by Bret Mascaro, Zeswitz Music Director of Education
Colonel Lowell Graham spoke at the PMEA D-11 and D-12 Professional Development Conference on the topic of leadership, titled: The Whisperer, With Homage to Cesar Milan and Other Leadership Concepts. In that presentation, he discussed the pack mentality of dogs in relation to the trainer-similarly to leadership in music education. And it brought to mind the Rudyard Kipling quote: “the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack”. It also has an application not only to leadership, but also to overall music department dynamics.
For the last 22 years of my career, I taught in the same school district. While I was being considered for that job, I was taken on a guided tour of the high school building and heard proud commentary about the school’s art department. I still remember seeing the displays of great art all over the building, hearing about the extensive public art show recently held on campus, and relaizing the strong sense of community in the shared art classrooms. I repeatedly heard about how well the art faculty worked together under the leadership of their long-time department coordinator. I was impressed!
But after getting the job, I started to notice the value of that collegiality, as the concern of any individual within the department was treated according to how it would affect the entire department. Whispers of favoritism were shared among those departments that were not so well perceived. But I wondered how it happened? Was it the leadership of the department coordinator or the willingness of the rest of the department to work for the good of the whole?
Music department leadership comes with many titles and in various structures. In this area, there is a range of roles from full-time department head to the intentional absence of one; lead teachers, liaisons, curriculum coordinators, content-focused members of a building or district committee, etc. Sometimes it’s a position sought by an individual, sometimes it’s thrust upon them. The relationship between a music department leader and the department faculty can vary based on personality, experience, style of communication, level of respect, jealousy, perception of role, age…should I go on? But regardless of the leadership, ALL music teachers can play a role in the advancement of the department. In my experience, collegiality within the department strengthens the entire department (and vice versa). In your music department, are you the wolf or the pack?
A time for creating cohesiveness in the music program can occur in department meetings. Does your district support that valuable time?? If so, how well is that time used? What is your role in those meetings?: too busy to be bothered, comic relief, passive aggressive, just passive, pre-retired, or devil’s advocate? Your individuality gives your department its depth and breadth, but collegiality is essential.
If your department’s meetings aren’t as productive as they should be, perhaps you can agree on a set of values or priorities that will guide your collective decisions? Dictates from a departmental leader aren’t as strong as those that are determined by the constituents. But even individual constituents have a valuable relationship within the music program. If you teach in a high school, it’s essential to recognize that the most important teaching has already happened before you even meet the students. If you teach in the elementary school, consider how your patience gave way to the shaping of mature musicians of the future. If you teach in the middle grades, realize that your guidance is the glue that connects the students’ musical experience when glue is the most needed. Whether the wolf or the pack, it should be easy to keep the student needs as the greatest priority!
There is a great article written by Joe Stuessy in which he points out that “One need not be congenial in order to be collegial (although that is nice when it happens).” In the same article, he questions whether collegiality should be considered as an element of a teacher’s assessment. Mr. Stuessy points to several court cases in which music faculty at the collegiate level have claimed discrimination over a tenure decision affected by perceived lack of collegiality. (For the complete article, see Stuessy Article.) But let’s not go too far! Most departments could benefit by just adopting a common mission or direction and a recognition that there is more that joins us to together than sets us apart. So what can be done?
Some very powerful examples of department collegiality include: vertical concepts including district-wide concerts in band, chorus, or orchestra; field trips that include all ensembles from the same building; teacher exchanges or visits from other buildings as a form of introduction and a sign of collaboration; faculty recitals or musical celebrations for parental or public relations; recruiting assemblies in which all district faculty are involved; even regular department meetings that have the program mission as part of the agenda.
Wouldn’t it be great if the members of every music department could demonstrate the same harmony as the music they teach? It’s definitely worth it! So be the wolf. Or be the pack. And work together to the benefit of your outstanding music department, and along with your colleagues, to the students you serve!