Back in the Gym

Remember this picture?

This was my classroom when I started teaching in the Reynolds School District: a gymnasium. The acoustics were atrocious, the space made even the best-behaved kids a bit loopy, and I had to put all my equipment--truckloads of xylophones, metallophones, and whatever else I might be using--away in a storage room every afternoon, because I couldn't trust either the after school program or the evening basketball league to treat it with respect. That was my reality in two different schools for the entire year 2013-14, and led me to seek employment elsewhere during the summer. I didn't find any.

When I came back to Scott Elementary a year ago, I found that my situation had partially improved: I was in a classroom now, though I had to share a third of it with a computer lab/English Language Development program. Most of the time, this wasn't too challenging: I could've used more room, and sometimes the more challenging kids would run to the other side of the divider to hide from me, but by and large, I was happy to be out of the gym. I did feel sorry for the people working on the other side of that divider, though, especially when I was teaching recorder or drum circle. And then my principal dropped a bombshell on me: I was going to be back in the gym at the beginning of the new school year. Again, I looked for work elsewhere, came close to landing one of those jobs, but ultimately found myself coming back to Scott--and a situation that was even worse than what I'd expected.

So here it is, ladies and gentlemen: I now spend half of my day in classrooms, allowing the gym to be used for PE. The other half of the day, I'm in the gym. My mornings I teach with what I can carry into those classrooms. The best-equipped music room in the Reynolds district is mostly in storage. I'll be pulling the Orff instruments out if I can talk the district into providing me with some kind of room divider to protect them from errant basketballs when I'm not in the gym, but I've got nowhere near the access to them I enjoyed last year, when I could pull out a tenor-alto instrument on a whim to teach a melody or accompany a story I was telling. And when I can use those instruments, it is, again, in the gym, where the echoing noise of one fidgety child can make it impossible for an entire class to concentrate on the lesson.

Meanwhile, in the district office, there's been another disappointment: for two years, music teachers had an advocate there, an assistant superintendent who had a vision for bringing the program back out of the wilderness it had been in since the economic crash of 2009. He had a 3-5 year plan to get full time music back in every building, in a real classroom.

Over the summer, he left the district to take a job with Portland Public Schools. His successor is a technocrat, a man who sees the job as crossing t's, dotting i's, and saying "Sorry, no" over and over again to the three of us who coordinate spending on music. The computer upgrade we were all promised? Gone. The restoration of full-time positions? Not his bailiwick. The room dividers that were supposed to mitigate the dreadful conditions for two of us of teaching in the gym? He's looking into it, he says--but I'm going to be asking him for the third time this week if he's made any progress, and I'm expecting to hear another "Sorry, no." I'm reminded of this ominous verse from the first chapter of Exodus: "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph."

There's a new pharaoh in the district office, and he's booting us back into the wilderness.

I've also had my student contact time reduced. Our new principal found it far easier to schedule me to just one music lesson a week with each class, plus having the entire grade together in the gym for something she calls "Rhythms." I'll be team-teaching this with our half-time PE teacher. It makes the classroom teachers happy, because they get common grade-level planning time. But it means half the time I spend with these children is a glorified indoor recess.

Oh, and whenever the gym's needed for something, I can either move what few classes I have left with the older grades into their classrooms (and forget about using anything I can't carry, such as a piano)--or suck it up and try to teach alongside the noise that will be generated by the taking of school pictures at the other end of the room, for instance; or have my kids spend their music time helping to set up chairs for the community meeting that night.

We were so hopeful last year. It really looked like music was making a comeback. People talked about how wonderful it was to hear music in the building. There was so much lip service paid to the importance of music to the children. But lip service was all that it was. As we've experienced repeatedly for the last half century, music education, however valuable it may be, is the lowest priority of anything Oregon school districts spend money on. We are the first to be laid off, the last to be rehired. The rooms where we teach, some of them designed by us to better accommodate music classes, are snapped up as soon as the student population grows. I've seen music rooms turned into office space where two or three reading specialists see at most a half dozen children at a time, while music classes are consigned to gyms, storage rooms, windowless spaces that, if the fire marshal knew they were being used as classrooms, would earn the school a fine. That's if the teacher is lucky enough to have any space at all, as I'm learning in my now-itinerant schedule.

That new administrator told me we probably could've had a portable classroom for me--if the principal had requested it in January, instead of defaulting to sending me back to the gym. I told him as forcefully as I could that we need to get that request going NOW for next year. I told him, as well, that the shuttling of music teachers from space to space is hurting the district's retention of quality teachers. And he told me, in return, that getting a portable didn't mean I'd keep it as a classroom: should the student population grow again, I would, of course, be booted once more.

I believe deeply that music education is a high calling, that learning music helps children grow into better human beings, and I see it in my students. They love coming to music classes, wherever they may be, but they are as frustrated as I am when they can't hear what I'm trying to teach them because the echo is so bad, or when I have to tell them they won't be using the Orff instruments at all this year because there's no place for those instruments to live. What I teach matters as much to their development as reading or math, and much more than the standardized tests that necessitate turning potential music rooms into computer labs (the reason I can't be back in that space I had last year, in fact: the sound of my lessons was interfering with testing).

I believe it so profoundly that I'll keep doing it, however low a priority my subject matter is to the administration. I'll do it because I love my students, and they love what I teach. That interaction--sharing music with them, seeing it catch fire in their voices, their hands, their bodies--will sustain me through this year. I'm not sure it'll take me into the next year, though: if I don't have a guarantee of a dedicated music room, I'll be looking even harder for a job somewhere else that the claims of how important music is to children are more than platitudes.


  1. Mark, I am dumbfounded. I will never ever ever complain about my heating issue in my room again. I am going to give you a special place in my prayers, because this is just so unbelievably discouraging I am sure. Your gifts will be used despite this treatment and the kids need you, which you know. When I saw you yesterday, I wish I had read this so I could give you a "hug from a stranger" . Prayers for a miracle to get a portable NOW is what I will be asking. Take care.


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