From the Shadows: the Current and Possible Role of Arts in the Schools

I am writing this from the perspective of a music teacher, but I speak on what I both imagine and have heard to be the perceptions of the role of arts in schools by many arts teachers across the public and private/charter school communities.

I came into the public schools with a couple of music game books, a B.A. in Contemporary Music, and the naïve idea that I might walk in and make musicians out of the entire diverse population of that school consisting of hundreds of students. I had worked at private and charter schools mostly, where the population was small and the diversity could easily be spotted and addressed by simply looking around the room.

I completed my first year in the public sector with impressive results to anyone who was paying attention, though I had grown much wiser to the overwhelming situation at hand. I was of course then fired for budget reasons – another, perhaps weightier eye-opener than the realization that all of my students wouldn’t necessarily be playing scales by the time they went from Kindergarten to 1st grade.

The firing, however, I will leave. I hear many wise parents despondent over the fact that art and music teachers are the first to go in a budget crisis, and I would rather address what I consider a much more subtle, insidious problem regarding the arts factor in schools: that we should just be glad we have our jobs, so we shouldn’t ask for much, and we shouldn’t ruffle any feathers.

We are fun. That’s the bottom line perception. If we’re not fun and we get away with it, it’s because we have tenure. Just think for a second about what you think a music teacher ought to provide: if you share public opinion, you’re thinking of something you will be able to quickly identify as a clever synonym for the word “fun.”

The other idea you have about a music teacher might be the important relief we provide to the real teachers – oops, I mean classroom teachers. Well, I will get back to this – I have an idea to make this piece better for everyone, but I’ll get back to it.

At this point I would like to assure any reader agreeing with the last two paragraphs, whether willingly or hesitantly, that your opinions of my job are not your fault. They are, however, problematic to our culture and also pretty insulting.

If you’re still reading, perhaps I don’t need you to read, and I take that on myself. I alienate people. I have a bitter edge. In my defense, I have dedicated my entire life to something “fun” – an endeavor most of you probably think I should’ve grown out of a long time ago.

The fact is, our society pigeonholes music as entertainment rather than art, and my role in the schools is a sterling example of that compartmentalization. If I were still pushing the entertainment goals of my youth, the highest achievement in sight would be that of a rock-star – a gratuitous and romanticized shot in the dark, lotto-ticket winning pop singer with some sort of instrument dangling under his replaceable fingers; a lucky bastard whose highest accomplishment has more to do with privilege than talent or vision, and who, when replaced, would be lucky to be remembered following an untimely, unsightly demise.

Or — or we musicians eventually teach.

I have a Masters in Arts in jazz – a highly-sophisticated subset of music. In performance, this is a lofty, lifelong, improvisational path one will always look to achieve having once been touched by its possibilities. In education, this broader discipline – music is being referred to very comfortably within my profession as an “activity.”

Yes, it has come to this. What I do is not so much teach as provide a short period of activities – I am an “Activity Teacher.”

The problem is that when you take a back-up plan, even realizing the frustrating limitations set up from within it, you might just get hooked by the rewards. In this case, the rewards all (and I mean that word in the most exclusive sense possible) come from the students. Yes, those little rug-rats, those little tykes, the kids themselves. Once you see you can change and/or light up their lives, or even just their days – make them aware of some small piece that might eventually make a difference in their futures, you may very well find, as I have, that you really are quite boned.

So you get better at it – make the rough edges a little smoother, work your way in to where you’re doing borderline or actual volunteer work everyone will thank you for, at first. I managed to get approval for what I originally called “music enhancement,” and later started calling Music Club. One of my “prep” hours is now being used to work on tunes above and beyond the expectations of the weekly classroom experience – and I have a full classroom, plus a short waiting list of fifth graders who have gotten involved.

So what am I complaining about? It’s a pecking order. Since what is happening in my classroom is called an activity, it is not being properly defined as actual learning. So when I get young students to compose little tunes, contribute lyrics from their own experiences into a blues song while explaining the context of slavery, or when I am convincing shy children to come to an out-of-tune piano and take turns improvising melodies with a partner, I am not opening doors to the students’ aesthetics, hidden intelligence, talents, passions, and who knows, maybe even sending one of our next visionary musicians off into the next phase; I am, by the language of it, simply keeping kids busy.

I don’t mean to downplay the “fun” factor. It is a riot singing “Blue Suede Shoes” with sixty-plus K-through-3rd graders in front of their parents, and in the classroom there is much to be said for playing silly little dancing games with them, after having put in my ambitious two cents for thirty-five minutes.

But read the State Standards meant to be addressed in my classroom, and I can guarantee you won’t be reading much fun into the program. They seem stuffy, academically researched, and dryly-categorized by grade – but the fact is, I agree with them. I wish that research had been done before I was a third grader, playing clarinet in band (yes, before the Bushes there were band instruments at the grade-school level – in Los Angeles, anyway). The closest I ever came to improvising, as I recall, was adding a bit of swing to “Twinkle Little Star.”

If I try to lead us down the music-education-theory trail, we will never return. The almighty test score is the main excuse for pushing me aside, and though research has shown that it’s a fallacy to push me aside even in that regard, to hell with it. I’m not going for a PhD in how what I do helps what all of us are supposed to be trying to do, so I can stop doing what I do and tell others what to do.

I’m not writing to brag, but neither am I going to contort myself into a modest pose any longer. I have seen faces and heard comments from kids enough by now to know that something is happening in my classes – something strange and marvelous to them – and that’s a good thing. But the fact that I see them once a week at best, that I am considered the last thing on their list of needs, and that when it comes time for collaboration, I’m meant to keep eating ideas from other people throughout the year while contributing nothing but a bunch of cute songs to bust out around Christmas sometime, is flat out bullshit. If you hired a couple more of us “activity” teachers, not only could we make our own teaching experiences more meaningful by spending more time with fewer kids, but we could take pressure off of the “classroom” teachers more consistently, and on and on the good feelings would go. Those long days at school would go flying by as if they only lasted several hours.

Final points are this: if you were a little disappointed the last time you went out to see a show, or at the last couple of art openings you went to, call your representative and ask that we school teachers in the arts be treated with a little god-damned respect for a change. And if you are passionate and invested in an art form yourself, don’t let all those subtly demeaning comments, expressions, and circumstances bother you – most people just really don’t know any better.