How the Principal’s Promise for a new Lawnmower and other Bureaucratic Maneuvers Resulted in a Classroom Music Teacher for the Elementary School.

One of the great concerns that plagued me was the lack of classroom music or school choir in the elementary schools were I served as principal. Instrumental lessons were provided to the most rural districts by a traveling county music teacher who pulled an orchestra together after practicing separately with small groups in remote schools. This was truly a herculean act, although most thought it was normal for the time. In the town district where I now served as principal, the district provided a junior high music teacher and a part time teacher who traveled among the schools giving instrumental lessons. Naturally, the group taking instrumental lessons was tightly correlated to socio-economic status since the family had to rent the instrument.

The best solution to this problem would have been to hire many more teachers like Hilda. She was well into her 70’s when I became her principal. She spoke three or four languages. Her Austrian mother had married an Englishman and they moved to London just in time for the blitz. Her Austrian cultural background demanded that music hold a high value in her life and profession. For my first classroom observation of her third graders, I saw in the space of an hour an integration of math, literature and science all rounded out with a great rendition of Beethoven’s “Alle Menschen werden Bruder…” belted out by her kids and pounded out by her on the classroom piano, the only one in the school. She was astounding, completely marvelous, unique, even an oddity for the school, town and region.

But there were no other Hilda’s around when it came to hiring new teachers. And there were always problems with simply playing music in class and having the kids sing along. The funds that purchased the record player or tape recorder had to be aligned with the group of students who heard it. Most of the disposable money in a school came from federal Title 1 funds that were strictly to be spent on the specific children who needed remediation in Reading or Math (and who were also closely correlated with SES. In fact the funds were and still are distributed throughout most districts based on the free lunch count at each school).

My first music school finance blowup came in my first year as a teaching principal in another district when an auditor asked me how I could be sure that only the approved kids heard the record when it was played for the whole class? I told him that the Title 1 kids used sheets with the words to the songs on them to help them learn to read while the other kids just had to learn to memorize the songs. He liked this and I passed the audit even though I made it up on the spot.

The only path available to me now, in this my third principalship, was to either get a renewable grant for outside funds, or to re-allocate existing resources already being spent on something else at the school. Only two of the 25 teachers at the school (Hilda plus one other) had any interest or ability to provide classroom music to their students and finding more with such skills, knowledge and orientation to learning was less likely than finding Spanish-speaking teachers. Getting a grant that was renewable was just about impossible. Reallocating existing funds, while not a cakewalk, was going to require much political savvy.

Most of the money spent in school is tied up in employees. It is employees, then, who are affected when you reallocate funds. The reallocation means you are planning to change what people do, or get rid of people and hire someone else to provide a curriculum based on different and more valuable skills and knowledge. As principal, you are saying to some employees that what they are contributing is less important than your own great idea for improvement. Crucially, school folk do not think about the curriculum that individuals bring to the students. On the contrary, they think only about the individual him or herself who is doing the work. So, for example, if good old Larry, the friendly senior gentleman who works as a classroom aide, has been running copies for teachers, running approved reading programs from the approved box of instruction (this means Larry teaches from directions given on a 4 x 5 card in a publisher’s nice, kit-like box), and you come along as principal and drop this box instruction, and then drop old Larry himself in favor of adding something like music, then you have undertaken a tactic that is a huge political loser. I could hear it now. “You,” the principal, “are trashing Larry himself, the kindly older gentleman who was loyal to the school, came in every day on time, wouldn’t hurt a fly and loved the children probably more than you did, you punk bastard!” Definitely a huge political loser!

Dropping Larry would also mean trouble with the union since they believed they owned Larry’s work. Just like longshoremen owned the right to unload whatever came across their docks using whatever method they had used in the past, a clipboard and paper pencil check list for instance, instead of a bar code reader. The union for aides sometimes claimed they owned the exclusive use of the actual material taught by the aides. The neat box of 4 x 5 cards of learning activities was a perfect fit. It was a tool, a product and a process all in one. Any change from using that box would require negotiations, or a protracted grievance depending on how beloved Larry was to the local.

Another even greater obstacle to reallocating the resources used for the Larry(s) of the school was the teacher(s) he served. In this case, they were tired out, did not enjoy teaching anymore and were generally grumpy to kids and parents and other staff members. People in the school community could hardly stand them. They were tenured so they couldn’t be touched and they were not about to change their instructional system that included the use of Larry to teach while they drank coffee or rested their swollen feet in the classroom. These poor souls had no other choice except to continue for 5 or 10 more miserable years or live a life in ‘penury’ throughout their retirement years.

Yet I had learned a thing or two in my previous administrative roles. Instead of tackling Larry head on, I needed to set up the system to make the needed change to music instruction and insure a political victory as well. Now whenever a victory took place that could result in as many as one loser, the principal loses some power and credibility. People stayed at schools for entire careers and there was no real advantage to choosing any curricular change that cut against the interests of any of your teacher-colleagues. Life is long and you would get yours someday too if you didn’t stay on the right train.

It seemed worth it to me because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life at that particular school. The first step I took was to make some curricular changes to the document (School Plan) that guided the way some specific funds were spent. This was state money, not federal money so one had much more latitude. The plan needed to be approved annually by the committee called the School Site Council. This body consisted of parents, teachers and me. Most principals used the committee to simply rubber stamp the way the professionals wanted to spend the money, such as for aides. And most parents just went along. When I changed the plan I added language that stated, “Classroom music would be provided as funding allows.” It looked like I was talking about an external grant or funding from a new state program, which might have been true, so there was no push back. The teacher aides, like Larry were getting on in years so my plan was to not re-hire aides in their positions when they retired but hire a music teacher as a contractor to provide classroom music in grades 3-5. I thought I would have time to work on this idea so that at least some teachers would support it.

I couldn’t believe it when Larry and another older aide decided to retire in a month’s time. I quickly scheduled lunch with the parents on the Site Council and we met at a local diner. I shared numerous ideas for school improvement and also dropped the idea of hiring a music contractor for grades 3-5 to teach classroom music. I indicated that the teachers who enjoyed the aides might not like this so we would have to discuss this with them. But the parents were happy to remove the aides from the classrooms of these grumpy teachers. The teachers’ rotten attitudes did not win them any friends and actually created enemies. Besides, these parents’ own kids were now in 3rd and 5th grade.

I called a School Site Council meeting for later in the week. In a few minutes, the council voted to not hire more aides and hire a music contractor ahead. The teachers voted against this but with my vote the parents and I prevailed. The next step was to quickly hire the contractor so that the council would not be able to reverse its decision once the push back came on. I had also planned for this and had the person I wanted sign a contract immediately and sent it in to the district payroll office. I told the new music teacher that “The marching band pays for the string quartet” so I needed a patriotic concert of all students in grades 3-5 in one months time. We would give student awards for something and have refreshments too.

Meanwhile the grumpy teachers began to rally their troops to reverse this change and replace the aides. But they moved slowly preferring to go home right after school each day to take a nap. By the time they invited the parents out to dinner to try to talk them into reversing their Site Council votes, the new music teacher had provided lessons in each classroom that thrilled the kids and pleased the upper grade teachers and their parents as well. It was fun, it was active, it was artistic and it was culturally aligned.

So when the seasoned teachers were finally able to rally their colleagues, their years of grumpy behavior and nasty attitude backfired on them. The grade 3-5 teachers didn’t feel the need to please the seasoned, grumpy teachers. Besides, the grade 3-5 teachers were essentially getting a prep period (although I assigned them to work with the music teacher giving curricular advice and supervision to avoid conflict with their union).

Next, I met with the local aides’ union site representative. He was a school custodian and was used to being griped at and insulted by the grumpy teachers who lost their aides. He was thrilled to get back at them by not demanding the district lay off the vacant aide positions before I spent the money that had formerly been spent on them. I also promised him a new lawn mower and tool belt, and that closed the deal.

The final hurdle was the school board itself. Case law had long ago settled the fact that any site council decision was subject to final approval of the elected district board. The seasoned teachers came at the board hard. Fortunately, the superintendent was creative and interested in changing the school experience for the children. He immediately took the board president to lunch and wrote a letter of commendation to me with copies to the board. Now the board would have to counter the superintendent it hired in favor of a few grumpy teachers. By the time the next board meeting rolled around, three of the board members had attended the patriotic concert and student awards ceremony with more than one hundred parents, and cheered the new music contractor teacher. The grumpy teachers did not even stand up to speak at the board meeting because the chairwoman wanted to report on the huge demand for music in all the schools and felt the board should place a standing item on the agenda until this important issue was resolved. She also commended the new music contractor teacher for a marvelous concert. The teachers union was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and remained silent. If they supported hiring more contractors it meant they would support loss of aide union jobs and risk a conflict with that union for no gain. If they supported hiring more music teachers, it meant the salary and benefit pot allocated for their membership would need to be stretched to include more teachers. This meant less for each one. So their leadership left the issue alone. The final result was a new position in the budget the following year for classroom music teacher that would serve all the schools. I kept my contractor and took the money as subsidy for more computers.