Posts by nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.

One Hundred Books

I try to read one hundred books per year. I arrived at that number after a few years of pursuing competitive reading, setting ever-higher unreachable goals and then ‘cramming’ in late December in an attempt to slide in under the wire. I was reminded, uncomfortably, of my kids, back in the day, reading easy-peasy picture books to juke the competitive-reading, Pizza Hut-driven stats on the charts posted on their classroom walls. Data, not delight.

My best reading buddy, Claudia Swisher, read 152 books this year, but I have now decided to simply admire Claudia from afar and try to hit three digits, with a mix of old and new, fiction and non-fiction, keeping a book or two (or five) going at all times. I log my reading at GoodReads, rating each book (one to five stars) and writing at least a couple sentences, if not a full-blown review. It took awhile to get into that habit, too, but now I really appreciate having a list of what I’ve read, especially series, wherein titles blur after a few months.

This was not a particularly great year for reading—for me. I read more one- and two-star entries than usual, and for the first time ever, logged two DNF (Did Not Finish) books. It might be my Calvinist upbringing, but I have always powered through books once I’ve read a few chapters.

Perhaps it’s an increased awareness that—tick-tock—I have only so much time left, but I’m done finishing stinkers, forever. And yes, some books take a while to gear up, then reward you generously at the end. But should I have to invest time while hoping things pick up? No. Unless someone I trust (see the aforementioned Claudia Swisher, or my best friend Sandy, or my husband Terry, also a prodigious reader) tells me to persist.

When I was just two books shy of my goal, I asked Twitter for some short but worthy suggestions and Monise Seward turned me on to a YA graphic series—The Amulet. The books are beautifully drawn and feature rip-snorting, mind-boggling adventure plots. I’d read only one graphic novel before, in my life, and decided I didn’t like graphic novels. So—thanks, Monise. You—and others—changed my mind about what to read next.

Here are the best, most thought-provoking things I read in 2018, in the order I read them:

Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

The Power (Naomi Alderman)

Men We Reaped (Jesmyn Ward)

The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)

Beartown (Fredrik Backman)

The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer)

I read the Wolitzer in July—and since then, it’s been a long, dry stretch wherein I’ve read some fine fiction and some good nonfiction, but nothing that turned me around, emotionally or intellectually, like the seven books (one nonfiction, six fiction) I listed.

Each is hyper-linked to a good review, so you don’t have to take my word for it.

Looking at the list, I am pleased to see that six of seven authors are women. I also see that the central themes of the books are aligned with my most cherished core beliefs or deepest questions, from cross-cultural adoption to the unremitting wrongness of racism in the United States. The books look at male privilege (overt and hidden) and sports privilege and, strange as it sounds, Jesuits in space.

I read three books about our cracked, bizarre political situation this year, but didn’t think any of them had a firm grasp on what we have in store as a nation—how the Trump presidency will alter our future. I read some pretty good books on education, too, but didn’t encounter That One book that will be part of the educational canon of transformational thought.

Many of the four- and five-star books I read last year came from friends’ recommendations.

Would you like to recommend a book or two?  I appreciate all of your suggestions.

Also—posting this shot of sunrise on my deck, New Years Day.  (I took a picture on Christmas morning, too, at the exact same time, and it’s entirely different.) Happy New Year, fellow readers. IMG_0521

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Or Not.

As I write, the TV pundits are out in full force on this four-day holiday weekend. I can hear their voices in the next room, saying: ‘Wall. Build the Wall. Steel-slat Wall. There will be no wall, wall, wall.’

It’s deeply ironic, isn’t it? As every other medium is sharing messages of joy and peace—caring for those with all kinds of needs, highlighting the season of giving and forgiving, yada yada—our duly elected President is using his incredible authority to reinforce naked dominance, even outright cruelty, over those same needy folks, at this moment. No joy and peace for you, asylum seekers!

The antidote, for me, has been (more irony) social media, seeing holiday memories, wishes and celebrations pictured on friends’ timelines. I don’t know how many dogs in Santa hats it takes to push the crisis at the border out of mind, temporarily—but I’m down to see them all. We need a little harmony and mirth, before returning to the cause of preserving democracy.

The most heartening things I’ve seen in the past week have come from the schools and classrooms of my educator friends—kids singing, jingle bells ringing, cookies being decorated, trips to the reindeer farm, and stories read. I know that each teacher, PK-12, is struggling with how much ‘holiday’ to inject into the daily life of their classroom—as if they had control over the commercialized Christmas madness that descends on the nation, mid-November.

It’s always a judgment call, for public school educators. How to honor all traditions, sacred and secular? How to walk the fine line between what ‘most people’ celebrate and what is actually happening in the homes of the children in our care, some of whom are decidedly not celebrating anything? How to determine whether a holiday-related story or activity or essential question is worthy of inclusion in a custom-tailored curriculum for our particular students? Probably most pressing: How to keep a lid on the mounting excitement (and dread) and keep kids moving forward?

It’s especially difficult for colleagues who teach music. I have often thought that there should be a whole required course in the university music education curriculum on incorporating cultural traditions respectfully and without running afoul of community expectations. The ACLU has some incredibly useful materials for educators and civic organizations on community celebrations, a widely misunderstood topic (see: The not-really-a ‘War on Christmas’).

Many music teachers, especially those at the elementary level, default to the secular (which often sprang from sacred roots, when traced back) and end up with a lot of Santa Claus music, of dubious worth, or weather-related ‘winter’ tunes which are wildly inappropriate in Arizona and Florida.

I’m not criticizing—it’s really tricky. The longer one teaches in a particular community, the easier it becomes to reconcile December programming with democratic values, but issues always bubble up. Two stories:

#1. I am mentoring a promising, enthusiastic first-year elementary music teacher in my district, although we teach in different buildings. She’s putting together a winter-themed program for December. It looks great to me. My son is in the building where she teaches, and he likes the songs he’s learning. A couple of weeks before the concert date, her principal (an overt born-again Christian) instructs her to end the program with ‘Silent Night.’ He pictures the whole auditorium singing along—and he’ll pop for those flickering fake candles.

She mentions this to other teachers in the lunchroom. They’re outraged. It’s against the law! Just tell him no!  (Note: there are lots of other issues with this principal, beyond separation of church and state.) She comes to me, her official mentor, asking for advice.

Has she had a conversation with him about how appropriate it is to end a program with such an iconic Christian tune? Has she mentioned how little time she has with each group, to explicate what ‘round yon Virgin’ means to your average first grader? Answer: Yes.  And he is adamant. It’s what he wants, and he has directed her to do this.

My advice? Perhaps first-year teachers, even those who know better, have to do what the principal directs.  Her colleagues should understand—they know him, plus they want to keep her on staff, because she’s talented and the kids love her.  Next year, or when she gets tenure, she will be in a better position to choose her own curricular materials and defend them.

That was then.  Today, I might give her different guidance. What do you think?

#2. I am teaching elementary music myself, in a K-5 building. We are preparing for a December assembly for parents and families, during the day—very casual and fun, just a chance to sing and jingle, on the day before winter break.

A first-grader’s father makes an appointment to see me.  I am prepared. I have met, many times, with parents who have different faith traditions, and have always been able to craft a satisfactory solution to holiday programming.

The father is a minister at a fundamentalist church in the district. He’s come to direct me not to mention Santa Claus in my classroom. No stories about Santa. No songs about Santa. No Santa hats or decorations.  He’s perfectly happy for us to sing ‘Away in a Manger’ (his suggestion), but please—no ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas.’ He and his wife have always told their children The Truth about Christmas: there is no Santa Claus, and kids whose parents promote this myth are lying to their children.

Well. While making sure the first-grade songs don’t include Santa is not a problem, some of the other classes have started working on Santa-related songs, including the 5th graders’ very clever rendition of ‘Mr. Santa’ to the tune of ‘Mr. Sandman’ with some cool bom-bom-bom-bom harmonies at the beginning, even a little half-baked counterpoint.

Fifth graders don’t believe in Santa Claus (unless it’s beneficial to their gift tallies), but they’re OK with singing about him. Nobody believes the Beatles lived in a yellow submarine, but we’re all willing to join in on the chorus. Right?

I tried to explain this to the minister; I would avoid directly mentioning or singing about Santa Claus in his daughter’s presence (nor did I want her to spill the beans to horrified Little Believers in her classroom, an evergreen issue for early childhood educators). But I couldn’t take Santa out of the entire program.

He smirked. He thanked me for my time and told me his daughter would not be attending the program. All in all, probably for the best, because—trust me—even when teachers try to excise symbolic representations of the holiday for the best of reasons, somehow Santa Claus keeps comin’ to town. Jolly-old-saint-nick

Christmas Time: Minefield for Teachers

 

Several years ago, in an effort to make the building look festive as parents visited for various events, my middle school principal suggested mandated a Christmas door decorating contest in December. Each homeroom would choose a theme and embellish their classroom doors to match. Naturally, it was a contest—with the winning homeroom scoring donuts and cocoa.

I had some reservations about this. Competitive decorating—for a holiday that represents only one faith-ish tradition—is really not kosher, so to speak, in a public school. Even with a fairly uniform—middle class, non-diverse—student population, embracing a range of celebrations and ‘reasons for the season’ has always been my M.O., the way to meld parent expectations around a December concert, and teach students that mankind, in arctic and temperate zones anyway, has marked the Solstice as celestial turning point. Everything else, from Santa Claus to midnight Mass, came later.

Besides, enforced cheer can be anxiety-producing for many students in December, even in a school district where a very large majority of students celebrate Christmas in their homes.  There are always children whose grandmother is seriously ill, whose dad has lost his job, whose parents have split and are now experiencing two, or more, less-than-Hallmark celebrations, marked by tears and disappointment.

In fact, the longer you live, the more you realize that sweetness and light at the holidays happens only sometimes. When you’re genuinely mature, you can come to seriously appreciate the bittersweet holiday, the annual opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of life, the quiet pleasures of memory.

But not if you’re, say, twelve—and wondering why other kids get Force One hand-operated drones, and you’re just hoping to have dinner with someone who cares about you.

One year during the weeks leading up to the winter break, I asked my students to write about what they planned to do during their time off. Most wrote things like, “see my cousins,” “get a new gaming system,” and “go skiing.” However, one of my students turned in a blank piece of paper with just his name on it. When I asked him why he didn’t write anything, he reluctantly told me that he wasn’t excited for the break. He said all winter break meant to him was two weeks at home alone while his mother was passed out on the couch. No tree. No family dinners. Not even any presents.

I was discussing this minefield with three of my friends who are veteran teachers. One said:

The year I moved from elementary to HS remedial, I loved every minute until about Thanksgiving… I finally went into my principal’s office and admitted I was a terrible teacher and I wasn’t doing anything right. She gently explained the difference between what my littles were anticipating, and my bigs. How holidays were dreaded… It helped me right the ship and look at my students with new eyes.

And another wrote:

I taught homeless children for nearly two decades. There were two times a year when we’d see them cry as they left the building. One was Christmas and the other was the end of the school year! Having come from a supportive family with family traditions around the holidays, I can only imagine what these youngsters endured.

Lest you think this holiday stress is a function of poverty, here’s a comment from a teacher at a private boarding school:

The period between Thanksgiving break and winter break is one of the most stressful of the year here. Whatever the nature of the home life each kid may have, the adjustment on return from a break always takes some time as does anticipation of and preparation for an upcoming break. Additionally, some international students go out on a home stay here rather than returning to their home. All this means some kids feel they are in non-stop transition, which is really hard. Advisors and our school counselor, being aware of this, do what we can to make ourselves available to kids however they may need us.

 

When my homeroom of 8th graders heard about the door decorating contest, they immediately recognized it for what it was: a sugar-laced bribe. While many of the doors in the building began sporting live greenery, battery-pack flashing lights and construction paper fireplaces, our door was blank and undecorated as the deadline approached.

Finally, one of the girls (it’s always a young woman who takes the lead on a project like this) covered the door in brown butcher paper and wrote ‘What Do You Really Want for Christmas?’ at the top. We left magic markers next to the door and invited everyone on the 8th grade hallway to participate. *

What happened next was low-key but amazing. Students wrote about noble things—true peace on earth, healing the planet—but also their private needs:  No fighting at my house. My brother comes home from the hospital. I get to see my friends from my old school.

Students stuck things to the door with glue sticks—notes from friends, grades ripped from the top of assignments. It became a graffiti wall, untidy and the opposite of celebratory.

I wasn’t there when the teacher-judges came around but can only imagine their faces as they saw Mrs. Flanagan’s cop-out door.  So very un-Christmasy—but maybe not.

We didn’t win. But we had cocoa anyway.

*See commenter Cara’s remark below–she’s right, it was a sexist thing to say. And not accurate.4303131636_fd8630a77b_b

Helicopter Mom Comes for Lunch

It happened maybe 20 years ago, but I remember it clearly—because it was so unusual.

I was teaching a middle school band class, and there was a knock on the door. I went to answer—and it was David’s mother, holding a big shopping bag.  I turned to call David to the door, assuming he’d forgotten something at home, and good ol’ stay-at-home Mom was rescuing him.  But she stopped me.

Keeping out of the class’s line of vision in the hall, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small pie. With potholders. “I don’t want David to see me,” she said. “But I was baking this morning, and wanted him to have pie, fresh out of the oven, for lunch.”

I took the pie, gingerly, and she set off down the hallway.  The pie smelled and looked fantastic. I carried it back into the classroom and set it on a bookcase. There were plenty of remarks: How come Mrs. Flanagan got a pie and they were stuck with cafeteria food? Could they have some? Whose mom was sucking up to the teacher?

I explained that it wasn’t for me. And because it would be obvious who’d be eating the pie in ten minutes, I told them it belonged to David—a quiet, cooperative trumpet player. David’s face got beet red, as I settled the class down for the final few minutes of instruction. When the bell rang, he picked up the pie—and the potholders—but waited until everyone was out of the room to leave.  He didn’t look like someone who’d just been given the best school lunch ever. In fact, he looked mortified.

In the teachers’ lounge, my colleagues were discussing another pie delivery, made to David’s sister.  It wasn’t a kindly, delighted conversation. In fact, the other teacher who had taken a secret pie drop-off was expertly mimicking Mom’s tiny, high-pitched voice: You know how pies are best when they’re warm? It’s her favorite kind!

The general—ruthless—conversation was around parents who can’t let their children go to school, damn it, like every other kid, and be unspoiled and un-special for seven hours a day.  Make them a pie at home. Don’t bring it to school. And the same goes for their mittens.

I tended then—and now—to agree. School is, by its nature, a group experience, where we learn more than long division and state capitols. It’s a place where we learn to take turns, take only what we need, wait for others to speak and tough it out when things don’t go our way. There’s a reason why Robert Fulghum made a mint by laying out why everything we need to know is learned in kindergarten.

In 30+ years in the classroom, I’ve met plenty of parents who wanted special favors for their children. Some seemed reasonable, others merely a way to excuse their children or mitigate their child’s very natural and productive struggle with difficult challenges. The parent who frequently runs interference for their child is not doing them any favors, in the long run.

This is, of course, generalizing. Some kids deserve and benefit from a break, or special treatment. These are judgment calls, case by case situations. This is why we want thoughtful and kind people working in schools—to decide whether Johnny needs a hand up or a kick in the pants in his journey toward becoming civilized.

Parent involvement in, and monitoring of, daily life at school, however, has undeniably increased. The ‘choice’ movement—where disgruntled parents can easily choose another (free) school for their child—has enhanced (or exacerbated, take your pick) helicopter parenting.  Don’t like the curriculum or the teacher—or your children’s classmates? Pick another school. Plenty of choices available.

I was stunned to read, in the Atlantic, no less, that schools are trying to decide how to deal with an influx of parents wanting to eat lunch with their children.

What could be wrong with Dad wanting to pop in once a month and chow down on sloppy joes and carrot sticks with his second grader?  School lunches last about 25 minutes, and it would be a treat for most elementary school children to see a parent’s friendly face. It could strengthen the school-home bond. Perhaps even improve behavior in the cafeteria, with a couple of extra adults around.

Then I read the story.

There were the parents who brought pizza for their kid and his friends, leaving other kids envious. The moms who worried about their kids being picky eaters and not getting optimum nutrition. The one who just wanted to know more about what goes in her child’s day:

“You see what people are eating, not eating, see which kids are throwing food, talking too loud, who is sitting by themselves. It’s a chance to poke in on your kids’ day that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have lunch with them.”

It’s the very definition of helicopter parenting—all about the judging, the disapproval, the social arbitration, the inability to let a child make her own friends and choices. And woe to the school that tries to put brakes and limits on eating lunch with your child, as often as you choose.

There’s a shift happening here, toward individualizing education and a consumerist perspective on a public good. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a school lunch just a school lunch. But the story made me uneasy. Power and control over small things in public schools can lead to power and control over bigger things.  A little pie today, the whole enchilada tomorrow.    school-lunch-830x553

 Batch Processing Students on an Assembly Line Using the Factory Model

There’s a revealing little clip in ‘Waiting for Superman’—the feel-bad documentary that was designed to damn public education before revealing and promoting its amazing new successor, charter schools. WFS was loaded with such cartoon animations, weak analogies and essentially irrelevant video captures from TV shows and industrial films from the bad old days (meaning always) when public education utterly failed students. This particular clip shows groups of students on conveyer belts being transported to their destinies as either well-educated ‘leaders’ or, alas, farms and factories, based on the schools they attend.

The belabored point being: a better education (now available by lottery!) would save kids—just like Superman does— from what, generations ago, were considered the natural outcomes of their station in life. Education—not parent income—as magic carpet to a materially good life.

I am heartily sick of reading about the also-inherited, traditional ‘failings’ of public education. I don’t want to read another column about the Committee of Ten and how, 125 years ago, they got it all wrong and now we’re stuck with a useless curriculum and ineffective instruction techniques. I don’t want to hear about the factory model of schooling and how clueless, timid, non-disruptive folk are running public schools like egg crates, isolating teachers and students in age-related cohorts, unwilling to innovate.

Ten to one, the proposed solution involves a whole lot of expensive technology, to ‘individualize’ or ‘personalize’ education for each and every child. But this isn’t a blog about kids and endless screens and profit-making and using unfair metrics to compare students’ memorization skills.

It’s about the concept that much of what happens in school, right now, with students in batches and the same curriculum and instruction being delivered to all 4th graders, factory-like, rather than custom-tailored is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, those old habits work pretty well. A great teacher can build a fine learning community (a phrase I don’t always trust) and teach the kids’ socks off. It happens every day.

And furthermore, people already doing the actual work—teachers—are a lot more amenable to carefully thought-out change, when you don’t refer to their current practice as an ‘assembly line.’

Hanging out on Twitter, I caught this comment from Dr. Tony Wagner, well-known author, presenter and expert on disruption and 21st Century education.

Tony Wagner‏ @DrTonyWagner 

 

Yes. Our assembly line education system was designed to both sort kids and also to batch process large numbers of immigrants & kids from farms to teach basic literacy & numeracy for the industrial era. Think of it as the “Model T” of education. Now we need “Tesla” schools.

Bearing in mind that he’s Dr. Tony Wagner (author of six books, as he points out during some contentious discussion following the next tweet), and I am just a small-potatoes teacher blogger, I nevertheless was irritated enough to respond:

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20

If you really want to transform public education, please stop using dismissive language like ‘batch process’ and ‘sort kids’ and ‘factory model.’ Your zingy ‘Tesla’ comment overlooks the millions in R&D spent on cars, but not on kids.

Dr. Tony Wagner Replying to @nancyflanagan

.@nancyflanagan My comments describe a system’s intent & is historically accurate. It is not a criticism of teachers who do their best in spite of a bad system design. I was one. And I agree that we need more $ for education. Tesla is an analogy for system redesign & edu R&D.

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20 Replying to @DrTonyWagner

‘Assembly line,’ etc. *may* be historically derived, but are still a rank insult to the creative, humane work of modern educators, who don’t see kids as widgets. If you want genuine change, begin w/ those already leading it, not slam-tweets damning the ‘system.’

Because that’s the thing. All folks who are serious about dramatically changing an outmoded educational system feel they have to start by verbally tearing down time-honored practices first. It’s not a quid pro quo—supporting and strengthening what’s good in our community schools does not necessitate name-calling or castigating everything that we’ve been doing for years. Things like circle time, class discussion, reading silently or out loud, Q &A, on-demand writing, group work and games have not outlived their purpose and efficacy. Working with others doesn’t get old.

There are plenty of successful nations who are ‘batch processing’ children in same-age cohorts and getting good outcomes.  Here are 12 recommendations from Finland via the Hechinger Institute (sorry—I know—Finland again) on how to improve American public schools and not one of them suggests that we further ‘individualize’ education, using fine-tuned technologies. Instead, the focus is on community, trust and the well-being of children.

And please—can we stop saying that while a physician from 1918 would not recognize a surgical theatre from 2018, but classrooms today look pretty much the same? In addition to being false—there have been sweeping changes in purposes, practices and technologies at every level—it also overlooks the fact that most of our old-fashioned classrooms look that way because they’ve been seriously neglected for decades.

I do need to note that Dr. Wagner did not shy away from conversation on the Twitter exchange, even when challenged by more sharply articulate tweets than mine. But he has great influence in Ed World. He and other big-name commenters should not be recycling disrespectful ‘factory school’ language. It’s harmful, not helpful.

 

 

 

Black Friday. It’s Not a Thing, Really.

If this is Tuesday, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Eve. And Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, an excellent time to put up your sparkly, festive outdoor lights, weather permitting. Or read a book, supplemented by leftover pie with extra whipped cream, now that you don’t have to share. Or see friends who are home for a few days. In fact, there are dozens of healthy, life-affirming things you can do on Friday.

It’s not a good day to shop, however.  https_mashable.comwp-contentgalleryugly-turkeysugly-turkey-5

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to shop early for gifts for your beloveds, and even those you don’t particularly care for but feel compelled to gift in the holiday season. The fun of gift-giving comes from knowing the recipient well and savoring the pleasure of their joy and surprise. That shopping, however, can happen in July or the first week of December or via the internet at some random midnight. Just don’t do it on Friday.

Friday is not ‘black’ in any sense. It’s merely the day after a national holiday–a day when frisky kids hoping for parental attention are out of school, when you may need to burn off a few calories, and when your residual musing about gratitude (thanks-giving, that is) may lead you to a day spent in profitable thought about the good, shareable things in your life. A day for people. Even (and I am deeply suspicious of this word) your blessings.

I do understand that it’s the day merchants want to recoup their ‘losses’ and turn them into a solid month of profit–black ink. More profit than last year, actually. This is kind of like the way the school reformers press to see this year’s test scores top last year’s. Every year must be bigger and better.

Everyone calls this ‘growth.’ There are famous, full-blown clubs for growth, replete with Republican operants, innovative strategies to reward greed, and probably secret handshakes. Growth is supposed to be the One Big Thing we all desire and pursue

But I have to ask: What do you owe these sellers and commercial interests? Why are you responding to their glitzy loss-leader bait, loading your shopping carts and packing the icy parking lot, to get a TV at 50% off? In addition to feeling tired and cranky, do you feel manipulated? You should

What impulse in our nature draws us to such a ‘bargain?’  Whatever it is, it wasn’t always part of the American story.  Early Christmases–even those in the 20th century–were far simpler but no less joyful. One of Bill McKibben’s early books was about celebrating the holiday with a $100 limit on spending, relying instead on creativity.

Most of us would consider this wistfully, then conclude that, given our obligations and habits, and the expectations of others, it’s impossible. But what if it weren’t? Most world religious customs see the ancient, cyclical return of the light as a time for celebration, and have stories and rituals associated with fending off the darkness. It’s not about spending. It’s about love and tradition.

Ignoring Black Friday is a great place to start. Black Friday was not widely recognized until the 1980s in most parts of the country. Like Sweetest Day gifts and Presidents’ Weekend sales, it was invented by folks who want your money.

Think for yourself. Black Friday is not really a thing.

The Best Woman for the Job

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?

cadillac breakfast.jpg

 

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.