Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Going Solo is NOT for the Brave! The Brave Collaborate

By Mark T. Burke

As musicians we know how easy it is to work alone.  We often spend many hours working on our craft, by ourselves. It can become easy to think "wow....I am a really great musician" at home, or in the practice room, alone.

Business owners have often relied on the "go it alone" attitude...survival of the brave and fit comes at the price of isolation.  The "keep your plans to yourself" approach to business assured others would not be exposed to trade secrets. 

Schools often foster teaching staff that develop the "I am an island" mentality. In a classroom, teacher's rule, they take on their tasks in isolation with few outside resources. 

While these belief structures have endured, times have changed. Over the past few years, my many mentors, gurus within their domains, have taught me....Going solo is not for the brave!  The brave COLLABORATE.  Guts and determination are needed to collaborate with others. Doing so opens us and organizations up to critique, outside input that often seems contrary to our own path, a path often considered a "path of least resistance."  When we collaborate, we interact with personalities outside our own close circle of contacts. Collaboration means counting on someone you may not know all that well, assuming the risk of doing so takes a brave person and a brave organization.

Collaboration has become the word of the 2010's in my opinion. Organizations have had an awaking since the economic downturn. People, businesses and schools are looking for ways to do more with less. People are looking for ways to connect.  Businesses are looking for efficiencies and schools are looking for ways to improve.

Over the last few weeks, I have had some wonderful opportunities to collaborate.  Last week, I presented at the PA Region IV Band festival held in Bloomsburg PA.  70+ Music Teachers attended, with most of them attending my session.  While my topic centered around the benefits of the viaAcademies program, the truly powerful outcome was the real opportunities to collaborate with teachers. What impressed me most were the number of teachers who spoke to me about how our program, at a time of severe budget cuts could help them add value to their music curriculum, connect them more rigidly with the initiatives of their school (through online learning) and increase the number of students they reach (ie....more ROI for the $'s spent by the school).  These are BRAVE teachers. They get "it", they aren't pulling back into a life of seclusion, feeling bravery will be on their side.  I am here to tell you, the brave have learned how to fight for their programs in a totally different way.  They are considering the value of outside partnerships with organizations, online learning, supplemental learning tools, professional development, curriculum building, personal learning networks and on and on....Notice, I did not say anything about fighting to keep the new music budget at the same level, justifying the uniform cleaning bill or ensuring administrators understand the power of new color guard flags.

I read regularly about the power of collaboration.  This post from an eLearning site I belong to discusses how educational content developers can benefit from collaboration. (5 Ways to Be An eLearning Winner).

I also recently visited Mr. Tom West at the PA Leadership Charter School, an online and hybrid school in PA.  Tom works as a teacher in the Performance Arts Center at PALCS as well as teaches at viaAcademies.  Recognizing the alignment of our organization's missions, it makes sense that we look for ways to work together.  What are those ways?  We don't know. But, being brave, we will find out. 

So how can music teachers become brave seekers of solutions? Here's how.

1.)  Seek new ways to add value to your program, even if they cost money.  Don't look at the same undertakings your program is currently focused on.  Administrators and communities become numb to the "same old, same old."  This is not to say traditions should be pushed aside.  Keep them, but innovate, get the attention of your listeners who may be expecting the same story...awaken them! Be brave! Start a new music class around GarageBand or Mixcraft. Roll out online courses, help your school get involved in online course offerings.  What about producing a music podcast for the school webpage.....the options are endless.

2.)  Seek business partners. Don't be afraid to admit that the music industry is an industry that makes money.  Too often, music teachers speak about the music industry poorly.  Sales reps get bad press, music stores never provide the right level of service, etc. That negative message finds its way into the community and quickly separates music teachers from local musical resources.  We should be building those relationships, not tearing them down.  Look for unique services and products and find ways to get them into the hands of your kids.  Work with the vendors to help you do that.

3.)  Learn more about your school's total educational system. When I talk to music teachers, I often find I know more about their school's educational options than they do.  As music teachers, do you know if your school offers online courses? If your school does offer online courses, are you taking part in delivering online music courses? Why not?  Is online learning just for Algebra, Health and Biology?  Be brave. Explore ways to get music into the mix of online offerings at your school.

4.)  Serve the community musically, not just the kids signed up for band, choir and orchestra.  80% of student aren't signed up for these groups.  So..........do we see an opportunity here? 80% of the students in our schools are "free lancers." While it is tempting to feel brave teaching the musically self identified students, it's much braver to go out and walk with the 80% who haven't made an ensemble choice.  While we know we need money, resources and time to teach the 20%, imagine the impact of increasing our musical impact across the 80%.  Would dollars and time and resources have more impact?  For sure they would.  Sometimes we have to be brave enough to explore new worlds.

Collaborate....Be brave!  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cut Right...Cut Left....Building a Play for Educational Cutbacks

By Mark T. Burke

This morning I listened to the NPR clip "Sweetness and Light" by Frank Deford. Mr. Deford's states quite simply that during economic times like now, SAM (sports, art and music) activities in schools would seem the obvious choices for cuts.  He then points out there are reasons why music should not be the top cutback priority within SAM activities.  The following quote from Mr. Deford is one that should be personally delivered to and discussed  with decision makers, each and every day. 


"...when children who are artistic or musical are denied that opportunity in school, their young personal loss eventually not only robs them of developing their talent but diminishes us as a culture."

Mr. Deford also points out, at a time when our nation is struggling with childhood obesity and the long term impacts (Impact of Childhood Obesity Goes Beyond Health), school administrator's decisions to "knock out athletic exercise at a time when childhood obesity is an absolute epidemic could be just as damaging for the health of the nation."

So what do we do?  If SAM activities are clearly within the scope of cutbacks, how do we build a plan?  I think we begin by remembering the mission of our schools....Education.  When we ensure the education components of SAM activities are our focus, we can better ensure we spend our dollars and time wisely.

So here is my guiding principle.  We must.....


"Ensure we understand the difference between arts education and arts extra-curricular.  Likewise, ensure we understand the differences between sports and health and wellness education."


As a teacher and administrator, I have witnessed music teachers who confuse their extra-curricular activities and their teaching responsibilities. I've seen choir directors who use their instructional time during the day prepping for the annual musical and band directors who leave their lessons and classes sit idle while they design drill or copy music for the marching band. We must be diligent in our teaching responsibilities so that we are teaching valuable music (arts and creative) skills to the entire student population.  This ensures the value of our programs is recognized.


As a high school student, I experienced what happens when physical education teachers / coaches confuse their educational responsibilities with their extra-curricular responsibilities.  I participated in gym classes where the athletes and non-athletes were mixed.  I especially remember spending time during our "wrestling" unit being teamed up with the school's star wrestler.  He was really excited to smash my face into the mat and watch me turn purple.  I had no clue what I was doing because we did not learn skills, we just jumped right in.  The same "educational" approach was used during our "football" unit, "basketball" unit and others.  Physical education should be about teaching students life-long skills, not exposing them to insurmountable personal challenges against fellow classmates.  While I have some faith today's classes have evolved, as a teacher, I've witnessed that shift has not been adopted globally.

Ensuring we keep education and extra-curricular activities tracked accordingly, we improve the value of our spending.  By doing so, we ensure we educate students and IF cuts are needed, we have a stronger foundation on which to help educational leaders make decisions.