Assess the Program Before You Accept the Job: Seven Areas
by Lewis H. Strouse
Entering the job market as a new teacher or a long-experienced veteran can be an exciting and unnerving adventure. Regardless of your status, you look for a position that fits your style of teaching, a school that shares your philosophy of music education, and a community that will offer you and your family an enjoyable lifestyle. You need to balance all of these factors before deciding to accept a job offer.
Teaching positions in high-school music are unique because of their high visibility. The results of your teaching efforts are viewed and evaluated not only by your students and immediate supervisors but also by the community. Through public appearances, your groups bear the responsibility of representing the school and the community within and beyond the bounds of the area served by the school. Other classroom teachers would be in a position similar to yours if they were to post their students' scored midterm exams, final exams, and term projects in a public forum for all to see and judge.
Since the work of any high-school music director is so visible, the position always brings with it the stress of responding to the expectations of students, faculty, administration, parents, and the public. Therefore, neither the candidate nor the school should treat the interview process for high-school music directors lightly.
Throughout the interview process, you must try to gain a clear and accurate picture of the school, the community, and the current perception of the music program within the school-community setting. It is critical to the success of your program that your expectations of the music program are in line with those of the school. Ambiguous expectations on your part, or the school's part, can lead to unsettled times and additional stress.
Many school and community factors contribute to the consistent success of any performance-based school organization. To ensure mutually supportive expectations, you should address seven resource areas of the school and community during the interview process. In some instances, it may be useful to explore the program before and after the scheduled interview. Ultimately, the success of your program will depend upon satisfactory support from each of the areas discussed below.
Additionally, job candidates sometimes find that prospective employers either have unrealistic expectations of performance organizations or are seeking quick fixes to program problems that usually require long-term solutions. With this in view, the information you gain from a thorough examination of a prospective job can be as useful to your employer as it will be to your decision about accepting the position. It is not advisable to compete for a position by promising to deliver the world, because soon after you begin to work, you will discover the folly of your promise. You must make your views of the positive aspects and your solutions for the negative aspects of a program clear to your prospective employer before you accept a position.
The Seven Areas
The seven interview agenda areas are critical diagnostic areas. Even though the clearest picture of each area will only be realized after total immersion in a new position, it remains very important that you achieve at least a comfortable sense of each area before accepting the offer of a position.Thoroughly assess each diagnostic area and do not second-guess your intuition about the assessments. If your gut feeling tells you that there are serious concerns, you should seek further information.
Area 1: Attitude of the school's student body toward the music program.
A positive view of the music program by the student body of a high school will greatly influence the program's rate of growth and strength of musicianship. Certainly, negative student attitudes are susceptible to change over time and need not, in and of themselves, keep you from accepting a position. Still, a history of negative student attitudes within a school is cause for concern and further inquiry.
You can best assess student attitudes by speaking with as many students as possible students within and outside of the music program. Students are very perceptive and rarely fail to offer genuine concern or enthusiasm for a program. Ask questions such as "Is the music program a popular part of school life?" and "Do you think the program could be improved?" As you begin your diagnosis of a program, conversations with students will give you an excellent overview of the program's health.
Area 2: Attitude of music students toward the music program.
During the interview process, it is vital to review the current curriculum and activities of the program, and to assess student attitudes toward the current program. In order to review the curriculum and policies of the music program, ask to see a curriculum guide for music. (Whether a guide is available is a revealing factor.) Are music courses and stated policies clearly detailed in the curriculum guide or in a music department handbook? Do the individual music organizations have their own handbooks of policies and procedures?
Discussions with music students will quickly illuminate positive and negative aspects of a program. Be straightforward in your conversations with the students. Ask questions such as "Are you proud to be a member of the music program?" "Have you noticed an improvement in your musicianship as a result of being in the program?" and "Would you want to see any aspect of the program changed?" Listen to what the students say in response. The content and tone of student discussion will offer ample insight into areas of concern and delight.
Students with positive attitudes will move quickly to adapt to changes in directors. A strong rapport between students and teacher will be the essence of success for a well-founded program.
Area 3: The organization and quality of music student leadership.
It is very important that a music organization with a large membership has a strong leadership infrastructure. If an infrastructure of officers and section leaders is already in place, it will greatly assist with the transition to a new director by fostering group cohesion and esprit de corps.
The extent of student leadership organization should be determined through conversations with the current director and music students. Reviewing a music department handbook will give you a sense of the leadership structure, but what exists on paper and what exists in reality may be two different animals. Specific inquiries might include "Is a listing of student officers available?" "Does the music organization have an institution that details the nature and responsibilities of various leadership positions?" and "How effective is the current student leadership?"
It is very useful to sit down with student leaders and listen to their views and aspirations for the program. This time together gives students the opportunity to meet you informally and to discover your views on areas that are of concern to them. If the interview does not provide the opportunity for exchanges with student leaders, it is important that such a meeting take place prior to the beginning of the school year. It is best to formulate policy and set expectations only after current viewpoints and program practices have been thoroughly considered. Teaching is first and foremost an interplay of attitudes and personalities, and special care must be taken to respect the current attitudes of the school and community before setting goals and objectives in a new teaching situation. Moreover, good impressions of you, your concern, and your ideas will travel quickly through the school and community as a result of meeting with students. Comfortable feelings among all concerned will pave the way for a successful school year.
Area 4: The attitude and support of parents.
Music activities offer students wonderful opportunities to develop self-confidence and self-esteem (factors that correlate positively with academic success in other subjects) as well as musicianship. However, students who function successfully in music activities must possess a substantial amount of self-discipline. Self-discipline is required to establish a personal practice routine and to attend many after-school hours of rehearsals, concerts, and other music-related activities. It is important for parents to be willing to support and encourage their children in developing self-discipline.
The literature on educational reform identifies parental support as a critical component of successful teaching, and you should speak with parent officers of music booster groups in order to complete your assessment of support for the music program. Furthermore, it is important that director expectations and parent expectations for the program be in workable agreement. Ask to meet with officers of the music boosters so that you can discuss the nature of their involvement in the current program and what they expect from the program. This meeting is an excellent opportunity to express your philosophy of music education and then to gauge the reaction of the parent group. You should also ask the music students about their view of the parent support group.
Because of the time that music students commit to community performance, it is necessary for the community, and especially the parents of music students, to show their support for the students through school concert attendance and participation in music booster activities. You should check concert attendance in the recent past because it is a measure of attitude. A large music program will be heavily dependent on parental support for the arrangements of local activities as well as for activities that involve travel.
Area 5: Communication between music department and local community.
Communication is always an important key to success in all kinds of relationships from personal to corporate. People tend to pay little attention to that which they do not understand, and this lack of understanding can be especially painful for the music director when increased funding for the schools is sought. Regular news items in school board publications have proven to be very effective in maintaining support for music in many communities. Music newsletters to parents and community businesses offer an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of the music program and individual students. The public newsletter serves to personalize and reinforce the importance of the program. Music is presented as a source of pride for the local schools and community.
You should assess the opportunities available for communication if some process of regular published contact is not already in place.
Area 6: Monetary commitment to the program.
Music programs incur regular expenditures for sheet music, new and refurbished instruments, auxiliary equipment, storage facilities, and attire for concert and marching performances. Take the time necessary to assess the depth of the current music library, the quality and number of instruments in inventory, the quality of auxiliary equipment, the amount of area devoted to storage facilities and its growth potential, and the quality of attire used for public appearances. Request specific budget figures from school officials. Do the current and projected figures of the administration reflect a commitment to quality – now and in the future?
Extend budget discussions to conversations with the current director. After you assess this area thoroughly, you may need to offer a very specific blueprint for improvement.
Area 7: Quality of the feeder system.
It is important to assess the strength of the elementary and junior-high choral and instrumental music programs. For example, instrumentalists who do not begin lessons until their freshman or sophomore year of high school will not be able to maintain the excellence of a high-school band or orchestra. If the feeder system is not producing competent and enthusiastic musicians, you should determine the amount of influence that you could have on developing or improving the feeder program.
Request some time to speak with music teachers in the feeder schools. Through these discussions you will be able to gain an impression of their commitment to a quality program. Conversations with feeder school teachers also offer the opportunity for you to learn more about the current high-school program and its history. You need feeder teachers to be your strong allies. By developing conscientious and enthusiastic students, these teachers will form the foundation of your high-school program.
Each of the seven diagnostic areas will play a crucial role in the success of your high-school music program. In certain situations, important features of these areas may not be in place. Some schools may present a very poor scenario with only the bare essentials of a program in place, while others will offer programs of comprehensive excellence. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility to yourself and your potential employer to ascertain the quality of the program and its needs, and to offer your design for improving the program.
You certainly should not reject out-of-hand a job possibility at a school that lacks infrastructure and that has extraordinary needs. However, you do need to determine the amount of support that is present for the improvement of the program. Aside from the answers to your questions, your best sense of school and community support for program improvement will come from your perception of an eagerness to change – a perception you will gain from interpersonal contacts with school administrators, faculty, students, and parents during the interview process.
Arrive at your interview with an agenda for assessment and complete the interview by offering your agenda for maintaining the excellence of the program or improving the program. In some instances, it may take you a few days following the interview to consider all that you have learned before submitting your plan. If you are not completely satisfied with the position, do not be persuaded to accept a contract hastily. School officials who are committed to quality education will allow you a reasonable amount of time to consider your decision. Your confidence in the school's commitment to your agenda will make job decision-making a more comfortable task.