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Four Questions for New Teachers

Last week, I got to do something I believe is relatively extraordinary: participate, as speaker, at a Rally for Music Education at Michigan State University. It was a great event--free pizza and cookies, lots of cheering and alma mater-singing (in four part harmony, no less).  All music education students were invited: first-years, masters candidates who are in the field teaching, student teachers, graduate students and researchers, faculty. Awards and scholarships were celebrated. Outcomes for recent graduates were announced (virtually all of them have been placed in music jobs--which 12029575_10107277654643574_2364480049294520565_o.jpgcaused a lot of smiling).  The Dean was there (he sings bass).

My remarks:

Tonight, your department has done something exceptionally rare: dedicated an evening to thinking about the meaning and purpose of your education. Ironic, isn't it? Most schools of education just launch into classes and assignments and grades and get 'er done. A department that actually wants you to think deeply about--even honor--your commitment to teaching music is exceptional. You're lucky to be here.

I started teaching junior high band 40 years ago this month. I did not ask Big Questions back then. Certainly, I had big goals. I wanted to be the best band director in the world, or at least Michigan. The only questions I ever asked were small and technical--like how to tune a French horn or where to hide the reed box money. For a long time, I barely kept my head above water, and I never talked to other music educators or the other teachers in my building about important things. It would have been---embarrassing, somehow, to discuss my philosophy of arts education. Not that I had really developed one, per se. 

Wherever you are tonight-- aspiring music educator, in the field teaching, studying the field as researcher or teacher educator--it's really easy to push big philosophical questions away. There are hundreds of things to worry about, from the polite, semi-sanitary emptying of spit valves to raising money for choir robes. But--as Michael Fullan tells us--a good theory is a useful thing. If you don't get in the habit of keeping Big Questions like these bubbling on the back burners of your mind, the magic and moral purpose of teaching music will fade or even be lost. Four questions for you to consider: 

  • What do I call myself? What is my identity? Here's my suggestion: Music teacher. Not orchestra conductor or choral director or elementary music specialist. Why? Because teacher is a time-honored word and teaching an honorable profession. And--teachers are under attack, in the media and in the aisles of your local grocery store. Your fellow teachers are your tribe. Never, ever abandon your teacher lens. Even if this is your first week in the music education program, you're a teacher now. Own it.
  • How will I work with others to promote music as a human need and right? First, get out of your music classroom as often as you can. Be curious about the work done by all the teachers in your building, district or university classes. Reach across district lines and across the hallway. Use technology to do more than compete with other programs--use teacher networks to share, and challenge each other. Never believe for a moment that you can be a good music educator by yourself. Never believe that music educators can isolate themselves from other teachers, because we're "different."
  • What matters most in the work I do? Here's a hint: it's not winning competitions or putting plaques on the wall. It's imbuing kids with life-long interest in and love of music. "Music appreciation" is an old-fashioned word--but it really goes to the heart of what the best music teachers do: hooking kids on music. Think of having a music education practice that you're continuously building and re-shaping--not a teaching job. What matters is the role of the arts in public education and American life. It's not about shows and contests and Friday nights on the football field. It's not--trust me--about practice records. 
  • So--why is an arts education important? Why is it essential? Why are the arts a human need, a human right?  This is a tough one, a question you'll be answering for the rest of your teaching life. Public education has long been under siege. In fact, we're now in real danger of losing America's best idea: a free, high-quality education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table. If you're not prepared to make a passionate, well-informed case for the necessity of teaching the arts, you probably shouldn't be here.

Making art is something human beings have been doing--literally--forever. To explain our world, to make it a better, richer place. You have a great opportunity, tonight and for the rest of your life, to teach children about their own humanity. Go for it.

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