the art of teaching

I have had a little time to think about Teaching Artists programs in public schools this year. The New York Philharmonic started a School Partnership Program in 1994, and students from the Curtis Institute of Music are in in their second annual Artist Year Fellowship. The Philadelphia Orchestra has had a School Partnership Program of their own for quite some time, and although I’m sure that much more thorough research has been conducted by people far more qualified than I, I am not convinced that these programs offer the most meaningful music experiences for students in the School District of Philadelphia. Music educators have high hopes that the Every Child Succeeds Act will ensure access to music education for all students, and its passing seems to highlight insufficiencies in the School Partnership Program model. To illustrate my point, I have to make a number of assumptions about both public school music teachers and Teaching Artists who are sponsored by a community partner. Some of this data comes from Wikipedia, some from the School District of Philadelphia website, and some from articles and dissertations by Poletti, Carrick, Easton, and others.

Assumptions about public school music teaching assignments:

  • Public school music teachers teach 6 classes per day in a 9-period schedule; their lunch and prep periods take up the other 2 class periods in the school day, 1 period for travel
  • A large school district, such as the School District of Philadelphia, employs approximately 220 music teachers to serve about 130,000 students in 214 schools through 142,000 music classes annually (220 teachers x 6 classes of 34 students per day x 3 classes per week x 36 weeks)
  • Scenario #1: A 5-day class rotation — uninterrupted by assemblies, testing, vacations, etc — resulting in a public school music teacher teaching a different group of classes each day (or 175 students each day or a total of 875 different students each week)
  • Scenario #2: No class rotation resulting in a public school music teacher teaching the same 7 classes of students each day of the week, for a total of 175 students
  • Public school music teachers earn an average of $84,000/yr before taxes and deductions
  • Public school music teachers are not required to fulfill additional assignments such as coverages during the school day and duties before or after the school hours
  • Public school music teachers are not compensated for travel to/from their teaching assignment
  • The school district provides students with classroom copies of textbooks and instruments for use in class, but materials are outdated, in need of repair, or otherwise not relevant to modern topics in music education. Teachers personally provide handouts, new technologies, and other classroom aids.
  • School administrators create teacher schedules
  • Teachers are required to submit lesson plans that are aligned to state and national standards

 

Assumptions about Teaching Artists, non-certified, non-district employees:

  • Teaching Artists teach 1-3 classes per week for approximately 25 weeks
  • A Teaching Artist residency with 4 artists in 4 schools serves a student population of approximately 800 over the course of a 1-year residency (about 200 students or 6 classes of 35 students per week)
  • Teaching Artists are compensated between $50-60 per class and receive a monthly travel stipend
  • Teaching Artists are independently trained and provide their own materials to their partner schools, including music workbooks, instruments, and other teaching aids
  • Teaching Artists are required to submit lesson plans that are aligned to state and national standards
  • School administrators create Teaching Artist schedules in coordination with their sponsoring organization

 

Now, some math:

  • 4 Teaching Artists in 4 schools teaching 3 classes per week at a rate of $55/class for 25 weeks cost their sponsoring organization $16,500.00 and serve about 900 students over the course of their partnership year. This cost is about $18 per student per year or $3 per student per class.
  • 220 music teachers in 214 schools teach about 6 classes of 34 students per week (when the student population in the School District is 130,000 across K-12) for a total of 142,000 music classes annually (over 36 weeks). These teachers, with pay scaled for 10 years of experience, gross $129 per class. This costs the School District just under $4 per student per class.

 

Assuming I haven’t made any glaring errors in my calculations, $3 versus $4 per student per class doesn’t seem like a debilitating difference in cost considering that music teachers are already on payroll with the School District. Of course, the community organization bears the burden of the Teaching Artists’ fees and subjects those Teaching Artists to a rigorous screening and audition process, and a principal would appear foolish to turn down a partnership that brings additional resources into the classroom for their students. However, what this idea overlooks is the fact that there is an art to teaching and great performers do not inherently possess the skill to teach.

I am a firm believer that a teacher with the highest level of musicianship and demonstrable skill has the greatest potential to be an effective educator, but this potential is not always realized for exceptionally-talented musicians. Teaching Artists from professional music organizations are often more closely associated with their careers as performers than teachers, but they serve as a bridge between the two worlds of music-making. Music teachers find themselves in public school classrooms because they have a particular aptitude for transmitting knowledge, not because, as is so readily assumed, they lack the talent or desire to perform. A principal who engages a Teaching Artist must carefully consider the resources they already employ in their classrooms on a daily basis and understand that collaboration with outside sources might not be in the best interest of their student populations.

Instead, I would like to see community partners invest in their local schools in more meaningful and sustainable ways. The best investment would be to provide ongoing, quality professional development to the hundreds of music teachers in the School District of Philadelphia who must search for relevance in hours of staff trainings regarding classroom management and creative writing assignments. Rather than have highly skilled Teaching Artists come to teach a small population of students, engage those Teaching Artists to teach the music teachers themselves! Many public school music teachers yearn to play their instruments regularly and value opportunities to refine their skills.

What better way to do that than to use the wealth of talented musicians who perform at the Kimmel Center each week? A workshop with a cellist from The Philadelphia Orchestra teaching Class Instrumental Music Teachers best practices for starting beginning cellists is more valuable to more students for more years than a School Partnership Program Teaching Artist playing recorder with them each week for 6-10 months. Same goes for a brass player teaching a warm-up routine or a percussionist guiding a group through maintenance and preventative care. Have musicians bring their primary instrument and perform in a solo or chamber master class, or devote time during the professional development day to self-guided rehearsals with pointers, tips, and suggestions coming from a Philadelphia Orchestra musician embedded in the ensemble. Pay musicians $300 for a two-hour workshop offered on a monthly basis, and it would still cost significantly less than the Teaching Artist Program (3 musicians per day for up to 10 services could cost $9,000 but potentially have a positive effect on all students in the district, not to mention teacher morale and a sense of connection to their local symphony).

Ideally, these teacher training programs would be available at no cost to the school district or the teacher, but small fees could be justified in exchange for Act 48 credits. Engagement with The Philadelphia Orchestra musicians would be a highlight, not the main focus of the day, and other time could be spent on curriculum collaboration. I do not mean that teachers should come together monthly to participate in curriculum mapping activities — the mere mention of which could turn teachers off from participating entirely — but rather, registered teachers would need to submit a lesson plan prior to each professional development day. These lesson plans should be specific to their teaching assignment and a reflection of their best teaching strategies. Once submitted, the sponsoring organization (the School District or the community partner) can copy and distribute to all other teachers in attendance. In smaller groups, teachers would not just present their lesson but teach it to each other, complete with activities, age-appropriate language, meaningful praise and critique, and evaluation. When they go home that night, teachers who attended would take with them a binder full of new lesson plans they’ve seen in action that they can then turn around and teach in their own school assignment. Teachers who have additional certification in non-music subject areas could present lessons that incorporate math, science, language arts, or history-based activities linked to music.

 
Maybe these professional development days have additional sponsors that let them take home samples or classroom aids. Examples of these might be sample student-level strings from D’Addario or Thomastik-Infeld, study scores from JWPepper or Alfred, back issues of Strings, Strad, or American String Teacher magazine, or discounts for local music services, performances, or wellness activities. Most importantly, teachers should leave feeling like they were challenged, enlightened, and inspired. These and similar offerings from community partners can have a lasting positive effect on a teacher’s understanding and transmission of knowledge to students for the duration of their career.

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