Music & School Culture is more than Friday Night Lights

Laurie Schell • AdvocacySeptember 2021 • September 6, 2021

As teachers and families head back to school for the 2021-22 school year, there is still much uncertainty, feelings of loss and anxiety, tempered with the excitement of being back in the classroom again. Faced with the enormous task of picking up where we left off—only better– it’s time to talk again about the role music plays in creating a healthy school culture. 

Organizational culture can transform the workplace, in both positive and negative ways. Though most of us in the education arena would be hard pressed to define the elements of good school culture and how to make it better. We know it when we see it, right? 

While it takes good leadership and a host of interwoven elements to bring about a cultural shift, school leaders should be aware that a strong arts presence brings tangible benefits to overall culture, creating a learning environment that is welcoming and inclusive. Exactly what we need at this moment. A wraparound environment that supports the physical and mental health of everyone in the building.

School Culture Defined

A good working definition of the elements of school culture is found in Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge forum citing the work of Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell:

Culture is Connections

“In a strong culture, there are many, overlapping, and cohesive interactions among all members of the organization.  As a result, knowledge about the organization’s distinctive character — and what it takes to thrive in it — is widely spread and reinforced. In a weak culture, sparse interactions make it difficult for people to learn the organization’s culture, so its character is barely noticeable and the commitment to it is scarce or sporadic.”

Culture is Core Beliefs and Behaviors

“Within that weak or strong structure, what exactly people believe and how they act depends on the messages — both direct and indirect — that the leaders and others in the organization send. A good culture arises from messages that promote traits like collaboration, honesty, and hard work.”

In other words, culture in a school community reflects an organization’s distinctive character (e.g., warm/inviting vs. cold/exclusionary). Culture is a mirror of a school’s values, and it also becomes a harbinger for teacher and student morale. 

Music and the arts are vibrant and visible reminders that students and teachers are engaged in creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking— the hallmarks of a 21st Century education and also evidence of the norms and behaviors of strong school culture. Your efforts to advance the presence of music in a school community will pay off. The presence of the arts tells me there are shared values around access and equity as well as efforts to honor student voices and opportunities for expression. It tells me that there is a fundamental belief in a well-rounded education that includes music and the arts. It tells me that leadership supports the arts as a driving force that connects members of the school community, enables positive interactions, and gives the school distinctive character and flair. It tells me that music and the arts are a necessity.

What Do You Experience When You Enter A School?

As a parent or school visitor, how do you feel when you walk into an elementary school with student artwork lining the hallways, bringing learning to life with color and creativity? Or hear music coming from practices rooms and auditoriums? Or witness displays of accomplished high school artists that show great imagination, maturity, and skill? As opposed to walking through clean, but featureless hallways painted an industrial blue. Nothing on the walls to tell me this place is ALIVE.

The tangible signs of positive school culture go hand in hand with artistic culture. When I enter a school building, I want to see students with instrument cases, hear vocal and instrumental warm-ups and rehearsals, and witness impromptu pop-up performances during lunch. I want to see flyers and playbills promoting musical, theatre, dance and visual arts events and exhibitions, and students staying afterschool to rehearse. As some joke about having strong marching bands as a support to the football program, I want to see those students on the football field, learning drill and supporting each other. Research tells us that band students are among the most engaged and successful students in high school. They (and their parents) bring a positive force to the school every day, not only on Friday nights.

Give it a Try

Take a reading of music and the arts in a school building when you’re looking to gauge culture. If it isn’t as robust as you’d like, take the opportunity to start the show. Make connections, model positivity, and reflect the core values and beliefs you want to see. Use those Friday night lights to shine on the public persona, indeed the very essence of your school community. 

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education.

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