Now that I’m not in the classroom every day, I occasionally have breakfast with a group of retired band directors who live in Northern Michigan and meet monthly to reminisce about the good old days in public school music education. Here we are, in September. Notice anything?
I’m guessing the gender ratio would be similar in any state, if you got retired school band teachers together. Kind of looks like Congress did, in the 1970s, when I started teaching. Or graduation day at any law, engineering or medical school, back then. A man’s, man’s, etc. world.
I have a large collection of stories around being the only alto in a room full of tenors and basses, year after year. Some of them are funny (like my very first regional band directors’ association meeting, where I was offered the position of Secretary five minutes after introducing myself—and I took it). Some are terrible, heart-rending memories of being belittled, underestimated and ignored. Or worse.
The funny thing is, I didn’t set out to be a pioneer.
I wanted to teach instrumental music, for two simple reasons. One, playing music was my greatest joy in life. Nothing moved me and fulfilled me more than the challenge and the glory that came from making beautiful music. That may sound like rhetorical overkill, but it’s true. I got hooked on gorgeous music early in life and wanted to turn it into my life’s work. I wanted to share that joy with kids—make their lives richer and more rewarding.
The second reason I became a band director is because I thought I’d be good at it. I’d observed many instrumental conductors at all levels, played in lots of groups other than my school band—and knew something about what motivated me as a student musician. I had already worked hard to successfully master an instrument and was confident that I could learn the skills and knowledge necessary to become a school band teacher.
Of course, I knew that most band teachers were men. In fact, I’d never worked with or even met a woman director. My high school band instructor told me that he ‘didn’t believe in lady band directors’ and suggested I pursue elementary music education as a college major. The university I chose (like other universities at the time) did not permit women in the marching band—it took lawsuits to make that happen, around the country. Nobody was encouraging me or mentoring me.
Nevertheless, I persisted. It really wasn’t a dramatic personal quest to break a glass ceiling with my piccolo. I just wanted to teach band. It seemed like a fun and rewarding job. For anyone.
I went on job interviews where my fitness and stamina in directing a band were questioned. One principal I interviewed with told me he had no intention of hiring me—he just wanted to meet the girl who thought she could handle his HS band. When I finally got a job, teaching middle school band, the principal who hired me had been on the job one day. Maybe he didn’t know the rules about band directors? In any event, once I got a job, I was a band director for 30 years.
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, as mid-term election outcomes have become clear. You’ve probably seen the photographic comparison of Republican vs. Democratic freshmen in the House of Representatives. ‘Diversity on Stark Display’ says the headline—and it would be difficult to argue, in a representative democracy, that diversity isn’t the crucial ingredient in a fair and equitable decision-making body—or teaching staff, for that matter.
Senator Debbie Stabenow wrote a piece about how the top four offices on the ballot in Michigan were won by women. Not because they were women. But because they were the best person running for the job. The entire mid-term election was a festival of firsts, on the diversity front—and the outcomes were good.
Numbers, in all jobs and experiences once thought to be (usually white) men’s work, are leveling out. The visible trends are positive. And that—in politics, education and the world of work—is good. I’m grateful to every woman who carved or smoothed the pathway for those who came after her.
That doesn’t mean that subtle, deeply embedded sexism has gone away, though. It hasn’t.
It’s often understated and frequently not recognized by its perpetrators. Men relate differently to other men than they do women, in the workplace (and on line). Sometimes, our buried assumptions drive actions in ways we can’t predict. It’s complicated. I learned to work around bias toward women as band directors, but it never went away.
I’m not just making this up, by the way. There’s research.
Whenever I’ve written a blog about the lopsided gender relationships in education, I get a lot of negative feedback. There is lots of room for growth in the way we value who’s teaching second grade, and who’s writing the laws that govern education, however.
You have to be careful before leveling a charge of sexism. But the fact remains, sometimes the best woman for the job is passed over for someone whose qualifications are being louder and ‘bolder.’
We need more women in secondary…and more men in elementary!
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We do, indeed. Bringing diversity into the teaching staff at all levels has a lot of unpredictable benefits.
In addition, it’s worth asking if there are subtle barriers to men in the elementary music classroom or women in the superintendent’s office–and not just getting hired, but in the work. I sat on dozens of hiring committees in my old district, and after interviewing four candidates in a final round, without even discussing them, I could tell who the Band Booster president liked and who the principal favored. I’ve heard moms on hiring committees say things like ‘I just think a man would have better discipline’ (snorting at that one) or principals say ‘I know I’m not supposed to wonder about this, but…she just got married. How soon before she’s out on maternity leave?’
You may recall that I play in a 162 year old town band. It didn’t have an female members for over 100 years. It was okay for women to play piano or sing, but otherwise they were unwelcome. It was true of all the bands in the area, including the band for youths which were, of course, boys bands. It took public school programs to break the barrier, and then it took the high school band director, who was also the town band director, to say, “Look, the band needs more musicians, and have perfectly good ones in my school band. But they’re girls.” I wish I could say that they were welcomed because the band was enlightened, but the band was just desperate. Now, fifty years later, nobody even thinks about it, and our current director is a woman. Nobody was trying to break barriers, but when your main goal is to make music, the rest can eventually fall away.
I have often wondered why the all-male thing got started and persisted as long as it did.
I was part of the lawsuit that eventually allowed women to play in my university’s marching band, but we won because larger and more famous universities in Michigan caved first. The legal issue that pushed courts over the line was money. For the first time, universities started paying their marching band members (it came out to about 3 cents/hour) and were not offering the paid stipend to women–it was an sexual equity issue.
However–our arguments in the suit were different. We said that women weren’t allowed to participate in marching bands, which meant we weren’t given any education in a skill that would be expected of a school music teacher. Our instrumental ensemble education–for which we were paying, BTW–was inferior and limited, and made us less marketable. When the marching band practiced (1 credit hour, daily rehearsals), women had to report to rehearsal hall and participate in ‘Girls Band’ (seriously). There was no university-based instructor. We took turns conducting each other (in unbalanced bands with hardly any low brass). And we paid for the credit.
The university music directors had a bunch of excuses: Marching was too strenuous for women. The bus trips were too rowdy for feminine ears. Girls were more likely to be indisposed on certain days. When women were finally let into the band, they tried to make them all color guard (flag twirlers) and wear long skirts.
The bad old days.
Excellent observations. My thirty five year career as a director parallels much of what you experienced. We have seen so much change but there is STILL room for growth!
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Thanks for the comment, Shelley. I first saw you conduct your band at State Festival. I was there with my band for the first time. I couldn’t tell you who any of the male conductors were, because I was watching all the women. Who were impressive.
I am in my 41st year of teaching, with 37 of them in band. I was told “girls can play and girls can march….. but girls can’t play and march at the same time”. I was pretty much in trouble every time I questioned them.
Snorting with laughter. Couldn’t play and march at the same time! When we were doing it in HS (where they needed us). When we were vastly more fit than some of the boys–outmarching and outplaying them. Hope you’re still questioning… (smiling)
I started teaching in 1970. This picture would look about the same if it were a meeting of administrators in those days. There were very few women that were either building or central administrators at that time.
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The male principal surrounded by 25 female elementary teachers–all hired by him, all following his pedagogical principles–is my lasting impression of the 1970s. I taught in secondary schools, where it was more gender-mixed, but administrators were nearly always male. When women did break through, it was usually in elementary buildings. Thanks for reading and commenting.
I am a woman, and I have seen the same thing, only in social studies. Do you know how many times I have not gotten a job, because I don’t coach (usually male) sports? Probably 10. The first job I took was at an alternative school–because they were the only ones that would hire me,. I was the valedictorian of my (large) university class, and had taken a number of honors courses in social studies, had high test scores, the works. And even today, I still can’t get a high school social studies job because I don’t coach (mostly male) sports. I have successfully coached debate for nine years, but that’s not enough.
The glass ceiling is still thick and strong for a lot of us. Meanwhile, because most teachers are women, that “excuses” paying us less, because, according to elected officials, “A teacher is just a second income for her family.”
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Thanks for chiming in. I think your observations used to be more true than now–only because many schools now seek outside coaches, rather than teachers. Because they’re cheaper and turn over more quickly, and admins have more control over hiring and firing. School athletic directors are looking for winners, rather than good ol’ Mr. Johnson, the history teacher, who influences the boys in lots more than football plays.
There are still glass ceilings, even when the numbers change. It’s harder to recognize deep-rooted sexism when there is a counter-example to point to, but it’s still there.
One happy anecdote: In the 70s our high school band in Texas had boy and/or girl drum majors — two each year, both seniors. In 1979 the director recognized the talent in my sophomore sister so much that he made her a drum major as a junior. Years later, she was hired to be his assistant, later replacing him when he retired. She is now a university director who is also in demand as a contest judge.
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