MAC Corner: Living The L.I.F.E. With Your Administrators

Mike Lawson • Best Tools for Schools • October 22, 2015

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Greetings! On behalf of the Music Achievement Council, we hope your school year is off to a wonderful start! Here are some ideas about working with your administrator. These ideas are based on one of the best administrators I have ever worked with!

If you just started your teaching career, or if you have been teaching for many years, the types of administrators you work with vary a great deal. In my experiences working with department chairs, assistant principals, deans, district coordinators, and superintendents, I have seen it all…the quiet ones, the passionate ones, the friendly ones, the humble ones, and on and on and on. For every kind of personality you can think of, there is that type of administrator. Some of them left the classroom early on in their career for a chance to lead a particular aspect of a school district. Some joined the administration team late in their career because their leadership was needed. Again, no matter what the situation, they are in a leadership role and recognizing this is crucial. These great people have been trusted with a large responsibility. From carrying out the vision of the school district, to keeping the students and staff safe in their building, it all falls on their plate and we have to recognize the broad scope with which they see a school.

When it comes down to it, let’s be honest, you cannot accomplish much in your music department without the blessing of at least one administrator. Someone has to sign the bottom line, and therefore they hold the proverbial “keys” to our dreams and goals in a lot of ways. However, an administrator can do a lot more than just approve budget line expenses and help you with discipline issues from time to time.

Realizing the potential of an administrator’s support for the music program is an important way to connect the leadership of a school to the students in your bands, orchestras, and choirs.

 The one thing that has remained true about all of the administrators I have worked with over the years, is that they all want to to do what is best for everyone in their school. You may not always feel that way, but perspective is everything. Think of the variety of teachers and leaders in our school; it can become overwhelming and impossible at times to please everyone. The stronger advocates for programs and initiatives in your building probably receive favor, which causes resentment amongst other teachers that do not receive the same favor. This then causes a perceived “imbalance” from the greater community of teachers, students, and parents. Meanwhile, the administrator is simply trying to support the people who have new ideas or a stronger way to advocate for their program. Your administrator wants to support you and the music program. We just have to understand how.

 Seven years ago I took a position at a brand new school, Metea Valley High School (Indian Prairie School District 204) in Aurora, Illinois. The district already had a national reputation for its music program, so it was expected that Metea Valley, along with Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley High Schools would grow into a great school with a strong community support for the arts. The person trusted with the principal position of this school was a seasoned administrator, and his name was Jim Schmid. Mr. Schmid was the best administrator I have ever had the pleasure of working under. He made things very clear, concise, and professional, and it was easy to see his vision. The more I learned to see things through the eyes of Mr. Schmid, the more success I had in my job. It is important that we are able to see things from the lead position, whether we agree or not, we have to recognize their perspective.

 One of the most successful things Mr. Schmid did for our school was creating a vision. Jim, along with other administrators and student leaders developed an easy-to-remember acronym for the way we were going to develop the climate of this school. We call it the Metea L.I.F.E., which stands for:

• Live with Integrity

• Inspire Passion for Learning

• Foster Positive Relationships

• Expect Equity and Excellence For All

 Jim has since retired, and a new principal has stepped into that position. This  L.I.F.E. statement was something that Jim helped create, but he developed the Metea  L.I.F.E. for Metea, not for himself, and so it lives on now that he is no longer the principal. I would have to say that Jim is the greatest administrator I have worked with because he was able to live out the Metea  L.I.F.E.. I am sure that you work in a school that has a similar vision statement. I would encourage you to look to that statement and make sure that the music program is operating amongst those goals. I would also encourage you to borrow the  L.I.F.E. statement and apply it to your own situation when working with your administration. Here is a look at a few examples of how you can apply this:

 Live with Integrity

Jim always said, “Tell me exactly what you need, no more, no less.” What he was asking for was the truth. If he didn’t have the truth, he couldn’t do his job effectively. Do what is best for your school by always requesting the truthful amount of money, time, or resources that it takes to fulfill the mission and vision of whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. Don’t compare, just be upfront and honest. Know when you are wrong and be able to admit it. I have learned over my years that my greatest mistakes are my greatest learning experiences. Lastly, when having tough conversations with students, parents, other teachers, whatever the situation, always tell the truth. Don’t sugar coat situations and tell parents or students that “if you do this,” “then you get that.” Every time I’ve done that, it always blows up in my face and creates further problems. Be professional, but upfront with all of the facts. If you have a problem with something or someone, make a strategy with your administrator to try and solve the problem. Don’t go it alone, you’ll never win.

Inspire Passion for Learning

Jim Schmid was a great principal because although he didn’t have a degree in music, he knew if teachers were passionate leaders. I remember my first observation with Mr. Schmid because he visited my classroom right around the time of a concert. He observed one of my classes, and then a day or two later he came to the Grand Opening Concert at Metea Valley. The concert was great, my students were young and having come from a large program conducting the top band at that school, I was was a little embarrassed at our performance. The T’s were not crossed as nicely as I was used to and the I’s were not dotted with perfection. If you are anything like I am, these things really affect me at a performance sometimes, and I let those things disappoint instead of just cheerleading through and hoping I’ll teach things better next time.

 Mr. Schmid and I met a few days later for my post-observation conference, and he thoroughly reviewed my lesson, showing me his observation notes and asking me to set some goals…pretty typical, nothing out of the norm. After we finished with the observation discussion, he asked me “How do you think the concert went?” I replied with, “Great!” Then he said something I’ll never forget….. “It seems like you were holding back.” I responded honestly and told him that I WAS holding back. I was letting little details affect my passion for teaching and learning. For a self-proclaimed NON-musician to notice this, what did my music colleagues think, and most importantly, what did my STUDENTS think? It was Mr. Schmid bringing this out in me that helped me realize that I wanted to bring more passion to my teaching. Administrators do not teach in the classroom, but I know they respect what WE do in the classroom a great deal. If I were an administrator and I knew that a teacher was holding back in some way, I would want to know why and if there were anything I could do to help them not feel like they couldn’t put it “all on the table!” I ended up leaving that meeting thinking that I had let him down, and that I had let my students down. I also walked into my class the next day and changed my ball game for the better. I haven’t looked back since. My suggestion is that you ask yourself “Am I holding back in some way”? If so, find out what that area is and expect more from yourself in that area. Administrators want to believe in their staff. Does your administrator believe in you? If they do, they will support you.

Foster Positive Relationships

It is important that your administrator sees you as a person that can develop relationships in the school. Your administrators know the power a music program can bring to a school. The arts provide a unique opportunity to bring community members into the schools as well as connect all learning areas together. Your perspective can be of great value to a school. Mr. Schmid was unlike any principal I have ever had because he walked around the school and into classrooms and talked with students, teachers, volunteers, et cetera. He was in the school cultivating relationships at all times. I can tell you that out of a school of 2,500 students, I’m pretty sure he knew just about every name of every student walking the building.

It is far too easy to stay down in the music wing of your building. It is far too easy to see your job as so time consuming that you don’t time to create friendships at work. It is far too easy to spend your prep period tackling your to-do list. Take time to go observe other teachers in your area or out of your area. Take time to celebrate in your department. Take time to meet people you don’t know. This is where I secretly envy those who work in a small school. You get to know everyone! I work in a large school. Just the other day I met a physics teacher that has been working in our building for five years, and I didn’t even know his name! Your administrator knows that you, the music teacher, are amazing at working with people. Begin to be a better example of how to foster positive relationships within your school.

Expect Equity and Excellence for All

Mr. Schmid expected equity and excellence for all. This is where he showed his fairness, his understanding, and his listening skills. I always felt that Mr. Schmid knew that the music program was a crucial and vital part of the school. He made us feel that important by attending concerts and stopping by rehearsals and wishing the students good luck. He also understood that Metea Valley could not become Metea Valley without the music program, but he did not think it was his job to communicate that. The trick is that he gave us opportunities to tell him why the music program was important. He expected each department to be a strong advocate for their own program. I suspect that each department in this school felt like Metea Valley could not have become Metea Valley without their department or program. Mr. Schmid was great at helping people see the important role they play in the larger scheme of a school.

 So, advocate for the music program in a way that promotes the arts, and promotes an education. It’s too easy to advocate for music, and it comes off as selfish at times. Instead, focus on why the arts are a critical attribute to a whole education. Focus on showing parents and students why the arts are essential create a competitive edge for getting into college. Use every opportunity to show your administrator that an arts education is vital to a school community. Do this by inviting administrators to important music events like a Tri-M Induction Ceremony, or a Music Awards night. Have them provide a keynote speech or an introduction to the night so that they endorse the music department as an important part of the school. Give them speaking or writing opportunities to express their support of the arts. Go beyond your administration in this endeavor and find successful alumni who can come back to your school and express their viewpoint on their education. Was there something about their experience in the arts that helped them be successful in college or in their career? Find opportunities with community members, board of education members, and town leaders to place their “stamp of support” for an arts education. Your administrator would love to do this for you, but they are waiting for you to be the advocate for your program. If you don’t know where to start, check out the Music Achievement Council’s work at where you can find helpful resources by teachers, for teachers, to help you advocate for your program.

 If you can use these  L.I.F.E. statements to help you work with your administration in a more upfront, student centered, and arts-centered way, you will undoubtedly come out ahead later! Good luck!

 Glen Schneider, in his 15th year teaching, is a music educator at Metea Valley High School, Aurora, IL, where he teaches a variety of wind and percussion classes, directs the Marching Mustangs, Jazz Orchestra, Metea Valley Symphony Orchestra, and is the music department PLC Leader.  He is an adjunct instructor at VanderCook College of Music where he teaches several courses for the MECA Graduate Studies program.  He has been involved with the Music Achievement Council since 2008, in an ongoing effort to bring music teachers and key members of the music industry together, to connect, promote, and provide helpful resources to music teachers, parents, and students. 

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