High Needs Monumental Successes Teaching Music to Low-Income and Underserved Students

Jon Bubbett • Bubbett's BookshelfSeptember 2022 • September 5, 2022

There are two sides to every teaching job. The “subject content” or the “craft” side of teaching; the reality that making music is the very thing that brought us to this profession in the first place. And then there is the “everything else” or the “job” side of teaching. Don Stinson has done a masterful job of detailing, providing insight, suggesting solutions, and giving us the words to use on the “everything else” side of our profession. This deep dive into the “job” side is examined through the lens of low-income and rural settings. However, it is also an invaluable resource for teaching in ALL situations regardless of subject matter, socioeconomic standing, or availability of resources.

From the foreword: “It is not a student or their socioeconomic background that results in their success. It is the willingness and desire of the educator to bring out the excellence within students.”

The book can be read from cover to cover but can be used more practically as a user’s manual. The author invites you to browse through the table of contents and read the sections that are important to you then.

The scenarios and the scenario responses are perhaps the most valuable features. Not only are challenging situations detailed, but the reader is invited to think through them independently, then compare their responses to the authors. Here, we find options and specific words to help us respond appropriately. These responses have been formulated and refined through many years of not only teaching low-income and underserved students, but also from having grown up and been educated in that exact setting. This is not a theoretical “you should do this” type of book. Instead, his research is born from having lived it as both a young student and a teacher. 

You will also find several provocative and intriguing approaches to teaching that might challenge your thoughts on what we have traditionally come to accept as the tried-and-true way of running our classes. These approaches spring from experience and the reality of low-income/rural situations and necessity. 

While all areas of this book are exceptional, the ending chapter, “What About the Teacher? Work-Life Balance,” is especially relevant in a post-COVID climate. Thoughts on setting boundaries between work and our personal lives are very illuminating. Recognizing we have limits and should not be “draining our batteries.” Putting ourselves first at times and taking care of ourselves. In Stinson’s words: “Selflessness is an admirable quality. Neglecting yourself, however, is neither healthy nor productive” and “Teaching will never be stress-free, but concerning ourselves with attainable goals, appropriate time commitments, and overall self-care can help us avoid career and personal burn-out and help us thrive.”

The book is divided into five parts:

Part One – Characteristics of a Low-Income/High Needs Student

This part details what poverty means, the students it affects, who they are, and digging deeper into knowing your school. Many topics are examined, including observations of low-income students, the cost of being poor, what is negotiable in our programs, attendance, and family/mobility issues. 

Part Two – Understanding “Why” and Acting with Empathy

This has valuable information for teachers of ALL disciplines, not just music. These topics include knowing and embracing your situation, dealing with perceptions, how possessions and respect take on high levels of importance, how some kids must make adult choices, and how family structures vary.

Part Three: So What Can We Do?

This section is the longest in the book and is packed with ideas to deal with low-income students and seemingly hopeless situations. Some may contradict how we think a traditional music program should be run, but these are not traditional programs and need ideas and practices that reflect their school and community. 

Some of these topics include breaking traditions, thoughts on practicing, communication, fostering value and self-respect, behavior expectations and classroom management, mental health as it relates to impoverished students, programming, and adapting music for the needs of your ensemble.

Part Four – Money, Parent Groups, Student Travel

This relates to the financial side of running your programs. Title I funds, how to ask for money, initiating grants, and discovering other resources to benefit your students. Travel opportunities for low-income programs are also discussed, as is fundraising.

Part Five – Competition, Motivation, and the Teacher

Competitions: are they suitable and realistic for your program? Are the stakes too high?  What level of motivation do they require?


The author’s words speak for themselves:

“Working in a low-income needs area is an opportunity and not a sentence.”

“Every person, regardless of race, culture, gender affiliation, socioeconomic status, or personality, deserves a good teacher.”

By Don Stinson • 2021 GIA Publications • 335p • $25.95

Jon Bubbett is an experienced music educator and composer who will be a clinician at the 2022 Midwest Clinic, presenting “Taking the Fear Out of the Mystery: An Approach to Sight Reading at Music Performance Assessment.”

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