Appropriate to have a Newfoundland tune to introduce this post, as I usually think of (comedian) Rick Mercer when I think of a good rant. If you’ve heard any of his rants, you will know that they are thoughtful, witty, pointed, topical and brief. Except for the thoughtful, witty, pointed, topical and brief aspects, you will notice that I am adhering to this model.
I need to point out that, over the (approximately) 33 years of my teaching career, I spent 33 (actually 34) at the same school. Thirty-four because I also “practice taught” at this same school the year previous (in fact the reason I was hired). While, at some points during my career, I was split (so to speak) among several schools, I never wasn’t there (ie. at the original school). The first ten years were spent as a classroom teacher (with a minor side of music) and the remaining time teaching music as (more or less) a full time position. My dabbling in writing musicals coincided with my shift in assignment and the cessation and its causes are the subject of my rant.
There are lots of personal things that might explain the end to my venture into songwriting and school musicals. My mother’s passing after a period of illness in 1997, my decision to pursue my masters degree at university (2000), my father’s subsequent death in 2003… about the same time I was called to defend my thesis and we welcomed the birth of our first grandaughter in the very hospital in which my father was a patient. I wouldn’t deny that these events reshuffled my priorities but, in truth, the thing which factored primarily into halting that sort of creative output was a provincial election in Ontario which brought Mike Harris and his “Common Sense Revolution” to power.
The year was 1995. The Tories under Harris promised significant changes in many areas, including education. While teachers protested the proposed measures and the government’s confrontational attitude, a myriad alterations in the education system were destined to affect my remaining teaching career. Perhaps chief amongst them (for me) was the establishment of “megaboards” (massive boards encompassing as many as half a dozen pre-existing smaller boards) and an absolute centralization of funding and curriculum priorities. Now those changes didn’t affect me immediately (ie. 1995) but by the latter part of the decade their impact became clear.
Our smaller (rural) board was absorbed into one of these “black hole” boards which (in our case) was dominated by the large urban centre adjacent to us. Funding and priorities were controlled from Toronto and the local boards scrambled to organize in this new world of education. This was significant for me because, where the previous small board had, over the course of twenty years, supported, invested in and nurtured a vocal music program at the elementary level, the new regime had neither time, funds or interest in providing for the arts (including music). In short, a board which had provided, over fifteen years, music specialists in each elementary school and a detailed curriculum suddenly ceased to exist and so did the music program in its former schools. Music teachers were absorbed into the general staff- some doing limited music instruction on a class exchange basis, some simply abandoning music instruction entirely and a few trying to maintain a position in the subject they most valued. In 1998 my own music position was reduced to 70% (30% classroom duties)and in 1999 it dropped further to 30% (requiring me to travel to three schools teaching only primary music to maintain my position). More significantly, the position ceased to be so much a provider of music instruction and became he (or she) who would provide the contracted prep time for classroom teachers. Because this role was largely accomplished through French instructors at the grade 4 to 8 level, “music teachers” found themselves working almost exclusively with primary classes- not especially desirable in producing a continuity throughout the grades. Compounding this situation was the plight of the average classroom teacher who had not, for fifteen years, been required to teach music to his or her students. Obviously some with a musical background would quickly adapt to this change- just as obviously, many were placed in a very uncomfortable position.
And just what were they to teach? The Harris government also replaced a recently developed curriculum with their own documents, including a new arts curriculum. My thesis (remember the masters?) examined the various education documents which had been part of my life since my own elementary days (early 60’s) to the present (ie. 2003) and their inconsistent relationship with the realities in the classroom. As part of that study I had the opportunity to correspond with Michael Wilson, a professor at the University of Ottawa, whose expertise in curriculum and the politics of education gave him the impeccible credentials to speak knowledgeably about the newly-developed documents. Some of his observations…
The 1-8 (arts) document was hurriedly put together by specialists who were given about two weeks to complete an entire document for all grades 1-8. In that crisis atmosphere, the music people got some impressively crafted expectations placed in the document that would have required specialist teachers teaching in a very academic, receptive school.
An aside… as the timeline given the authors of the Arts document suggests, inclusion of an arts curriculum was, in most respects, an afterthought on the part of the government. Professor Wilson was acquainted with the writers of the document and is generous in his assessment of their work. My own judgement is that the literacy (skill) development is extremely “light” at the primary level with an abrupt influsion of outcomes at start of the junior division. By the intermediate grades the authors are suggesting that students will (for example) “create and perform a short musical that consists of contrasting songs, dialogue, and drama”. The sequence and selection of many of the document outcomes is, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, completely unrealistic, given the circumstances in which they were to be taught.
I think the Ministry has essentially given up with attemping to support the 1-8 (Arts) document as it presents impossible hurdles for generalist teachers.
The writers, in their haste, forgot about dance, even though dance is legally an art form that students may study in publicly funded schools. At the last minute [Premier] Harris relented and directed the drama people to include the word dance within the drama expectations as much as possible. The result is, of course, a clumsy mess.
(Wilson, 2002, quoted in my thesis)
Now I must confess that, thanks to a very supportive school community (who, with the principal, conspired to create a full time position at the expense of some staff members), I finished my teaching career back at my “original” school teaching music to (almost) all grades. But it was not the same. The position now really was a “prep time provider” and daily noon yard supervision made it extraordinarily difficult to maintain any extracurricular choirs. Teachers were contending with new curricula and report cards, standardized testing and were not especially receptive to any disruptions (as things such as musicals inevitably create). Additionally a new thrust for safe schools had taken root and whatever energies remained for presentation beyond the required were devoted to that end. While several modest primary presentations and regular choir concerts/cabarets occurred in subsequent years, divisional musicals became a thing of the past and a volunteer drama club (restricted to certain grades) did its best to fill the void.
In my thesis I said that writing about the machinations of the education system over the years and its impact on my life had been “a therapeutic exercise”. I know that some of the circumstances (for the music program) with which I struggled have improved since my retirement. I also know that those circumstances, whatever they may be currently, will change. In light of the several impending elections, federal and provincial, I can only hope that the politicians consider not only policy as a vote-getting device but the impact those policies will have if implemented.
So, there’s my rant, such as it is. In my next post I’ll resume a lighter touch, more in keeping with the musicamuse mandate. And, by the way, although it is April 1st, this wasn’t an April Fools… maybe next year (note to self)…