January 18, 2009

Breaking my silence, musically speaking

Now that I've been reinstated into the music position from which I was excessed two summers ago, it is time I devote at least one post to teaching music in a New York City high school.

Or should I say warehousing music in a New York City high school.

For those who have never paid much attention to the Class Size Limitation clause in the contract that allows 50 pupils in music classes (Art.VII.M.1.g.) — and I’m afraid that includes Ms Weingarten and Partners, who keep hoping this issue will go away on its own — c
onsider what this means for just a moment.
1. The number 50 may have come about when performance groups like choruses, bands and orchestras had these many kids in them, or even a lot more. I’m not questioning those kinds of classes, since not only do the kids who are in them generally want to be there and know how to behave, but it’s really fun to make a great big sound. General music, though, is identical in every way to any other subject, and there is no reason at all for having 50 kids in that kind of music class.

2. Our registers are made up of kids in 4 different grades, 9th – 12th.

3. Our registers contain regular ed students, kids with IEPs (learning and behavioral), kids with hearing and other kinds of disabilities, and ELLs.

4. There are no stipulations at the state or city level that set percentages for IEP students in the class. For example, 65, 80 or 100% of the 50 pupils may have special needs.

5. It is true that not all students show up on any given day, but the same could be said for any other subject class.

6. On the registers alone, record-keeping (including daily and weekly attendance), marking and grading involve 47% more processing time and production than for any other subject.

7. Contacting parents and/or guidance counselors on attendance and behavior issues: ditto.

8. Music teachers still have to devote one period a day to Professional Activities.

9. Roll back to 2003 when the chancellor, new at his job and distinctly unprepared to take it on, decided that there would be a new emphasis on literacy and math and all subject teachers had to focus on skills in these areas. It’s not that I mind focusing on literacy and math. In fact, I’ve focused on it for 21 years, with lessons on poetry and song forms, lyrics and articulations in English and many other languages, with whole notes, quarter notes and all the rest. I feel that music teachers, unbound by a specific curriculum, can do a whole lot to bolster up what's taught in other subjects. But, if there’s to be a directive to do the same kind of work in a music classroom that’s being done in a major subject, then the class should not be 47% larger, because there’s nothing to stop administrators from criticizing you if you can’t make it happen. The union was very much asleep on this.

10. There was also the directive to set up your classroom in the “workshop model.” I could never bring myself to do that, I hated it so much, but I wasn’t in a high school at the time so I don’t know if principals enforced that ruling. A quick calculation makes it 12 groups of 4 kids. Zounds!

11. Discipline. Music teachers are held to the same standards as everyone else.

12. Differentiated instruction. Ditto.

13. Gym classes also have 50 on register in junior and senior high schools, but many of the points made above apply only to music classes.

About two years ago when I spoke on all this at a Delegate Assembly, and where the groans were actually audible when the delegates heard some of the factors listed above, Weingarten asked one of her henchpeople to follow up and see if the union could arrange for some “non-contractual relief” for music teachers.

For my money — literally, my union dues — she should have done away with clause Art.VII.M.1.g. altogether and have high school music teachers teach the same number of kids everyone else does. As long as the chancellor and the regional superintendents were requiring all teachers to include literacy, math, differentiated instruction and workshop models, it was never fair that music teachers had to do it all with 47% more kids. We were left open to any kind of criticism they felt inclined to send our way if we couldn’t make good on the directives.

Failing that, she could have insisted on a new clause “f.”, where the contract discusses Professional Activities (Art.VII.A.6.), something like: “High school music teachers are exempt from a Professional Activities duty because they teach 47% more kids than other teachers.”

At the very least, Weingarten could have asked for one more item in the Professional Activities Options (VII.A.6.a), something like: “f. Extra record keeping, marking and grading (music teachers only).”

Zip, nada, zilch til now, and I expect never.

Weingarten had been negotiating these contracts already for a decade and knew very well she wasn’t going to do anything about getting music teachers any “relief,” non-contractual or otherwise.

I’ll place the blame for this fairly, on the union, on Klein's negotiators, and on school administrators. No one's holding a gun to a principal's head to program 50 kids at a time into high school music classes. That number is a cap, not an order. It's both outdated and stupid, especially when some high schools have a majority of students reading at Level 2. Principals could instead program these classes like all the others, with 34 students.

When administrators soak everything they can out of a faulty contract for monetary reasons, kids suffer and teachers suffer. No bonus they pocket at the end of the year can add to their personal karma or put integrity back into the system.


  1. I had no idea this was going on since the last two schools I have been in (I am no longer an ATR) had no music whatsoever! Right now I am teaching English in a music room and the leftover musical instruments are scattered around the room, being abused/destroyed. I don't know which is worse, expecting music teachers to do any meaningful work with an outrageous class load or eliminating music from the high schools altogether.

  2. A conundrum. The solution if there is a music program, just keep teaching.

    About the broken instruments lying around, when they abandon a music program, they abandon everything to do with it. Columbus HS had a fabulous music program. It was broken into small schools and I was told that the sheet music collection -- huge, expensive, and amassed over years -- was seen strewn all over the abandoned music room. Discarded. In heaps.

  3. It hurts me to read about the decimation of music programs all over the city. Music and art are no less than the underpinnings of a civilized society. I was raised with so much music and school gave me the opportunity to become a musician and learn classical violin. My ear is highly trained and now I use that training as a choral singer (and of course when I'm jamming with my rock friends). My being involved in music helped me from getting caught up in issues with my extremely dysfunctional crazy family. Long Island school districts still have vibrant ongoing music and art programs. Where exactly is the achievement gap?

  4. I taught music for a while. As a non-music teacher, I taught this survey of music course that no kid really wanted to take. With 50 kids in a class, grading was a unbelievable chore. That's one rough job, but I'm glad to hear that you're back where you belong.

  5. Thanks. The building has A-C, so there is an upside to this.

    Admin is begrudging, not using my best talents (which they've admired in the past). The reinstatement has just re-set the clock. That's important, because having excessed me once, I suspect it'll happen again. RW will no doubt sell the ATRs out at some point, maybe even in the next contract, and I'd rather be at the start of a new excess than already into it for a few years when she collaborates on a time limit for ATRS to get themselves another job (a la Chicago) or get booted out of the system. She says she won't, but what she says and what she does are two different things.

    Of course, they have a basketful of other tricks to get activist senior teachers out of the system. Teaching music to a register of 50 is surely right up there (LOL).

  6. I am a music teacher in nyc as well. I left my last job because the principal, in an attempt to save money, canned the art program and left just the music class, bringing my classes to almost fifty in each one. It was a complete dumping ground. I moved to a new school this September, where the principal has also, under the excuse of "budget cuts," doubled and even tripled most of my classes. Many of these students have IEP's and require special services, but I am given no aid. This is a travesty that the union is responsible for creating, and they should be ashamed of themselves. Even though I believe I am a good teacher, I am seriously considering a change of profession. It's killing me.

  7. Anon., please can you write me at UnderAssault@earthlink.net so I can update you on something....

    PS: My registers: 50, 50, 50 52, 53.

    Wonderful, no?

  8. Sorry for the delayed response. I will contact you on that email. And wow, those are horrible numbers!

  9. Yes, do contact, and if you've already tried to at underassault@earthlink.net, please try again. The account was doing something funny. I think I fixed it.