Don’t Dream It… Be It! Systemic Support for Music Teachers

Music teachers often feel like they never have “enough.” Enough space, time, money, instruments…It quickly morphs into feeling like you don’t have enough dignity or respect. Which means you feel like YOU aren’t “enough.” And that makes you… tired. Exhausted. Burnt out.

I’m not here to say you should be grateful for what you have and not rock the boat. Quite the opposite, in fact. The cold, hard truth is… we’ve been conditioned to think music programs shouldn’t have enough. That there’s some sort of pride in being scrappy and “making do.”

Nuh-uh. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

“But not in MY school, Allison! It’s just IMPOSSIBLE!”

Ok, then. It is impossible. Stop trying (I hope you can hear my sarcasm).

Getting the systemic support you need

Before you prepare to bring a request to the “powers that be” you need to have a few things:

  • Solid evidence that what you’re asking administration for is what is needed and will work
  • An unshakeable belief that you deserve and can have “enough” for your program
  • Achievable methods for consistently demonstrating that your program is indispensable 

And how do you get all that? 

  • Get connected to your community. Really connected. Listen to your students and their families. It’s just the beginning, but it’s the step you can’t skip.  
  • Be in community with other music teachers. Go ahead and vent about administrative drama– then work on solutions together. 
  • Get yourself to the best professional development. Yeah, there’s a catch-22 there… I need the administrative support to get the PD. Start small! This is how you get evidence that what you want to do with your students will work (and be worth the money). It’s not an easy part of the job (I don’t have to tell you that!) but it’s even harder when you feel alone. 
  • Reject the idea that you’ll have have/be/do “enough” The job of a teacher– especially a music teacher– is never done. There’s always an expectation to go “above and beyond.” And music is endless! Release yourself from the idea that you have to teach every type of music or concept, that you have to create new opportunities for your students at the detriment to your well-being, that you have to be everything for everyone. You don’t. You can’t. And you’ll always have a wish list of new things you’d like to have for your students. But– you are enough. You can do amazing things already! And there is money, time, and support for your program already out there. Go get it!

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy is NOT a classroom management technique

You’ve probably heard the term “culturally responsive pedagogy” or “culturally relevant pedagogy” by now. Maybe you know a little about it, or you’re curious about implementing it. 

Unfortunately, CRP has become a buzzword in the educational world, and we need to be careful with words and terms that “buzz.” Sometimes buzzwords are thrown around in the hopes of cultivating a certain idea or vibe, but without the weight of reflection and deep thought behind it. 

What CRP has been reduced to, in some uses of the term, is yet another technique for reducing undesirable behaviors. 

Can implementing CRP get the attention of students who often aren’t attentive? Yes. 

Can it engage students on a deeper level? Absolutely. 

Can it seem to reduce “undesirable behaviors?” It can do that, yes. 

But… Culturally responsive pedagogy is NOT a classroom management technique. 

Here’s what’s wrong with trying to implement CRP for the sake of classroom management:

Culturally responsive pedagogy does not seek to make “cultural others” more like the “cultural norm.”

A lot of “classroom management” comes from the desire for conformity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a classroom that’s functional, effective, and engaging. But that doesn’t mean it has to be uniform, quiet, and wound up tight. Culturally responsive pedagogy celebrates uniqueness and has a wide lens for a variety of definitions of success and engagement. 

Here are some more truths on “losing control” in your classroom.

Culturally responsive pedagogy, at its best, is about creating more independent and confident learners, and increases learning capacity– and not just because students “behave better.”

There is a direct line between CRP and better learning outcomes– do not pass go, do not collect $200. There is no route that goes through “compliance-ville.” Simply put: when in a culturally responsive learning environment, students learn better. 

Culturally responsive pedagogy is way more than using diverse materials– it’s about your classroom culture. 

Including more diverse materials in your classroom is a nice start. However, if those materials are presented in a manner that is racist or into a classroom culture that upholds racist policies and ideals, then that isn’t culturally responsive pedagogy– It’s tokenism. The use of diverse materials is unlikely to make any meaningful change in your classroom without the proper supportive classroom culture. 

If you are looking for the meaningful connections and improved creative and learning outcomes that CRP promises, you’ll have to dig deeper than surface-level behaviors or a diverse composers series. Intentional changes in your music program’s policies, culture, and design– along with honest self-reflection and education yourself– will yield significant outcomes for all of your students.

Classroom Culture

How to Get More Expressive Performances

How do you get your students to SHOW their expression in their performance? Being expressive is a very personal journey. Some professionals remain very stone-faced, and others love to put it all out there! So how do we help our young musicians navigate their expressive options?⁠

Build trust

Your students need to know they can make mistakes, go a little overboard, and show their love for the music without any social repercussions. Be a model of forgiveness, levity, and trustworthiness. Encourage students to give each other courage!

Model expressive performance

Play or sing for your students occasionally to demonstrate a polished performance, including expression. Have a conversation that touches on how you showed your love for your music in a way they could see. You don’t need to be a super showy over-the-top expressive performer. Just be yourself– students can tell when you fake it!

Give emotional context

Know and share the emotional context of a piece. What was the composer’s mindset? Is this telling a story of love, faith, despair, freedom, joy? Don’t fake this one either. It’s such a letdown and a breach of trust when the students (inevitably!) find out you fabricated a sob story to get them to emote.

Let them see live music

There’s nothing like it! Not only will they SEE the expression on a professional performer’s face, but they will also feel the vibe of the room. When that’s not an option, there’s always YouTube and Zoom! The important part is to make the expression part of the discussion. Don’t shy away from talking about what made their performance compelling.

Let it come naturally

Some students will absolutely not show their expression outwardly. It doesn’t mean they don’t love what they are doing! Please don’t force students to fake it. Similarly, encourage students who do love to sing or play expressively. Suggest a classroom norm that supports all kinds of signs of expressive performances. There’s nothing worse than a kid who loves to ham it up be torn down by other kids poking fun.

Direct instruction on stage fright management

Some students will naturally find their own ways to manage stage fright– but most won’t. They’re afraid of disappointing themselves, feeling overly critical, afraid of disappointing other people, or they’re afraid of the feelings that they’re physically feeling. What I mean by that is when you have all these psychological factors that are making you feel anxious, you creates a physical somatic response in your body and that feeds back into feeling more nervous. When you teach them how to calm themselves before and during a performance, they can accept how their body is feeling and still perform at a high level.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Three New Alternatives to Ranked Instrumental Seating

The traditional practice of placing musicians into ranked seating positions has been passed down from professional orchestras and military bands into school bands and orchestras over the decades. 

The specifics of procedures surrounding seating– including page turning, solos, placement within the ensemble, etc.– are numerous and often unfairly generalized to all orchestras or bands, when each ensemble (and conductor) has their own preferences and beliefs. But that’s all these traditions are: preferences and beliefs. 

If you know me, you know I have certain *feelings* about ranked seating in schools. In fact, every time I speak at a conference or with a music faculty about seating auditions and practices, I challenge everyone to change my mind. No one has. 

I think ranked seating in school ensembles is nonsense. And here’s why. 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

I’m going to take a page out of the corporate world’s book and take aim at forced ranking, which is essentially the same thing as seating procedures in bands and orchestras. In forced ranking, employees are ranked and compared against each other, rather than comparing employees to a separate standard. This Forbes article described the damage that forced ranking can do in corporations:

“Having a management process that forces leaders to compare and rate their teams does not encourage the sort of investment in people that is needed to help them perform at their best. Unfortunately, humans are not good at changing their minds and are very good at justifying their decisions. Once you have formed an opinion about an individual, chances are it will not change. This is even more true once you’ve articulated your opinion to others. The spiraling effect is predictable: the individuals deemed “stars” get the attention, support, and opportunities that continue to help them shine. Those deemed to be contributing “below expectations” see the opposite spiral until they exit the organization.” – Gaurav Gupta, Forbes (read the whole article here).

You can see how this happens in band and orchestra classrooms in a similar way: students feel trapped within the expectations that their teachers place on them, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Once a 5th chair flute, always a 5th chair flute.” As Mr.Gupta says, it’s difficult for us as humans to change our opinions about people, including ourselves. Ranking students often does not provide the incentive to improve that we might think it does. Although your linear thinkers will love the concrete feedback of a ranking, it won’t necessarily move the needle on their motivation (or ability to) improve to the “next desk.”

Seating & Classroom Culture

Having ranked seating sets a power dynamic and hierarchy in your classroom that emphasizes competition over collaboration. Competition isn’t always a bad thing. But, when competition is reinforced day after day with where you are seated, it only solidifies what students naturally know: who plays “better” than others. Do you want your classroom to physically lay out who is “more talented” and who is “less talented”, which often actually translates to who has more resources and who has less? 

Even if you don’t believe that ranking does any harm… What good does it do?

Seating Alternatives & Modifications

  • Paired seating: If you’re “weaning” yourself off ranked auditions, this is a good start. Instead of placing all your students in a ranked order, top to bottom, pair your top students with a less advanced or newer student. This works well with larger sections, like violins and flutes. The advantage to this is giving your more advanced students a mentorship role while giving younger students a role model– and a shot at more difficult parts. Be forewarned: students aren’t stupid, and they know when they’ve been paired with a “mis-match”, especially if you’ve had a long-standing tradition of ranking top to bottom. Help nurture the mentor-mentee relationship with stand partner activities. Keep an eye out for power-hungry mentors who think the mentee is there to turn their pages and rosin their bow. 
  • Rotating seating: Another step away from ranked seating is to rotate seating. Switch who plays which part on different pieces (ex: 1st trumpet on the march, 3rd trumpet on the ballad, etc.). Or, rotate seating after each concert. This takes away the power dynamics of ranking, and gives everyone a shot at the high notes. 
  • Section Leaders: Designate a section leader or principal, be clear about their role and expectations, then leave the rest of the section unranked. Leadership within sections, especially for high school ensembles, can be an incredible addition to your classroom culture. But, if the responsibilities for a “section leader” or “principal” is merely to sit in a specific seat, there’s a good deal of missed opportunities. Often, those leaders are positioned in a seat that is physically and aurally inaccessible to the rest of the section. It’s pretty hard to lead anyone that you aren’t near at all. So, sit the section leader in the middle, give them an appropriate amount of power (collecting/passing out parts, help with tuning, answering fingering/bowing questions, etc.) and watch the collaboration happen!

I love hearing more ideas for seating alternatives– let me know if you have your own!

Classroom Culture

How to Move from Disrespect to a More Trusting Classroom Culture

I frequently preach about the trust and creativity connection, especially when you’re teaching improvisation. But if you search around for how to teach improvisation, you’ll wade through tons of information about pedagogy, technique, and methods. Honestly, it’s overwhelming how much is out there on this topic. But I’ve found in my years teaching and managing music programs (including jazz education) that the methodology of improvisation is only half the battle. The other half is mental, emotional, and social. Trust is required for incredible creative outcomes. 

When I get questions about trust in the classroom, it’s actually often a question about respect. Maybe a coworker or student did something to the teacher that they interpreted as disrespectful, and I get the question: “How can I build trust after disrespect has damaged our relationship?”

Let’s start with clearing up a few things first:

What is trust?

Trust is about risk. When you trust another person, you are handing them something important to you (literally or figuratively), and you don’t know for sure what they are going to do with it. There is a suspension of disbelief. What constitutes trust varies among cultures, but in general, competency is key. If students don’t think you know what you’re doing, they won’t trust you. 

Trust is important in all relationships in and around your classroom: between you and your students, between each student, between you and your principal/supervisor, between you and your students’ families, etc. The more trusting these relationships are, the better outcomes you’ll have in your classroom– musical, social, and emotional!

How is respect different?

True respect is about admiration and honoring the worth of another person. In a mile-high view of the world, we can and should respect the inherent worth of every person as equals. But in the classroom (and many other places), power dynamics can make things more complicated. 

It is more culturally acceptable in some classrooms to always respect the authority of the teacher– no questioning allowed. But, compliance does not always mean that trust or respect exist in a relationship. I can spitefully comply with a teacher or principal in order to stay out of trouble, but that does not mean that I respect that person. Respect is not simply compliance or fear. 

Some people justify disrespectful behavior with the phrase “you have to earn my respect.” That phrase is often used when a person in power is displeased about someone being noncompliant, and then decides that that person is not worthy. In that situation, the “noncompliant” person might comply just to stay out of trouble, and no real relationship will be built. 

Like trust, a sense of respect or disrespect can come from intentional actions and decisions or unspoken cultural differences. The latter includes “courtesy, attitudes towards elders, nature of friendship, concepts of time, personal space between people, nonverbal communication, rules about eye contact, or appropriate touching.”* For example, being 2 minutes late to a meeting may seem disrespectful to one person, but not even register as an issue to another. 

So, trust and respect are similar, and often intertwined. But, trust is earned and respect is typically a given until proved otherwise.

Can I trust someone who has disrespected me?

Let me be very clear here: Abuse and bullying are not ok. You are under no obligation to be best friends with someone who is truly unkind and disrespectful to you, especially after you have made it clear that their behavior has been hurtful to you. Most of the advice below applies to minor infractions. For bigger issues, the priority should be getting that person out of your life.  

But for smaller issues, I believe the answer is usually still yes. You can still trust them because trust is a continuum. After being disrespected, you might trust this person a bit less, or only in certain contexts. But you don’t necessarily have to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Your relationship may change, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless.

How can I build trust and respect?

Trust and respect are both built with several, small, consistent actions. Grand gestures made in an effort to quickly bolster a relationship are often met with skepticism– so don’t think you can throw your choir a pizza party and they’ll forget how you bungled the a capella auditions. 

Setting and keeping boundaries is actually a part of being trustworthy. If you no longer want to discuss your personal life with a coworker because they gossiped to the rest of the faculty, then be firm about it. Stick to it. Show that when you say something, you mean it. That integrity builds trust and respect!

Remember that even when you feel as though a student has disrespected you, that does not lower their value or worth as a person. They also may not have intended to disrespect you. In the moment, avoid reacting quickly, and seek understanding. Grace is an incredible trust-builder. 

Accept responsibility and make amends whenever you have made a misstep. This is a big one, especially if the other person has hurt you before. Admit your fault, ask how you can make it right, and then follow through. Walk the walk!

*”Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond

Classroom Culture Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Thinking Styles in the Music Classroom

On the bridge of a starship, the captain begins her log entry as her crew checks routine readouts. “Captain’s log, stardate 8130.3…” Little beeps and boops from the computers around the bridge are heard in the background. The helmsman adjusts course to avoid the Klingon neutral zone at his captain’s orders. “Aye, sir.” The captain swings around, and we see… holy crap, is that Kirstie Alley? She’s so young! And she’s a Vulcan?

Yes, Kirstie Alley’s big break was as a Vulcan Starfleet cadet in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” And yes, this post is about Star Trek, but only to show how some 23rd century thinking applies to arts classrooms. Let’s go where no arts educators have gone before! (I had to). 

Back to the bridge, which is actually a training simulation at Starfleet Academy, the gentle humming of the starship is interrupted by a distress call from a freighter, the Kobayashi Maru. They have hit a mine and are losing power and life support. “Can you assist, Enterprise?!” The captain of the Kobayashi Maru verifies their coordinates– inside the Klingon neutral zone, AKA not a safe place to go– and the Enterprise’s computer verifies that they have 300 crewmembers aboard. 

“Damn…” Kirstie Alley, I mean Captain Saavik, says to herself. She knows she has a responsibility to save this disabled ship, but can she avoid or survive a Klingon attack to protect her own crew? She orders the helmsman to change course to intercept the Kobayashi Maru, even though entering the neutral zone will certainly invite fire from Klingon warships. First officer Spock reminds her: “We are now in violation of treaty, Captain.” 

As soon as she orders the transporter room to standby to beam over survivors, three Klingon cruisers appear. They will not accept messages relaying the Enterprise’s rescue mission. They fire on the Enterprise. With each torpedo blast, another beloved member of the Enterprise crew dramatically flings themselves to the floor as their consoles inexplicably explode in front of them– Sulu, Uhura, Dr. McCoy, Spock! Saavik looks around in a panic as her crew appears to die around her. As she calls for all hands to abandon ship amongst alarm bells, a familiar voice calls, “Alright, open her up!” And the false wall of the training simulation opens to reveal… Admiral Kirk. 

Saavik has failed the Kobayashi Maru test, as every single Starfleet cadet before her has. Except for Kirk. Way back when Kirk was a cadet at Starfleet Academy, the Kobayashi Maru test was created to assess a cadet’s ability to face a no-win scenario, something that wasn’t unlikely when flying around space faster than lightspeed to unknown corners of various galaxies. Spock said that the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test was to “experience fear; fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear and maintain control of one’s self and one’s crew.” (Star Trek 2009). But Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, he says heroically. So, after failing the test twice, Cadet Kirk came up with his own solution. 

In this clip, from Star Trek 2009, an extremely smug Cadet Kirk has reprogrammed the simulation so that the Klingon warships drop their shields, allowing him to take out the attacking ships quickly and rescue everyone on the Kobayashi Maru. All of his instructors and classmates are stunned. Cue the “pew pew” finger guns and he’s sent off for a disciplinary hearing. 

Differing Styles

Kirk’s solution to this test has been the subject of many debates about problem solving, ethical leadership, and (my subject today) non-linear thinking. There are plenty of similar ways to describe these two ways of thinking: left- or right-brained, “Conscientious/Compliance” vs “Influence”, Ravenclaw vs. Gryffindor. None of these opposing types are inherently better than their counterparts. In fact, the true power of understanding your own way of thinking, and your students’ ways of thinking, is in being able to harness the strengths of both types of thinking. 

Before I get into how to care for and challenge your different types of thinkers, a word of warning: categorizing your students into buckets should be done with the utmost care. A person’s style of thinking can be fluid. Some students may think more linearly in one subject, but be fully capable of non-linear thinking when it suits them better, and vice versa. It’s also tempting to assign the “good, smart” kids as linear thinkers and “bad, struggling” kids as non-linear thinkers. Highly linear thinkers may also be messy and careless. Non-linear thinkers can be (and frequently are) exceptionally bright and attentive. It’s not as simple as this or that, and no one benefits from stereotyping. 

Also, be mindful and self-critical when considering your students of color. If you try to determine the thinking styles of the students in your learning space, and the groups are divided along racial lines, try a little harder. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself how you can know your students as they are, not as you assume them to be. When you do that work, you might discover new ways to engage students you had previously found confusing. Read on to learn how to spot linear and non-linear thinkers. 

Care and Feeding of Linear Thinkers

Linear thinkers may grasp concrete, logical concepts (x, therefore y) quickly, but struggle with free-form or more abstract ideas (improvisational, quick thinking). They can be inflexible once they have come to a decision, and are often risk-averse. They will follow directions to a T. They love a good chart and a set of rules to follow. They thrive in structure.

Linear thinkers feel at home in subjects that have clear-cut answers, like math and science. Being right is important to them, and it is possible that being “smart and good” is a key part of their identity. So that means that subjects where answers are more subjective can be anxiety-inducing. Or, they can latch onto the more concrete aspects of creative subjects, like grammar, music theory, and technology. 

Linear thinkers are highly praised in most learning environments because they are typically fastidious, thorough, and easy to control. They succeed in areas that are easy to measure, so it’s easy to point to their achievements. But because linear thinkers think with blinders on, they typically don’t consider questions that aren’t asked (Is this ethical? Who benefits from this?) because that would take them off the linear path that their thinking follows. This isn’t to say that linear thinkers are unethical, but that some linear thinkers must make a conscious effort to see the forest for the trees. Linear thinkers are all about efficiency, and issues of emotion tend to get in the way of that. 

When you are working with a linear thinker, remind them that different ways of thinking is a skill– something they can work on! Ask plenty of questions. A key component of non-linear thinking is that there are multiple starting points to a problem. Instead of attacking the obvious question first, challenge them to address a variable in the problem. To bring things back to the Kobayashi Maru, the question does not have to be “How do I save everyone and escape safely?” It can be “What can I change about these parameters to achieve the same or similar goal?” 

Linear thinkers will respond brilliantly to any methodical process, but how do you make a creative experience methodical? With parameters. Think about a creative process as a dashboard of dials, buttons, and switches, each corresponding to a parameter of the process: color, speed, timbre, texture, height, space, volume, shape, pitch, etc. It helps a linear thinker jump into the fray by giving them a path to stand on: try this, adjust that, make this more, make this less. It requires you, as the educator, to be able to assess, diagnose, and describe quickly and effectively. Being creative can be a source of stress at times, because they aren’t sure how to measure their correctness. Since being smart is likely a large part of their identity, you must tread lightly there. Emphasize that being “correct” isn’t always important, necessary, or applicable, especially in your classroom! 

You must also ask the questions that linear thinkers won’t tend to integrate without prompting: What effect will this have on the viewer/listener? What is the civic impact of this work? Does this represent my thoughts and feelings, or am I exploring someone else’s perspective? It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. 

Care and Feeding of Non-Linear Thinkers

Non-linear thinkers excel at coming up with new ideas, brainstorming, and witty remarks. Since they see related and tangential ideas easily, they may become distracted or overwhelmed when they attempt something seemingly straightforward. Sometimes, that means they overlook the simplest solution because they are distracted by the endless possibilities outside the parameters of a problem. They may struggle with making decisions and/or following through with a multi-step process. Non-linear thinkers will look at a problem and figure out 45 million ways to solve it, including several ways to change the parameters of the problem to create another 100 million ways to solve the problem. 

Improv comics are non-linear thinking masters. The cardinal rule of improv comedy is saying, “yes, and…” when in a scene. Always affirm what was said in your improvised scene (never contradict) and then add to that storyline. You have to be fully in the moment, always be thinking in three different places and times at once, and be funny on top of all that! If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between the skills for stand-up and improv, UCB founder Matt Walsh put it simply: “Great stand-ups are… just waiting to land their next blow… Improv is forgetting your idea and building off your partner’s idea.”

It’s that extreme flexibility and 360-awareness that makes non-linear thinkers creative juggernauts. But it can make them challenging to teach. They can be overwhelmed, unfocused, or disorganized. You can’t fight a non-linear thinker’s natural tendency to be (mentally) in multiple places at once. They just need to learn how to use that to their advantage. It is their superpower, not their fatal flaw. 

Non-linear thinkers are going to stand out when you need a free-style rap, a creative solution, or a catchy slogan. But get them to commit to a solution? Well, that’s no fun. Mind mapping or brain dumps are really useful for non-linear thinkers. Students can do these by hand, or use one of the easy-to-use digital mind mapping options: Google Slides,, and MindMeister are where I’d look first. The great thing about mind mapping or even a simple brain dump is that non-linear thinkers can immediately set their swirling thoughts into the action of writing them down and beginning to organize their thoughts. 

The tricky part is the commitment and follow-through. Once they’ve written down their many ideas, they need to organize and assess each idea. Captain Kirk had to assess the risk of changing his test parameters and possibly being reprimanded for cheating. His idea worked, but he had to make that choice and follow through first. Make space and time available for your non-linear thinkers to not only get their ideas flowing, but to test them out against the task at hand as well. They don’t do well in captivity!

Teachers and Non-Linear Thinking

When you read the descriptions of linear and non-linear thinkers, which one resonated with you the most? If you are more of a linear thinker, you will need to improve your non-linear thinking skills to benefit your students. But I bet you’re doing it already! In fact, Dr. Maurice Elias of Rutgers argues that using social-emotional learning in your classroom is using non-linear thinking: “The Captain Kirks of education must stop doubling down on traditional academic instructional time and test preparation and instead devote instructional time to social-emotional and character development and its integration throughout the school day.” As an arts educator, your mere existence is a testament to the importance of different styles of thought and learning. Good on ya! 

Also ask yourself: Is your teaching linear? Is your curriculum linear? Do you expect your students to learn in a linear way? Is that the right way, or the convenient way, or both, or neither? To avoid making this post a two-parter, I will just direct you to this article on heutagogy (self-determined learning) that might challenge how you structure your curriculum: 

I also feel that non-linear thinking is a crucial aspect of anti-racist thinking and teaching. You must look at your work from a different perspective– in fact, many different perspectives– and that is impossible if you are following one straight line to what you think is “right.” Even if you are more of a non-linear thinker, make sure one of the “non-lines” of thinking that you use is through an anti-rasict lens. Then try out the feminist lens. Don’t forget the LGBTQ lens. 

Yeah, that’s a LOT of work. They don’t tell you all this when you’re pre-service, or starting out as a teaching artist. The important thing is to start, and never stop. Knowing your students as the complex people they are is always worth the work. 


POWER TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE: Engaging Students in Politics

This article was originally published in the Feb 2021 edition of Gifted Education Review

Most school-aged students do not see themselves in politics, and have relegated the entire concept to the land of adulthood. Practical adult responsibilities are often mysteries to students as they leave their public education: How do I buy a car? How do I pay taxes? What about voting? Arguably one of the most important responsibilities as an adult American citizen is voting and registering to vote. After all, election results can impact your ability to buy a car and pay your taxes. 

We sometimes forget that engaging in politics is more than simply visiting your polling place once you turn 18. Speaking at a town or city council meeting, contacting your state and national representatives, or just staying informed on political news are all ways to engage with the government. Those are also a few ways to get involved with politics before reaching voting age. Besides preparing young citizens for voting and perhaps someday running for office, getting involved in politics at a young age has wide-reaching benefits. When examining political issues, students can advance their moral development and develop their skills in debate, analysis, argument, and persuasive writing. 

We often speak about “politics” as governmental affairs, but we deal in politics in our personal and professional lives too. It is an unavoidable fact that much about politics is about power: who has it, how they use it, and how they treat people/groups without the same level of power. Any system, formal or informal, denotes these groups or individuals as the powerful and powerless, givers and receivers, haves and have-nots. Knowing how to recognize your power in relation to the people around you and use your power for good is a life skill every person should have, regardless of your involvement in government.


General classrooms and history or civics classes are not the only place where politics exist. Politics come into play in the arts (protest music, murals), STEM (research funding, bioethics), and English and literature (historical fiction, censorship). It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that asking students to fundraise for their after school club is an act of politics. Afterall, aren’t they using their political/social power to bring further power/funds to a cause that is important to them?

For more controversial issues, teachers must consider how political they want to be, while protecting their jobs. There may be topics that your school considers “off-limits” and there may be issues that you feel are worth putting up a fight that may cost you politically, or even your job. It is a personal ethical decision whether to adhere to these policies, defy them, or advocate for changing them. After all, there are politics in your workplace as well. However, keep in mind that by refusing to discuss any political or controversial issue, you show your privilege. Unfair, racist, or sexist policies and systems, especially those that affect your students and your classroom, must be called out. If you do choose to take up an issue in your class that could be controversial, consider if you are better off asking for your supervisor’s or principal’s blessing first, or asking for forgiveness later. 

Another word of warning: you can share your personal views, but do not push your views on students. They will not respond well, and may see themselves as outsiders in your classroom if they disagree, disconnecting them from their learning. The details of a student’s viewpoint or opinion is much less important than fanning the flames of their engagement in an issue and their ability to articulate their position. 


  • For the youngest future leaders, recognize and name anytime a student assumes a leadership role, whether formally or informally. 
  • Emphasize the purpose, power, and responsibilities of the government, not just the roles and systems. 
  • Harness the power of a child’s sense of fairness. If a student points out an unfair system, big or small, that is an opportunity to talk about power, privilege, and change. 
  • Engage in their burgeoning senses of morality. Older elementary students typically move from pre-conventional to conventional morality. Acknowledge the advancement from a “What’s in it for me?” mentality to a sense of broader societal norms. 


  • Treat your middle and high school students as voters. According to the Voting Rights Act (2009), regarding the literacy of voters: “any person who has not been adjudged an incompetent and who has completed the sixth grade in a[n accredited] public school in, or a private school … possesses sufficient literacy, comprehension, and intelligence to vote in any election.” (Voting Rights Act, 2009).
  • Use a verbal or written debate as part of an assignment, activity, or assessment. Then have students argue the “other side”– not only to deepen their understanding, but to encourage empathy. 
  • Politics and policies of the school or district may come to light in your classroom. Dress codes, prom policies, and punishments often come up in students’ lives when unfair practices are in place. Encourage students to not just complain, but to take action. If you believe they have the power to make a difference, they will too. For example, if a school program is being threatened, involve students in the school board meetings. They have the most to lose. 
  • If an issue comes up in local politics that is relevant to your class, have students write letters or emails to their elected officials in support of a cause. For example, a life sciences class could write to the city council defending local wildlife when a new shopping center is being planned. Be careful not to force students to take a certain position– allow students to abstain or write their own letter. Be aware of any personal connections students have to personal politics; a student’s parent could be on city council, or would benefit from the new jobs a shopping center would bring, for example. 
  • Inspire activism by watching and reacting to the West Wing episode “A Good Day” (Flint & Schiff, 2005) where a group of young activists visits the White House to lobby for child suffrage. It’s powerful to see a young person so eloquently and persuasively argue for their rights– even directly to the president himself. There’s a 4-minute smash cut of the relevant scenes on YouTube.
  • The Political Classroom ( has a bevy of resources on politics, particularly useful if law and government aren’t your strong suit. 

You may feel as though you are walking a tight line with politics in the classroom, but with some planning and research, you can set your students up for real life beyond graduation day and election day. A country of informed and engaged voters benefits us all. 


Flint, C. (Writer), & Schiff, R. (Director). (2005, March 2). A good day. [Television series episode]. In Sorkin, A. (Creator). The West Wing. New York: National Broadcasting Company. 

Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S. Code § 10101(c) (2009). 

Teacher Experience

How to Deal with Pressure to Perform

There are so many terms for school arts programs: specials, related arts, expressive academics, integrated arts… All are attempts to describe how visual arts, music, and sometimes other content areas fit into a school culture. Most of the time, these terms describe arts programs in terms of how they differ from all other content areas, like math or science. It’s a subtle nod to the fact that most arts programs are treated like an unnecessary but nice activity to give some change of pace from the rigors of academic learning. Big eye roll! 

Of course, that’s not how arts teachers see themselves or their programs. It hurts to be reduced to background music or pretty hallway decoration. There can be so much pressure from administration to perform, compete, present, and display in order to create positive news about a school or, more bluntly, make the administrators themselves look good. 

I do not want to downplay the arts’ role in creating positive news about a school or improving students’ morale. There absolutely is value in that. However, when it seems that performances and displays are the only thing that the administration cares about when discussing arts programs, it severely limits the possibilities– not to mention, it contributes to arts teacher burnout by dismissing teachers’ value. 

Outcomes vs. Outputs

The important mindset shift for administrators (and teachers!) to make is in understanding the impact a program has beyond these flashy events. It comes in uncovering a program’s intended outcomes, rather than outputs. What’s the difference? I’m so glad you asked!

Outputs are events, tests, data points, or other summative items/activities that generate outcomes. Outcomes are the broader impacts that these items/activities have on students, the school, and the community as a whole. The way I remember the difference is that outputs are something more tangible– something you can “put” somewhere. Outcomes are what “comes” of a program– the impact that it has. 

For example: Art shows and concerts are examples of an output. They are singular, summative events. But they are NOT the outcomes, or the impact, of your program. The outcomes from arts shows or concerts might include: increased ability to speak about art in a variety of contexts, management of stage fright, involvement in community activism, connection to a variety of other content areas, exposure to careers in the arts… amongst many others. 

When advocating for arts programs, the outcomes (NOT the outputs) are what teachers are really fighting for. If administrators are putting the screws on teachers to perform, compete, and display more– point to the outcomes. “This is what my program is really about. Those activities (outputs) interfere with / don’t align with my ability to achieve those outcomes.”

Similarly, when speaking about the awesome outputs you do align with, don’t forget to connect them with your true outcomes. Ex: “Our spring art show was incredible! Students used their platforms as artists to invoke emotions about our local environment.” When you demonstrate to all stakeholders that your program has social, emotional, academic, and community-based impact, you remind them that you are more than just “background music” or “shiny art.” 

Knowing your intended outcomes is essential to designing an arts program that is based on community values with an eye for long-term health and growth of the program. If you want to establish your meaningful outcomes and build an engaging and equitable program around them– that’s where I come in. Click here to learn more about my process to take arts programs from struggling to thriving!

Classroom Culture Teacher Experience

3 Ways to go Beyond Teachers’ “Why”

As a teacher, knowing your “why” – your motivation, your purpose, your mission statement– is incredibly important. In fact, I’d call it essential! It is the basis for how you navigate each day, each school year, and through your career. Teachers are people (somehow we forget this!) and therefore are not neutral– we all have our own unique perspectives, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Being secure in your “why” is the start of being an ethical and effective educator; it means knowing your own reality so you can more easily distinguish your perspective from others’. 

But! Simply knowing your “why” is not going to solve all your problems. Knowing your “why”, or even living true to your “why” is not going to help you make authentic connections with your students, identify engaging materials and activities, or fill out your lesson plans. It is not a magic wand. Knowing your “why” can make your job seem (and feel) easier, but it doesn’t actually make your job easier all on its own. 

Your “why” is only your perspective, but your classroom is so much more complex than that. I call the people and policies that impact your classroom an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, if one thing changes, the effect is felt all over the system. If you’ve dealt with breaking in a new principal, you know exactly what I mean. Each of the members of your program’s ecosystem– your students, admin, coworkers, families, community leaders, and more– has their own “why.” Those motivations explain their actions, and those actions impact your classroom. 

Here’s an example of how knowing your “why” isn’t enough: If you are very much motivated by the idea of maintaining the traditions of classical music, but no one else in your school is, then by chasing only your own “why”, you are going to be running an uphill battle with disinterested students. Or, say you are personally motivated by achievement (hey, me too!) and so, by being true to your “why”, you engage your students in several competitions and juried events annually. But, if your students and families value collaboration over individual pride, your program won’t click with them. 

So what can an arts teacher do?

1. Listen and respond accordingly. Listening is absolutely the bedrock of building trust and community. Show that you are listening by making necessary changes.

2. Be in the room where it happens. Become a part of your school’s community by being present as much as possible. That could mean joining a committee, attending sports games, or going to board meetings. Be there to be top of mind for your ecosystem, but more importantly, to show you are there to listen and be in community with them. You are struggling alongside them, invested in what they are invested in, and actively searching for equitable solutions too.

3. Ask questions that uncover their “why.” This can happen in periodic student surveys, at parent/teacher conferences, or in admin meetings. It might sound like, “Is that something that is important to you?” or “What is the motivation for this change?” or “What is the impact/outcome you are hoping for?” 

When you understand not just your own motivations, but the motivations of everyone in your ecosystem, you can create a classroom culture and curriculum that inspires, supports, and celebrates everyone. Knowing your “why” is important– but so is knowing everyone else’s “why”. It is the first step in making changes that benefit the entire ecosystem, which, I bet, is probably close to your own “why.” 

Go Beyond!

This is not an easy nor short process. But, I can help simplify it. My job is to guide you and your arts team toward this ground-up and values-based philosophy for more flow and ease in every arts classroom. Stop hoping that it will “get better next year” and let’s make a plan to make sure every year is better than the last!

Classroom Culture

The Truth about Losing Control in Your Arts Classroom

I have a hard truth to speak about today: Control. 

When we’re uncovering our own values and motivations, sometimes we stumble upon something… icky. But when we know the truth about ourselves, that is when we can begin to make real change. And for me, that means admitting to myself that my default reaction to chaos, messiness, or any uncertainty is to try to control it. 

Let’s admit something unpleasant: There’s something enjoyable about feeling powerful in front of a room of students. I am in charge. They have to do what I say, just because I say it. If I want, I can make my classroom be quiet… focused… controlled. I want my classroom MANAGED!

Well, then we get into the classroom and realize we have lost control. There’s no focus, no quiet, no listening. And that is insanely frustrating! Classroom management is often the most draining part of being a teacher.

But the problem with thinking we’ve lost control as a teacher is… we never had control in the first place. 

Connection is what we need as teachers, not control. Students want and need to feel that someone cares about them as a person, not like they are being policed. There are no fast and easy ways to make meaningful connections with your students. It is a constant process that begins with:⁠⁠

– Self-reflection⁠⁠

– Unburdening yourself from stereotyping⁠⁠

– Starting a culture shift in your classroom⁠⁠


Before you can really know your students, you have to understand yourself. What identities are most important to you? What drives you in your work? What are your key values? Then you can know how you relate (or don’t) to your students.


When you’re getting to know your students, get to know them as individuals. Unburden yourself and your students from the expectations you have about them based on their demographic information.


Demonstrate how you want your students to listen and react to each other. Students learn these skills from you whether you do so explicitly or not– so be aware of how you show your willingness to connect and care.

Classroom culture is complex— but it doesn’t have to be complicated. I’m here to help your school or nonprofit organization make positive change in your arts programming. Don’t just “do good”— do The Critical Good.

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