Soundings on the highs and lows of music teachers;Briefing;Research Focus

15th May 1998 at 01:00
"I get very cross and depressed when children don't have the same values as me, and don't treat the music as seriously as I would want them to treat it I when boys won't sing because the dad says at home: 'Oh that's sissy stuff.'"

The speaker is a secondary music teacher, one of 10 interviewed by Dr Gordon Cox of the University of Reading, in a research project that has provided some penetrating insights into the ambitions, frustrations and rewards of being the principal music-maker in a state school.

Dr Cox's study plugs a gap, because, as he says: "We know very little about the opinions or professional lives of teachers of music in secondary schools. This is surprising because I music is the subject area with the biggest staff turnover and the greatest number of vacancies."

Australian research has suggested that because they invariably work in small departments, music teachers often feel marginalised. They are therefore likely to experience higher levels of stress and lower perceptions of personal accomplishment.

Dr Cox's findings are, however, less depressing. The teachers he interviewed were uneasy about aspects of assessment but were generally positive about the national curriculum and the new emphasis on composing, performing and listening activities.

One teacher told him: "When I started teaching there was no structure at all. The only information I had was the timetable on a piece of rough paper."

Nevertheless, when asked whether they would advise musical pupils to consider a teaching career more than half expressed considerable reservations.

One interviewee characterised music teaching as a "total dead-end. You become a head of department and that's it."

Dr Cox said that the dearth of promotion opportunities meant that it was very important to develop the right frame of mind. One teacher's strategy was to look for "small things to make them big and important I so that you never feel that you've arrived".

An active musical life outside school was also seen to be vital. "It can be quite soul-destroying if you are teaching pupils to compose all day long and you are not composing yourself," one teacher said.

However, Dr Cox did not get the impression that music teachers longed to become professional musicians. Most were committed to their schoolwork even though the "wear and tear" of trying to maintain classroom discipline sometimes showed. "In some respects you have to develop a thick skin, which is contrary to everything a musician stands for because they are normally very sensitive," one said.

Intensification of work was another burden. One head of department said: "I would estimate that it (my job) now requires 65-70 hours a week of actual schoolwork. Not much can be delegated, and there is a vast amount of extra-curricular work."

But there were many compensations. One teacher said that the greatest reward was to see individual pupils develop a real enthusiasm for music.

Another took most pleasure in concerts given by her steel band, and understood why it is said that the aim of good music teaching should be to make the teacher redundant. "They play 20 songs through by memory and you think 'Yes, they're musical, they're playing by ear, they're listening to each other, they don't actually need me.'" 'Teaching music in UK secondary schools: some life history perspectives', was presented at the recent American Educational Research Association conference in San Diego. Contact: Gordon Cox, Faculty ofEducation and Community Studies,University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Earley, Reading RG6 1HY.e-mail: g.s.a.cox@reading.ac.uk

* Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings through the columns of The TES should send summaries of their research (750 words max) to David Budge, research editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.Tel. 0171 782 3276.

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