So You Think You've Got It Bad

Some music teachers teach classes larger than this closing ceremony at the AOSA National Conference.

I've been whiny.

I'm not going to apologize for it: this is my blog, a diary about my personal struggles and accomplishments. As a reflection of my life, it naturally is filled with both highs and lows. Since 2009, music education has handed me a lot of lows: layoff, unemployment, underemployment, competing with teachers who are younger (and, with less experience and education, less expensive) for the few positions available, and once I finally found that elusive full-time elementary job in a high-poverty district, having to contend with teaching in the gymnasiums of two schools, with ineptly applied "restorative justice" behavior management, and, this year, again losing my classroom, as well as having my instructional time cut by a third. Teaching music in the Portland area has not been a walk in the park.

Administrators don't have time for such complaints. They know it's tough. They know the teaching space and the schedule are far from ideal. Neither is going to change this year, though, so I've been told to quit lamenting what's been lost. Wise words from Doug Goodkin helped me move on past those laments, and to focus on making the best of what I've got, deciding this will be my best year of teaching. 

That's what I've been doing for the last month: celebrating the gift of sharing music with children, and receiving back from them the open-hearted gratitude they feel for what I share. There is so much joy in teaching children to play a game and sing a song. I may not have access to most of my equipment--the best instrumentarium in the district is essentially in mothballs, awaiting the day when Margaret Scott Elementary School finally has a dedicated music room once more--but the most elemental teaching (and that is, after all, what Orff Schulwerk is all about) resides in these singing games. I've seen Doug Goodkin, James Harding, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, and Kofi Gbolongyo effectively teach hundreds of Ghanaian children with no instruments at all. Why shouldn't I be able to do the same with twenty children, a guitar, and some beanbags?

That's my approach for the rest of the school year, as I continue to teach in the now. Thanks to the AOSA National Conference I attended last week in San Diego, I've now got another tool to add to my coping bank: compared to public school music teachers in California, I'm sitting pretty.

In San Diego, I talked with friends who commute over an hour each way to itinerate among four or five different schools. One spoke of teaching a thousand fourth and fifth graders, divided between two schools, each of which she goes to for one day a week. Compared to stories like these, my 35-minute commute to a single, 500-student building seems plush. No, I don't have my own room, and I'm not seeing my students as much as I'd like; but wow.

To be fair, AOSA conferences also bring me into contact with teachers who have dream jobs teaching small classes in well-equipped rooms with plenty of instructional time. Some of those teachers are even in public schools; but most of them, I'm realizing more and more, are in private schools. I even had a gig like that myself for a year, in a Catholic school, and there was much to like about it--though non-unionization, lower wages, and toeing the Catholic doctrinal line were not among the perquisites. But those are parochial problems. If I had to choose between my decent (for Oregon) wages and a lower-paying gig in a secular private school, I'd take the cut. As nice as the money is, there's something to be said about having one's profession valued for more than baby-sitting.

With that said, though, what I do each day, and what my colleagues with a thousand or more students do each day, is not about conditions, teaching space, commuting time, or salary scales. It's about children. If I ever stop loving my students, it'll be time for me to find another job. That time has not come yet, and I don't expect it to come in the twelve or thirteen years I have left before retirement.

I just picked up a duty at my school: for 35 minutes each day, I wander around the lunch room, helping kindergartners and first graders remember to keep their conversations at a non-screaming level, to stay in their seats, and to clean up after themselves. Seeing me patrolling the tables, these little ones greet with my smiles, high-fives, and hugs. I'm a celebrity because I bring them music. All the other compensations of the job--as well as the frustrations--pale in comparison to those smiles and hugs.

I expect it's the same for everyone I shared time with last week in San Diego: we do this because we love to share music with children, and they return that love many times over. Whatever our classroom colleagues and administrators may tell or show us about our value to them, the children tell us every day that we matter, from their delight at seeing us in the hallway to the disappointment they express when music class is over. However "bad" the conditions may be, we will always love this work.


  1. Thank you for this perspective. We do have a great job!

  2. Yes! Well said! And carrying an instrument to improvise on during lunch duty makes it not only tolerable for you but fascinating for the little ones!

  3. We have so much in common. Now I'll have to hear about the beanbag games!


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