On Music Ed in Plymouth: The Outlook Is Good, But the Struggle Is Real at the Half-Hour Frontier
At the fabulous PCIS middle school winter concert this week, choral director Jess Fuller reminded the full auditorium, as she always does so elegantly, that the Plymouth Public Schools district is graciously supportive of its arts, with full strings, choral, and band programs, theater, and a variety of visual arts programs from elementary to high school, including an A/V program called EdTV. Students perform with the Plymouth Philharmonic, they go to England to sing and to make art, and they are invited to perform at almost every important community event.
Middle school and high school teachers have beautiful airy spaces in which to teach, fully stocked classrooms, and a busy teaching schedule that includes not just band and chorus, but also guitar classes, general music, music history, and theater arts. Students take their classes as parts of their day; they are legit classes so don't need to be taken out of other core subjects to experience music and the arts. This is key. Remember this point.
We also have general music in every school; these are the classroom music teachers. As part of a well-rounded education, all elementary students are required to take one hour of music a week, one hour of art, and of course one hour PE and one of library/technology. Most classroom music teachers at the elementary level have their own classrooms, except in schools where space is impossibly restricted. Their rooms are full of sound-making instruments and teaching aids that they purchase with their very reasonable district-provided budgets. Most, I suspect, get great support from other teachers in the building. Classroom teachers love those hours when the kids are at specialists, and thus love those specialist teachers, because for one thing, it affords them their desperately needed planning time and a recharge for their mental and emotional batteries. Their kids often come back happy, and research shows that happy kids learn better, and creative kids make better math, science, and writing.
The district administration every year reminds all teachers that the arts matter. At teachers’ Opening Day every August, the superintendent Dr. Gary Maestas finds a way to feature a special performance of student musicians and singers, putting music squarely at the center of an important event attended by every teacher in the entire district—more than 800 of them. And it seems that every year, one of the “Inspiration” teacher awards given that day goes to an art or music teacher. That is impressive, considering we are a minority number among teachers.
The community, too, loves its arts program. The seats of the high school auditoriums are chock full for musicals and band, orchestra, and chorus concerts, and the quality of its theater staging and the performance level is far above what you might expect for local school productions.
We also have a full instrumental program, in which students can choose to learn an instrument and are pulled out of classes for a half hour a week to learn. The district designed the pull-out model because as a district, at the administrative level, it is believed that students are getting something of high value to their education. By allowing pull-outs, it is implied that learning an instrument matters just as much as the math, science, reading, or writing that students may be missing for one half hour of their total learning time each week. We instrumental teachers are grateful.
Not everyone loves that pull-out, though. That half hour, at the school level, is the last frontier, the place where the questions of meaning and priority are still being asked. Is music learning important enough that a child misses a half hour of math a week to come take a lesson? Do instrumental teachers really need a full teaching space if they’re only at each school one or two days a week? Are they really offering the kids something that matters just as much as other core subjects? We know as instrumental teachers that the answer is yes, of course, but we’re too busy teaching kids to sit down to filter, condense, and convey the abundant research that proves that this kind of learning benefits our kids brains just as much as other subjects. Plus, justification is not really supposed to be a teacher’s job.
In elementary schools where lots of students are excited about learning instruments, it's possible that a teacher could lose up to 15 kids at a time to pull-outs. True, it only happens one day a week, but every minute of classroom time is precious. Under our current educational model, teachers are held publicly accountable for their results, which right now are measured as numbers on test scores. Incontestable fact: Teachers are under immense pressure to ensure that their students perform well on standardized tests. Every minute matters to the music teachers too, and it is on us to find ways to justify the value of that half hour and explain why it deserves to be half-decently appointed—not the corner of the cafeteria, hallway, or supply closet that’s been offered in some cases. We know, we know: Schools are bulging. We totally get it! It’s hard to find teaching space for teachers who are here only two days a week. We get that too! Math and reading matter: We sure do get it! Teachers are under pressure! Reread sentences 3 and 4 of this paragraph. And: Kids need clean teeth! (Yes, yes.)
We are here; you are paying us. We are as grateful as every other teacher, and we do know we matter in the scheme of things; Dr. Maestas reminds us that every year in his beautiful way. We know intuitively that learning an instrument benefits our kids in all of their classes. We also know that they will learn best if they are given a full half hour in a quiet, dedicated space that is free from distraction and supported by the visual aids necessary to reinforce their teacher’s words.