How Can I Help? The Power of Positive Peers and Selfless Students

Mike Lawson • Inclusion • December 5, 2019

Belonging: it is something every human seeks. To be able to identify with another group of people through shared experiences, beliefs, or kinship is fundamental to our nature, and essential to our existence.

Our greatest comfort in infancy and childhood is the knowledge that we are cared for, valued, and belong in a family.

Throughout our lives, we continue to seek this comfort and security. If you’re reading this article – and you aren’t in a dentist’s office (though any dentist carrying the latest SBO would certainly have my business) – then you likely found band or orchestra to be one of those places of belonging.

As a child of the 1980s, the “Just Say No” campaign warned me of the dangers of peer pressure, and equipped grade school children with the tools to resist negative influences they might encounter. While this philosophy has kept numerous young people out of harm’s way, I am very much interested in the idea of peer influence (let us eschew the word “pressure” with its negative connotations) as a catalyst for accomplishing shared objectives in school organizations such as musical ensembles. The most influential figures in any music classroom are not the teachers, but the “influencers” – to borrow a social media term – that may or may not be leaders with titles, but dictate trends and behaviors, nonetheless. As you read this, you may be able to bring to mind those “influencers” in your own program; some of you with smiles, and perhaps some with groans! The key to creating and sustaining a culture of positive peer leadership in your program lies with affecting change among small groups of students, then allowing their natural influence to permeate the entirety of the organization.

Over 16 years of teaching, I have identified one trait that stands above all others in creating a positive culture in any organization: selflessness. To be sure, qualities like integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, dependability are all essential keys to effective leadership, but they may all be encompassed in the quality of selflessness.

The root of many of the undesirable behaviors of young people is selfishness. Selfish students show up late because they value their own time more than that of their peers; selfless students arrive early to make sure no one has to wait on them. Selfish students do not come prepared for rehearsal because they deemed some other pursuit as more important and force their peers to wait on them to catch up; selfless students sacrifice time outside of rehearsal to ensure that their time in rehearsal is well-spent and efficient. Selfish students leave a mess; selfless students arrive early, stay late, and always ask “how can I help?” Of course, we all want selfless students in our programs, and specifically in positions of leadership, but how can we help our students grow in this quality in a world that increasingly sets forth selfishness as something to be praised? I have found several things to be effective to this end.

Beyond a sense of belonging simply through membership in an organization, this is amplified by students feeling that they are essential to the group. As a teacher, we should seek to find as many ways as possible for students to serve the group, and they should have a feeling that says, “If I’m not there, then this simply won’t get done.” These students feel Valued, Important, and Prioritized (VIP), and “VIP” students become students who sacrifice for the sake of others. Once students get a taste of the satisfaction of making others feel better about themselves, they will want more and more of that feeling! One fantastic outlet for the expression of this service mindset is United Sound, whose mission is to provide musical performance experiences for students with special needs through peer mentorship. As a high school band director in Louisiana, I saw my band students transform as they were given the opportunity to work with students with special needs in coaching them as New Musicians in our band program. When they saw the joy that they were able to bring through giving of their time and ability, they began seeking other ways to serve in the band program. They included their New Musician friends in everything from breakfast and lunch to the year-end band banquet, but this culture of inclusion did not stop with United Sound participants; these students began to identify students within the organization who may feel ignored and began to reach out and develop relationships that previously did not exist. It came down to this: when students stopped focusing solely on their own desires and needs, and they prioritized the needs and feelings of others, a culture of inclusion became the practice, and practice often begets tradition.

That is a tradition I’m sure we can all embrace.

Dr. Andrew Hunter is the associate director of bands at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he directs the UTEP Marching Miners, the Symphonic Band, teaches conducting, and serves as the lead recruiter for the department of music. He holds degrees from The University of Tennessee, Northwestern State University, and The University of Southern Mississippi, where he served on faculty. He has taught at the middle school, high school, and collegiate levels, and is active as a clinician, conductor, and adjudicator. He was recently elected to the National Advisory Board for United Sound, whose mission is to provide musical performance experiences for students with special needs through peer mentorship.

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