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Thomas J. West Music

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In Music Education, Longevity Matters

Posted on September 29, 2016 at 7:05 PM

As of this writing, I am entering my nineteenth year as an American public school music educator. My career has taken many unexpected twists and turns, leading me to teach in four different school districts. In my current setting, I teach sixth through twelfth grade band and strings for a small performing and fine arts program attached to a cyber charter school. It is a unique and challenging setting with its own unique fringe benefits and equally unique detriments. Despite those detriments, I have been in this teaching position now for nine years - my longest tenure at any secondary school. It becomes apparent this year that my longevity in this position is finally starting to reap benefits and bear fruit.

My thoughts on this topic are spurred on not only by my experiences this school year, but also by the departure from the profession of one of my colleagues who got his music education degree at the same time I did at Penn State. This friend was a middle school and high school band director who was very successful and was finishing up a sabbatical for a masters degree, then abruptly left the profession permanently. Another classmate from school left the band directing profession a few years back to become a minister. These were good teachers, who did right by their students and fought the good fight, and they gave it all up for their own personal reasons.

I had one year of my nineteen where I was not employed full-time, surviving between subbing, private lesson money, and marching band judging paychecks. It was at that juncture that I considered, just once, leaving the profession for good. I actually did a job interview for a career as a piano tuner. I considered working for Vanguard as well. I was tired of the struggle described by this article from 2013 in The Atlantic and this more recent article about teachers moonlighting as Uber drivers. I had moved through various school districts, teaching in communities where the arts weren't valued, or the tax base was poor, or the arts were valued but "being the best at everything" was all that mattered. Even now, I work for a charter school where our facilities do not meet the program's needs adequately, the teachers salaries are not competitive, and at-will employment gives teachers no effective way to negotiate for better conditions. My wife and I work 1 full-time job and 5 part-time jobs between the two of us in order to make ends meet.

Through all of this trepidation, it comes as a surprise this fall that the small instrumental music program that I have labored to grow for the last eight years is finally showing signs of maturing as a program. This maturation comes because of one thing: longevity.

Students Who Stick With the Program Thrive

Yes, it doesn't hurt that I have been in one place for nine years. However, the program at my school is very atypical, so a nine year investment is apparently the minimum required to start to show some results. There is no elementary feeder program to build on. Instead, students audition to get into the program and come from elementary and high school programs from a five-county area in Southeast PA. Because it is a cyber charter school, the student population tends to be very transient. They try us for a few years, then bounce out and go somewhere else. Or, they bounce in for their last two years of high school to prep to go into the arts as a higher ed career choice. Because of the nature of this transient program and the small size of the instrumental program (I average about 35 students per year over six grades), most band and orchestra students depart for other great local programs with full sized bands and orchestras. This year's high school "orchestra" class is different, however.

I use "orchestra" in quotes because the high school orchestra class is 16 students with an instrumentation of violin, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, and one lone trumpet. However, of those 16 students, 14 of them are returning students, and 12 of them have been in my program for three or more years. They have actually invested in the program and in each other, and as a result, they are performing at a level that is comparable to any of their traditional public school counterparts in our area of the state. They perform well enough now that I can no longer combine them with the middle school students for concerts. They've bought in to the program, and now I'm giving them new challenges to conquer. They are rising to the challenge and as a group are on their way to being the best high school orchestra class we have ever had.

Meanwhile in the middle school, the eighth grade class I have is made up of eight students, seven of which are returning members, and five of which have been in the program for three years. They are prepped to join the high school next year with performing skills that will mesh well with the sixteen I already have (minus three graduating seniors). Again, they have invested in the program, stuck with it, and are enjoying the benefits that experience and achievement extol upon them. If these students stay with it, the high school orchestra class will be at 21 next year - the largest it has ever been. 

Longevity is hard. It takes a lot of work to stick with it and succeed step by step, skill by skill, student by student. I am hopeful that these students continue to invest in the program, and that the new challenges I am placing on them will wow their audiences and get the middle school students fired up to join them. 

This article (c) 2016 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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