find ways to get out of your area and your routine. I think one also has to go to composer websites. Curriculum is huge and a lot of that has to do with music and constantly trying to figure out what’s the newest piece that’s out there and not just stock and formulaic.


SBO: How do you encourage teachers to engage in new learning environments – either geographically or simply culturally – for themselves?


CP: It certainly helps to get out of the school grind, especially for elementary general music teachers. They tend to be the only music teacher in their building or there might be another instrumental teacher there but their schedules won’t match. So to be around people who do exactly what they do all the time and to be able to share ideas with them is reenergizing.

CB: I decided that maybe I should concentrate on offerings [at UW-M] that the Center and other similar programs would not be offering. For example, this summer, we’re running the National String Instrument Repair Clinics, which has been offered for decades.  We have a lot of teachers enroll in the program because it’s not something they can really get anywhere else, yet it’s something you’re confronted with daily as a strings teacher. That’s just where I’m moving my program.

I’m also very concerned with the idea of people who teach and lead music experiences in community contexts. These may be people who, even with their music education or music performance degrees, are not teaching in K-12 schools. Instead, they’re working in community music schools or community and neighborhood programs, child care centers, prisons, hospice, programs for seniors, adults with limitations, and so forth.

EP: I’m on the board of directors for the Midwest Clinic in Chicago and one of the things that the board is trying to do is reach out to more music teachers and get them to come. There’s just so much there. It’s four days that people can learn from. Just in terms of hearing concerts, it’s so important that teachers get out and hear other groups perform and have an “ear-cleansing,” if you will. In addition to concerts, there are guest speakers, clinics, rehearsal labs, and other colleagues to hang out with and talk to. That time is very valuable.

The difference between that clinic and your typical state convention, which is also a great opportunity for professional development, is that the Midwest clinic is national and international, so you have more opportunity to work with and network with people from other areas who might have ideas and shared some of the same experiences. This is a chance to see more than what your own state might have to offer. I don’t mean that to insult states, but anything that encompasses more than just one state is going to give people more opportunities and resources.


SBO: How important is it, in all types of these programs, to establish lasting communities for these teachers throughout their development?


EP: That’s key, and in my book for first-year teachers, that’s a main piece of information that I hit upon: find other people to network with, whether it’s a music teacher down the road or someone from the next district over or someone from your undergraduate days, like colleagues or professors. Especially for young teachers, it’s important to stay in touch with others. At conferences, who you meet will help you learn about new music and repertoire. Networking with others and getting their input, asking a lot of those questions – it’s really important.

CB: I think it’s also great for teachers to form education communities with non-educators. If they get into, say, studying more guitar, and go to a class in the community where they can get practical guitar skills, their classmates aren’t necessarily teachers. I think they can learn a lot from that interaction with other sorts of people in the community. They can form a cohort learning group of people who are not particularly doing what they’re doing. It can be a challenge, but it’s a very healthy thing, and I hope we move more toward expanding opportunities.

As teachers, we came through the system and teach children and youth the way we’ve learned and been trained to teach, but we don’t have interactions with people who may be quite skilled but have learned a completely different way. I think that’s very valuable experience for a music educator.

Glenn Nierman is currently Steinhart professor and associate director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Nierman is also the president-elect of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Society of Music Education (ISME).

Chelcy Bowles is professor of Music and director of Continuing Education in Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has taught music and music education at the elementary, secondary, college, and continuing adult levels, and has had her work published in many industry publications. Bowles was the co-founder of NAfME’s Adult and Community Music Education Special Research Interest Group, and is a directing member of the North American Coalition for Community Music.

Elizabeth Peterson is an associate professor of Music and a member of the Music Education department at the Ithaca College School of Music. An active music ed clinician at the local, state, and national levels, Peterson is also the author of The Music Teacher’s First Year: Tales of Challenge Joy and Triumph, published by Meredith Music.

N. Carlotta Parr is the coordinator of the Graduate and Undergraduate Music Education programs and a full professor at Central Connecticut State University. She is also the director of the CCSU Summer Music Institute. Parr was previously a public school music teacher (K-12) for 18 years in Arlington, Virginia.

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