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.

Teacher Experience

Burnout Express: Compassion Fatigue in Music Teachers

Compassion fatigue, AKA Secondary Traumatic Stress or vicarious trauma, is a real problem for music teachers. ⁠

Aren’t we supposed to love our students? And if we love all of them, we take on their stress. We sometimes absorb their trauma. It weighs on our hearts to care so much for so many people who have so many of their own traumas. ⁠Sometimes also called “compassion fatigue”, this trauma that seeps into your bones can be the result of being constantly exposed to your students’ trauma: poverty, violence, racism, etc.

Secondary Traumatic Stress can manifest as anxiety, over-worrying, perfectionism, irritability, insomnia… all sorts of things that make being a great teacher (and a happy person) more difficult. If you find yourself frequently breaking down while thinking about keeping your students safe, you might have compassion fatigue.

Music Teachers & Secondary Traumatic Stress

Music teachers are unique because we often have the same students year after year. As a result, we become a more familiar adult presence in their lives, which can be fantastic. That also means we can become their sounding boards — or dumping grounds — for their stress, fears, and anxieties.

It is a great practice to be able to listen carefully and without judgement when our students come to us with problems, big and small. But it’s not easy to let those harder conversations roll off your back.

If you’re having a hard time after a student reveals their traumas to you… that’s normal. You should have some sort of emotional reaction because you’re a human! But if that emotional reaction is making normal life difficult, it’s time to seek additional support.

What can you do about it?

If this resonates with you, first know that you are not alone. You aren’t doing anything wrong. ⁠It is extremely common for teachers to feel the burden of having to “love” every single student. As arts teachers, that can mean dozens or hundreds of students at a time! It is not wise, nor even possible, to really love that many people at the same time.

You will need some help to work through this in order to avoid burning out, or other long-term effects of carrying unaddressed trauma. ⁠

There is a difference between caring about your students and loving them. You don’t need to give them your heart. This stress doesn’t have to be a part of the teaching profession. ⁠

Therapy helps! A professional can help you work out those emotional boundaries. You can also advocate for yourself and your coworkers for more school/organizational support. That could mean getting involved with your union, lobbying for more mental health services for teachers, or advocating for health and human services for your students.

Here are a few articles if you want to read more (all about a 5-10 min read each):

‘I Didn’t Know It Had a Name’ (

When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia)

Secondary Traumatic Stress (Trauma Aware Schools)

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

10+ Tips for Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in the Music Room

So you’ve decided to include a unit, event, or piece of repertoire in your curriculum that is from a culture or genre that is new to you. First of all: GREAT! You are expanding your knowledge as a person, musician, and educator. You are setting a great example of lifelong learning. And most importantly, you are bringing information and experiences to your students that might make them see their world in a new way. Major win!

But something is grumbling in the back of your mind. 

How do I… do this? I don’t speak the language, I don’t know if this is right, what if this is offensive? Am I committing (gasp!) CULTURAL APPROPRIATION? 

Cue the dramatic music!

Now that you’ve had your panic attack about it, let’s get to work. 

Real talk: What IS cultural appropriation?

We hear this term thrown around a lot, and often it’s unclear what it really means. In a nutshell, appropriation is when a dominant culture takes advantage of a minority culture, robbing the minority culture of the credit they deserve.

“When we change appropriate to a verb, it means ‘to take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission,’ and has synonyms such as seize, commandeer, annex, or hijack… cultural appropriation is defined as taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”*

What does appropriation look like in the music classroom— 

  • Performing an indigenous melody without permission from local tribal council
  • Teaching the history of rock music without acknowledging the contributions of Black musicians (AKA saying White people invented rock and roll)
  • Using White-composed melodies that are “in the style of” an entire culture, bonus points for an offensive title (method books are notorious for this)

And what’s the price of culturally appropriating a cultural practice? Not only is it offensive and isolating for the students whose culture you are appropriating, but you are also robbing your other students of an opportunity to authentically engage with that culture. 

Now what? How do I avoid appropriation?

First you have to do your homework. Here are a ton of ideas; you don’t have to do them all, but this list should get you going! The goal is to understand as much authentic context as possible. Just because you have knowledge of the music’s technique or style does not mean you can present this music without appropriating it. Context and credit are the keys! 

  • YouTube rabbit hole: Search for performances, rehearsals, and interviews on the topic you’re presenting or music you will be teaching. This is a great place to start, but YouTube shouldn’t be your only source. 
  • Listen consciously and casually: While you’re searching and watching on YouTube, listen consciously and make note of what you hear. Stylistic details, musical surprises, tunings and chord changes that confuse you. But, you should also listen casually. Put a recording on in the car while you drive to work or clean the house. I find that when I listen casually, new music becomes less of a museum piece and more part of my life. That’s much more authentic engagement. 
  • Watch a live rehearsal: This is not always possible, but it would be one of the best ways to understand the cultural context of the music. Seeing what the musicians prioritize, how they communicate while they perform, and what change they make will get you inside the music. 
  • Go to a live performance: Live music is always better than a recording, but you’re not just going to get a better listening experience. You’re going for the vibe! The hang! The culture! What are people wearing? How loud is it performed? What do people do to express their excitement over the music? When is the audience loud, and when are they quiet? How do they react? How do the performers interact with the crowd– if there is a crowd at all? Is there dancing? Is there food, drinking, smoking? And who is in the audience– age, gender, races, languages, etc? Bring a friend if you’re worried about being the “odd one out” and then appreciate how feeling “othered” in the audience makes you feel. 
  • Ask your students for recommendations: Your students will love to give you ideas if they have them! Maybe you want to introduce more female rappers into your general music class. Ask and you shall receive more recommendations than you know what to do with… and your students will light up when you take their ideas to heart!
  • Check out the Subreddit: It may or may not yield interesting results, but there’s a SubReddit for almost anything. If you can’t go to a live concert or rehearsal, this is probably the next best thing. 
  • Bring in a culture bearer: I feel very strongly that this is the best possible way to avoid cultural appropriation. Bring in someone for whom this culture and music is their home base to speak to your students. Pay them for their time. And while they are there learn all you can from them. There simply is no substitute for the real thing whenever possible. Virtual visits can also be fantastic, especially for dancers and interviews (less so for listening to a performance). 
  • Take lessons/go to classes: This is a big ask, but taking classes or lessons in this type of music is gold. Make sure you find a teacher who is from the culture, and pay them well. Even one lesson could be beneficial! This would be most helpful if you are in a new school with a large population of a race/culture/ethnicity that is unfamiliar to you since this could be a longer term commitment. 
  • Check for racial/cultural competency. Students should be able to demonstrate what they learned about the culture (what they thought was true before, and what they learned as a result of the musical lesson/experience)
  • Stay humble. Those of us who have been “Classically trained” often have an ingrained negative attitude toward any other genre or style. European classical music is not inherently better, more difficult, or more necessary than any other style or genre. You’ll find out quickly enough when you take those tabla lessons or try to freestyle rap! 
  • Give credit where credit is due. Whether it is in program notes, lesson plans, on sheet music, or wherever you are giving information on the origins of the music you present: Always give credit to the original artist, composer, country of origin, etc. When you go looking for this information, you might uncover a new bit of history you didn’t know, or sometimes you might discover something unsavory. Either way, it’s best to be armed with knowledge, and share with your students. 

This is definitely a case of “knowledge is power!” Luckily, this is FUN research and experiences that will enrich your own life as a person and as a musician as well. It is worth the work!

*Howard, Karen. “Equity in Music Education: Cultural Appropriation versus Cultural Appreciation—Understanding the Difference.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 106, no. 3, 2020, pp. 68–70.,

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