Friday, May 12, 2023

What makes a good job different from "just a job"? Reflections on teaching K-12 and higher ed

I am a unicorn in higher education. I landed a tenure-track job at an R-1 (research-focused) university straight out of my PhD program. Most people (and I expected to also) have to take visiting, one-year jobs or non tenure track jobs that may or may not be full time. There are a lot of really great things about the job I have, though there's also things that could be better. A friend working at another university tells me that she believes the grass isn't greener at any institution, it's just that the cow pies are in different spots so you have to learn where to dodge.

One of the great things about being at an R-1 though, is the opportunity to work with graduate students. I have one at the moment who taught in K-12 for a long time before starting her PhD, and she's about the same age as me so we have similar observations about changes we've observed in the K-12 profession over the years, and likewise about what we see in higher education both from the student and new faculty perspectives. Some of those conversations have made me wonder what are the criteria that make a job 'good' versus just 'a' job? I know there's all sorts of studies on this, but I mean something more ineffable than that. I've worked in a few places that should have been "good" jobs by all the factors and measures, and they just simply weren't.

Some of the things I really loved about teaching K-12 have carried over to my academic career, as I teach pre-service teachers so I get to teach about what I love---but from a completely different angle, analyzing what it was I actually did, why, and how---and then figuring out creative ways to get that information to my students. I do believe wholeheartedly it's made my teaching stronger in some ways. But it's also made me lazy about other things. You see, higher education does not value good teaching. Of course they say they do, it's an educational institution after all. But you can see evidence everywhere that it's not rewarded and incentivized the way other things are. And that, for me with 17 years in K-12, has been a hard and bitter pill to swallow.

 But back to what makes a job a good job?

What was it in K-12 that I loved that I still get to do now and make this current job great?

1. The people 

What things in K-12 made me want to go become a flight attendant and are also true in higher ed?

1. The people

Obviously the groups of people above are not the same people (sometimes). In my doctoral program, I learned that sometimes people you have built relationships with and trust, under the right circumstances, can turn on you and sabotage everything they get their hands on. In my current job, I'm learning the ways in which job perks (like relative autonomy) can be weaponized when someone feels petty or territorial. I'm also learning the loneliness of being siloed from other colleagues or departments.

And this is not to call out either institution, because I am SURE those sorts of problems are not unique to those places. Plus, in both K-12 and higher ed it has almost never been the students. At this moment I have taught thousands of students and only one or two stand out to me as real problems. The adults though? At least one or two everywhere I worked. And whether it was a good job or a bad job depended on who that person was. A terrible parent? Wait it out a few years, they go away. Miserable colleague? Just avoid them. But someone in your department or a feckless admin? Time to find a new job.

Unfortunately, that's not an easy thing to do in higher ed ---finding a new job usually means relocating somewhere very far away, away from any support system you may have built. And there's no guarantee that the new place will be any better, you just hope the cow pies are in a more manageable spot. So people do what they can to make the job good with what they have. Some sculpt the manure piles or move them. Some people write grants and get money so they can stand outside the pasture. Some people just put on rubber boots and slog through the best they can. Some people create their own piles. And I can live with that. I can put on rubber boots, I can navigate outside the pasture and do my own thing.

What I can't tolerate, and what makes a higher ed job miserable, is when you try to remove a cow pie and someone comes along and says "I WAS SCULPTING THAT. THAT'S MY CRAFT" and actively prevents you from fixing it even though you can see it's causing infections in the herd. And because everyone else is just trying to navigate the pasture, they either don't care or don't have the capacity to help you. 

I really wanted to close this blog post with some life advice, a pithy little philosophical bow, but I can't. It's a messy ending to a messy post, because it's about people and people are messy. I guess the moral of the story is that jobs are good when the people are good and the opposite of that is also true.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Thoughts on unpaid labor and the teaching profession

This morning, I had someone text me with a "hey have you seen this thing where some student teacher was on TikTok saying they should be paid for their internship?" followed by something to the effect of "kids these days." 

Apparently one of my choral ed colleagues had responded to this undergrad on TikTok (or by posting his own thing?) by saying that student teaching is a class, and he's doing all the work teaching them how to do something they can't already do, so therefore interns should not be paid.

There's a lot to unpack here. I'm going to go in backwards order because I think that will help me explain better.

First, the internship is not a "class." Yes, it's credits they have to register and pay for, and in that respect it's a "class" but it's not a class in the respect that we expect them to go in knowing nothing. In fact, we expect them to go in and actually be able to do the full job (with a metric ton of extra paperwork), but with the support and scaffolding of an experienced mentor teacher. Being a mentor teacher (at least, a good one) IS a lot of work, because of course mistakes will be made, and the extra planning for guidance and correction is work. I have no dispute with that.

So I'm going to start off with my first point that mentor teachers should be paid, and I don't mean a pittance of $250 or credits towards license renewal. They should be paid their market rate hourly wage for the minimum 10-20 extra hours of work per week they put in which is an idea supported by research on the importance of mentor teachers. But this idea that student teachers come in completely unprepared and the mentors have to build ALL the skills from scratch is not accurate, either. Unfortunately, we all know there's no nuance with social media.

To that point, experienced teachers need to hear: Many colleges are limited in the number of credits we are allowed to require for teacher preparation. If you currently have more than 10 years experience, you probably remember taking more than 4 years to complete your music education degree, and probably between 18 and 22 credits every single term. Undergrad programs are not allowed to do that anymore. But let's be honest, even if it was a ten year preparation program, we all know there's no way to teach them everything. But it means programs have started focusing on aspects of teaching that we know are more important in the long term (problem solving, how to look things up, etc) but lacking in the "I know how to analyze figured bass perfectly" aspects. The result is mentor teachers probably are perceiving interns as having "holes" in their knowledge and I'm sure that's where my colleague is coming from. So yes, the mentor is still teaching the intern some things, but that was always the case anyway, and doesn't change that that should be paid labor and the intern is not a blank slate. 

The perception also that this current generation of student teachers (or students in general) are more entitled than previous generations is absolute old people nonsense. I do think there are some major differences in how younger people interact with others because of the prevalence of technology, and that makes them appear self-involved (and more prone to anxiety-related disorders). But the awareness that makes them anxious comes from that same technology---knowledge of the bigger picture, the wider world, and other things that previous generations were protected/kept from---and, point three: that makes them far more intolerant of injustices. So while older people might react with "meh, I survived it, toughen up" the younger people are going Why? WHY should we "toughen up"? Why should we be ok with being underpaid and ignored and underappreciated? Why should we accept a full unpaid work day and then go wait tables for 7 hours? 

I mean, from a teacher educator standpoint, I want my undergrads to have time to fully reflect on their day, time to refine plans, time to research new ideas, time to collect and create templates that will save them time later when they're on their own, ESPECIALLY because of the credit cap! If they're working even a part time job, they can't do ANY of that. They spend their entire internship in survival mode and then we wonder why the attrition rate is 50% in the first 5 years. Imagine if we just gave student teachers a tuition waiver so they didn't have to take out loans the final semester/quarters of their 4th year how much difference would that make? Or they could use their loans to live on so they don't have to work a second job? Why are we ok with indoctrinating undergrads with the idea that to be a teacher it's ok to need a second job? Especially when we know wages have been stagnant and the buying power of a second job isn't as high as it was when WE (the older people) went to school?

I was THRILLED when I saw this story about the Michigan legislature working on a way to pay student teachers. Their reasoning was basically that student teaching is like a medical residency (rotations of age levels, types of classes, guided practice but the expectation of independence) and we should treat it as such, especially if we intend to a) retain ANYONE in the profession and b) expand the current majority demographic of teachers to include more than middle and upper class white folks. Michigan, I hope you get it passed, I hope it works. I hope that becomes the model everywhere. 

Here's the real point of this essay: The current model of education everywhere, not just in the United States, relies 100% on massive amounts of unpaid labor. So is the internship meant to train people how to do the job well? Or is it to train them how to accept the exploitative system as it is? If it's the former, we should be proud that undergrads want to change the system. But if it's the latter, why are we still wondering why attrition and retention is such a problem?











Sunday, May 8, 2022

Thinking about C and abortion

 This post is about the evolution of my views on abortion. So here is your content warning.

I grew up in a moderately conservative household. We went to church, and my parents complained about environmentalists, but we recycled and my dad proudly belonged to a union for his work. My parents had pretty moderate, centrist views on things like cannabis, guns, and abortion. I learned what abortion was when I was about 10 years old, watching Dirty Dancing and trying to make sense of the story. I had no idea what being "in trouble" or "knocked up" meant, so I asked my mom. She explained it pretty well I think, considering the age I was. She also told me that she knew a few people who had had them, and while she didn't agree with it because of religious reasons, she was ok with it being legal.

She also remembered her parents telling her about situations like the one depicted in the movie. Desperate women with no other options, entrusting their lives and reproductive health to a sketchy, underground, black market system. Women who lost their lives or their future ability to have children to a botched, unregulated and unsafe procedure. That stuck with me. 

A decade later, I was in Chicago trying to get birth control pills while I was in between jobs and had no insurance. My prior experience in Seattle was just to pop in at Planned Parenthood and get 3 months of pills for free. In Chicago, they had a law that limited how many pills you could get, and they cost a lot. A big chunk of my non-existent paycheck (I was subbing, and we ended up selling my truck a few months later to pay our rent). That was the first time I realized that the state you live in makes a difference to your access to these things. Or the consequences of not having insurance in a country with a for-profit system.

About 6 years after that, and after moving back to Washington, I became pregnant with my first child (who is now pushing 13 and in FULL MIDDLE SCHOOL mode). I was also in a summer masters degree program in Chicago, so I spent most of my 2nd trimester on the "L" and in the Deering library. While waiting on the train platform one day after class, I saw one of my former HS students, "C," at that time in her early 20s. We hugged and started catching up, and she noticed my belly. After discussing for a bit, I learned that she too was pregnant, about 12 weeks. I started excitedly chittering away about how great that was and she dropped this on me, "Well, actually, I've decided to get an abortion." 

I regret the next part and I hope wherever she is, C forgave me for it. My response was to say "no, don't do that! If you need help, let me adopt your baby. I'm sure my husband would agree."

She then explained her reasoning. Boyfriend was in jail. Estranged from her parents, no help there. She had pre-eclampsia already (VERY early and life threatening). To carry the pregnancy to term, she would have to quit her job to be on bed rest. Losing her job meant losing insurance. That meant to get health care, she would have to live on food stamps, section 8 or project housing, and Medicaid. Her next words still haunt me: "and I will be damned if I raise a baby in poverty like I was."

And I stopped arguing. 

A few years later, debating this issue with a church friend, I relayed C's story and his response was "well what did she think was going to happen? Don't want the consequences, don't have sex!"

(btw, if you think that, you're a horrible person, full stop. A child is not a punishment. And if you really believe in the sanctity of life and that a child has a soul at conception, it's even an even more horrific viewpoint. Nevermind the fact that you can't legislate sex in a secular, pluralistic society based on the interpretation of one sect of one religion though it's clear they really want to try---ask yourself. Who does that benefit?).

And I asked why he had a problem with it. "It doesn't affect you in any way shape or form, even financially through taxes---since it's illegal for PP or anyone else to use federal funds for abortions. But a forced birth DOES affect you. Your taxes and insurance premiums. Your overcrowded schools and overworked teachers." And I also asked him why he didn't support free and widely available birth control. He didn't have a good answer for any of that, just tried to talk around it but always came back to the child-as-punishment-for-the-woman-for-having-sex. 

(We are no longer friends. I tried to salvage the friendship for a long time but he did the devil's advocate/false equivalency for the Nazis in Charlottesville and that was my line. 20 years of friendship down the drain because a supposed follower of Jesus can't accurately identify evil).

I guess all of this is to say, if you think you are pro-life, examine your feelings about the following things with the understanding that it is not possible to make having sex illegal so just let go of that Puritan sh*t right now:

    1. How do you feel about widely available and required comprehensive sexual education, that teaches people how their bodies and pregnancy actually work? 

    2. How do you feel about widely available and free birth control?

    3. How do you feel about providing free pre-natal care including and up to 50% paid leave for medical distress during pregnancy?

    4. How do you feel about 6-12 months of required paid maternity leave?

    5. How do you feel about free school lunches for every kid?

    6. How do you feel about subsidized housing? For citizens only? For immigrants?

    7. How do you feel about a secular entity taking care of these things for all women in the United States? (since asking churches to do it has clearly not worked in the past, nor do they have the capacity to handle it now--it also lets every atheist off the hook for contributing to a solution).

Because if the answer to any of these questions is "they need to work harder and figure it out" you are not pro-life. If you're actually worried about saving the life of the fetus because you've decided against science (and the Bible) then you would support all of the policies above because they reduce the number of abortions. Those problems are why my student C decided to get an abortion. If she had been forced to carry the fetus to term, it would have killed her. Explain to me how that is "pro-life." Go ahead. I'll wait.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Tired of Platitudes

 "Of course music is important!"

"Every school should have quality music instruction"

"We support music in our schools"

These things get said over and over, yet even pre-COVID, too many music teachers felt unappreciated. Overworked. Tired.

The fact is that no matter what the politicians say, they don't really support music in the schools. Not in any meaningful way, anyhow. They want music in the schools the same way a department store wants the mannequins dressed up in the windows. It's PR and a fancy checklist item to them. It's clear with the lip service they give us by doing things like making music a "core" subject in major education bills, but then not providing any funding or incentives for schools to actually include it.

To borrow a word from my last group of high school students, I've always been a little salty about this. Of course, individuals can feel supported in their state, district, or school, but the national level of response as it is in so many things is just....meh. A perfect example landed in my mailbox today. My most recent copy of Teaching Music arrived and I saw there was an interview with the new Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona.  Now to be perfectly clear before you read any further, I do believe he is a massive improvement over the last person--but it's also clear that a steaming pile of compost would have done better than his predecessor-- the bar was pretty low. Regardless, I was cautiously optimistic when he was nominated and confirmed. 

My optimism was immediately dashed when he immediately pushed for in-person schooling during a pandemic before vaccines were available. As with many other politicians, he cited the nebulous and arbitrary "learning loss" that was made up by the testing companies fearful they'd lose ground with their business model. As teachers and researchers push for more progressive best practices that help students learn more and in different ways, the needs of business still dictate that we manufacture little workers who can fill out test bubbles. But I digress. 

So I started reading the interview hoping that it would show my first impressions to be incorrect. Maybe this is the guy who will finally support music education! He's doing the interview, that must mean something, right? And within the first couple questions, he mentions that his kids are highly involved in their school music and theater program, and that's why they didn't move to D.C. with his new job. He follows this up with a statement about how important music has been to his kids and all kids should have the same opportunities. At this point I'm getting excited (I mean, who gets excited to be wrong?! I know, I'm weird).

Then the next page I hit this: 

        "Imagine if we work together in music and the arts to create a campaign similar to what we've done over the last 16 months to close the digital divide?...I think we can do it better now than ever before because what we've learned through COVID-19 is that you don't need to be physically in front of the instructor to learn. We now know how to give students access to educators who have musical backgrounds and expertise. We can expose these students to a quality music education just as other students enjoy across the country."

Wait a sec. Didn't he just say he didn't make his kids move because the music programs in the D.C. area somehow all aren't up to snuff (which I find hard to believe)? Why can't he find "educators who have musical backgrounds and expertise" through the magic of the internet as he's suggesting for other kids? He's talked a great deal in this article and in other interviews about the importance of learning in person. Does this not matter for music? A subject in which live human interaction is a vital part of the entire art form? Or is this just another way of saying that we don't have to have a licensed expert in the room, we just need to get them on a screen so we can say we have music instruction in every school. Check the box. Window dressing. Make the data look good.

So I only have one question for Dr. Cardona: When you say you support quality music education opportunities for every child, why can't schools have the proper resources and funding for every kid to have what YOUR kids have?

But cut it out with the platitudes.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

On to the dissertation!! (and job hunt)

March 22, 2021: I received a pass on my qualifying exam papers. It's a big step and I'm really excited, I now get to start working on my dissertation. Once I finish my coursework and dissertation proposal I am considered "ABD" (all but dissertation) status and that means I can start applying for jobs...and I am not all that excited about that. 

The economy still hasn't fully recovered from the pandemic, and it may not for several years, especially since we are looking at a massive fourth wave that may threaten the success of vaccinations. People with far more experience (and tenure) are getting laid off, departments cut...and all of them will be looking for jobs along with all of the grad students like me trying to just get their foot in the door. And the people who aren't laid off get more responsibilities dumped in their duty pile, while receiving no extra incentive, pay, or relief from the workload of committees, service, or research they already do. And then the positions that ARE posted are increasingly adjunct, "one year visiting" positions, or the workload is beyond ridiculous. I sometimes check the posted jobs just to get an idea of what's expected. One job was shared on social media and what this person commented really sums up all the postings I've seen: 

Two things strike me about this: Most academics would look at that 63k and think it's actually a decent level of starting pay, and the unfortunate reality that they're probably right. 

So I began looking at other types of jobs. What would happen if I went back to k-12? Got into politics? Other academic jobs? And I started noticing something. There are a LOT of "school of education" exponentially more than music education (or even more general "music" faculty jobs). The competition is fierce for those unicorn tenure-track jobs, especially in places academics generally want to live (I have also noticed a pattern of openings in....ahem....states with certain political leanings.....) but why not in general education? Why are there so many more openings? 

Obviously, one explanation is that a school of education is larger than a school of music in most universities, and certainly bigger than music education faculty allotments; so there are simply more jobs, period. But I also wonder how much the pay discrepancy plays into that. But I can hear my advisors now: How does that apply to MUSIC, Tina? Well, what is always the biggest complaint of music education students? That their School of Ed professors have no idea what they do, nor do most of them care to understand. That certainly was my experience, especially going to a school too small for the music faculty to cover classes like assessment and classroom management.

In my generation, we were told it's good for you to have professors like that, because you will inevitably have administrators who are the same way. Learn how to advocate for yourself early! Learn how to translate music into edu-speak. But what if universities hired arts teachers to fill some of those school of ed positions instead? Translators, of a sort? Arts educators training future principals and counselors so they have a better understanding of those subjects when they run a school or create schedules?

Monday, January 25, 2021

Hope for the Next Two Years

 Reader, I'm not going to lie. I felt an enormous weight lift when President Biden was sworn in last week.

While discussing the events of January, my neighbor spoke for many of us when he said "and now the work REALLY starts" and as a music educator I felt that statement in my bones.

Education at the moment is a mess, not least of all because of the inconsistent hodgepodge systems being used for the pandemic. But public education is also suffering from four years of deliberate sabotage and twenty years of "reform" policies, which all stem from either a misdirected goal of erasing inequality through education or to completely privatize education. 

It's ironic that the reformers all claim to want the same thing---better educational opportunities and outcomes without spending more money!---but have wildly different definitions about what that means, or which children they mean to help. And of course the pandemic has exacerbated all of these conflicts, with one result being the record number of teachers leaving the profession. Because who wants to be blamed when the policies fail, and not even be able to fully support yourself from the salary? Or to receive derision when you finally say "but I'm not willing to die for it"??

And while a poisonous houseplant would have been an improvement over DeVos, I have not set my mental expectations bar at that level. Secretary Cardona certainly has his work cut out for him. I'm optimistic that those of us in education can use this moment of upheaval for eventual good, and it is encouraging to me that Mr. Cardona has actually taught in a classroom, and isn't a businessperson who thinks they know better than the people who actually work with kids.

Here's a bit of what I hope to see:

1. An acknowledgement that if they want schools physically open, that's going to require teachers/staff to be moved up the priority list for vaccines, and funding is going to be needed to reduce class sizes. And action to support that. Preferably action that doesn't hold schools hostage to an unrelated agenda to receive the money.

2. A moratorium on new charter schools, since that interferes with equitable funding , promotes segregation, and do not have better results than traditional public schools (except when they selectively choose their student populations).

3. Accountability for existing charter schools equal to the level required of traditional schools. Mostly to prevent this. And this. And this. You want public money? You get public oversight.

4. A reversal of all the discrimination policies that have been put in place the last four years.

5. A ban on federal money going to k-12 religious schools.

6. Overturning "right to work" laws that hamstring collective bargaining, though I acknowledge this might not be possible at the federal level without some serious arm twisting.

7. A federal educator "minimum wage" of at least $60k. My pie-in-the-sky wish is that they use the military Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) zip code formula to adjust that number to geographic area.

8. And closest to my heart, a renewal of federal support for a holistic curriculum that considers arts, science, foreign language, history and civics equal to language arts and math. 

I don't know how much of my optimism will be borne out. But the time for educators to push for these things is now. Our kids can't wait for us to decide if we want to be reactive or proactive, and we finally have an administration that might be able to make some positive changes. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Arguing for cultural responsiveness in the classroom

What does it mean to be culturally appropriate? What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? What does it mean to be culturally responsive?

Each of these questions could likely be the topic of its own paper, with as many definitions for the terms as people willing to write about it. The easiest one to tackle is the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Appropriation is most commonly defined as the improper use of some part of a culture by someone outside of that culture. Appreciation is when a part of a culture is used in a way that is approved by the members of that culture. An example of cultural appreciation is a 2nd grade class learning how to do a Chinese dragon dance while learning about the Lunar New Year. But where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? Could this example be interpreted as appropriation? Are learning environments automatically exempt from appropriation if the teacher has good intentions? Or must more care be used to avoid misuse of the activity?

In Bonnie Wade's book Thinking Musically, she divides the chapters into sections such as "Thinking about Pitch" or "Thinking about Time" flipping upside down the ideas that Western classically trained musicians have when conceptualizing music outside that canon. But most importantly, she starts with "Thinking about People" indicating that what makes music universal is the humans at the center of it. As Elliott and Silverman purport in "Music Matters" for musical praxis, people must be at the center. And from this perspective it seems obvious that music education, and inclusion of music outside the agreed tradition is not only acceptable, but necessary. From this side of the issue we could argue that all music learned in school is appreciated through learning, as the 2nd graders learn to appreciate the artistry of experienced dragon dancers.

However, is that all there is to being culturally appropriate in the classroom? What about the high school whose band traditions include the campy "native American war song" (especially in a state where a significant Native American population lives)? How about the suburban almost exclusively white school being taught by a white teacher decides to delve into African American pop music and rap? Does the St. Olaf choir get a pass on singing spirituals with a distinct classical sound because Dr. Anton Armstrong happens to be African American?

To be culturally appropriate in the classroom setting is to be culturally responsive to the realities of the people in the room and outside the room. Educators jobs should not be to avoid the hard realities of these questions but to face them in a thoughtful way that honors all of the people involved. In this way, the teacher must exercise their expert status and have or acquire technical and contextual knowledge of the culture students are learning about, as Estelle Jorgensen says in her chapter about rule and law. But also as Jorgensen says in her chapter about "Seashore and Energy" teachers must also be flexible and open to the reality that there might be other experts including the students who can contribute to a more authentic experience. Being culturally appropriate and responsive avoids appropriation when all the humans (composer, artist, teacher, student, audience) are respected throughout the process.