Nothing truly prepares you for the realities of teaching in an underserved community.
Racial disparities in public education are an essential issue for every teacher to understand — but especially for white educators who teach children of color. While most pre-service teaching programs do not equip you to meet these challenges, each school I have taught in has provided me with experiences that have shaped me and the way I’ve worked as a music teacher in urban schools.
After spending 10 years as a contract musician stringing together gigs, teaching private music lessons and performing odd jobs, I stepped into a part-time music teaching position in an urban charter school. My first day as a music teacher was harrowing. I found 12 playable guitars in my classroom — and 14 students who were resistant to me. After several chaotic classes, I wondered, What was I doing wrong? Why won’t they listen to me?
I soon realized the problem wasn’t the students, it was me.
I needed to build relationships inside and outside the classroom. Coming into school early to sit with students while they ate their snacks helped. So did working with them during their tutoring periods. Back in class, I started teaching students songs of their choice, arranging the songs in ways that made them accessible for the students’ skill levels. The students saw that I cared — and they began to care, too.
Looking back, I can see why my first guitar class didn’t trust me: I wasn’t from their neighborhood, and I didn’t relate to them. Worse, the value judgements I made about what to teach, and how class should be run, marginalized their experiences.
Many white teachers — like me — who are eager to make a difference in the lives of young children of color can find themselves feeling rejected by their students. This perceived rejection morphs into frustration, which leads many teachers to leave schools mid-year, or even to quit the profession altogether. The effects this can have on students are often overlooked. Transient teachers reinforce the belief in many students’ minds that they are temporary figures who do not care about the students. It can make young people wonder why they should feel invested in their own education when their teachers don’t seem to be.
A passion for teaching was ignited within me, and I enrolled in a Master of Arts in Teaching program, focusing on music and special education. The program placed me in different schools as a music teacher in Springfield, a city in Western Massachusetts that is home to the state’s second-largest school district, serving just over 25,000 students, almost all of whom are Latino or black.
The real change has come from within me — how I continue to rethink education and my own privilege. This happened when I stopped seeing myself as someone who needed to change the world, fix a broken system or provide kids of color with opportunities. Instead, I try to get out of their way. How can I remove barriers to their success?
Four years ago, I began a new challenge: becoming the music director at Veritas Preparatory Charter School in Springfield, where we have built a new music program in the image of our students. Here are some takeaways that may be applicable to other music and arts teachers:
First, it’s not all about the money. When I first arrived at Veritas, the school had minimal funds, using orange Home Depot buckets as drums. Fundraising efforts and partnerships with local organizations allowed us to trade in the orange buckets for real drums and provide other instruments as well. But what was even more important was teaching the students to play the music that was most meaningful to them. For my students, that is hip-hop, music from the Caribbean and the African Diaspora.
All children, regardless of their backgrounds, consume music digitally so all educators should consider integrating music production into their curricula. In our school, we developed a hip-hop production class in which students write, record and perform their own music.
Second, diversify the teaching corps. The demographics of the teaching corps in urban schools are inversely proportional to the demographics of the students. In Springfield, 86 percent of the students are Latino or black, compared to a teaching population that is 69 percent white and 30 percent Latino or black. When it comes to music teachers, a 2015 study in the Journal of Music Research found that pre-service music teachers nationwide are 86 percent white, with just 7 percent black and fewer than 2 percent Latino.
Third, seek consistency. My teaching mentor once said something that I often repeat: The discussion in urban education revolves around how kids in places like Springfield need “radical change.” But maybe what kids really need is radical consistency — teachers and other caring adults who stay invested in their lives, and art programs that flourish and grow without the perpetual threat of cuts.
Fourth, meet students on their own terms. While adapting the music program, I worked hard to understand and reflect the students’ experiences. Our school has committed itself to becoming a culturally inclusive organization. We formed a “Change Team” to identify racial bias and make the necessary changes to ensure that our students and staff are never denied opportunities or done harm because of the color of their skin.
Recently, I watched as my students — who had once played on Home Depot buckets — performed with renewed energy on their brand-new instruments as part of the school’s first official band.
One student-musician said to me: “Mister, this finally feels real. Like a big deal kind of real.”
This story about teaching music in urban schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Lincoln Smith is the music director at Veritas Preparatory Charter School, a public middle school in Springfield, Massachusetts.
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