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Staying in the Fight

Tracy Wiggins | April May 2023

Personal Perspective

“I am sorry, but you are not our first choice.”

No one ever wants to hear those words, but there I was, hearing them after being called into a meeting. We often talk about and praise the successes of people in our field and rightfully so. We post on social media the great things that happen. We get the congratulatory messages, and it feels amazing. There is much more to the story.

I have had three college teaching positions in my 22-year career. The first was a one-year appointment that turned into a three-year job when my predecessor chose to not return after a year away. The second lasted 11 years and was the 11th job I applied for that year and only the second interview. Neither of these positions became tenure track until after I left.

They were great positions, and I was quite happy in both. Jobs in our field are hard to get, and it can seem inexplicable why someone is selected. There are so many qualified people for so few jobs. As a mentor once told me, “every person on a committee has a different view of what the job of a percussion teacher is.”

As we get older, many of us start families and want our children to grow up with closer contact with their grandparents. This was true in my case. My parents were no longer with us, so I wanted our daughters to be closer to the grandparents they still had. I began looking for jobs closer to Alabama and applied for pretty much everything. For a couple of the positions I really wanted, I didn’t even receive an interview. Those jobs have now had eight teachers combined in the later years.

Finally, a one-year appointment at a job that seemed perfect for my particular set of skills (I owe Liam Neeson for that one!) came open. The position included a heavy marching program along with percussion studio work. It seemed perfect, but I knew that leaving an 11-year position for a one-year appointment was a huge risk. You know that the job will become open in a year, and you will have to apply once again. I applied, sat for an interview, and then was offered the position.

My wife and I discussed it and decided the risk was worth taking, even if just for a year. I had built a career getting interviewed for positions and losing out to the person already in the job. I had enough hope that this time, I would get to keep the position. We packed up and moved.

The new program was already strong, so my first job was to avoid messing it up. I did my best to keep the program moving while making some small changes. The year felt like a success.

Later in the year, I was interviewed again. There are few things more awkward than interviewing for a job you already have. I have been interviewed by phone with hiring committees sitting in the office directly underneath mine. I have also rearranged my teaching schedule to be off campus on the days when someone one else is coming to apply for my job. Students and teaching colleagues meet job candidates and decide they like someone better after a single day than they like you after working together for a year.

“There is nothing you could have done differently. It was just not quite the right fit.”

There it is. This line is so hard for teachers to hear and understand. Having participated in several searches as part of the hiring committee, I still don’t know exactly what they mean by the right fit, but understand it better now. Someone can seem great during the playing, teaching, and interview portions and seem like a slam dunk hire. Once they get to campus on a daily basis, sometimes things just don’t feel right. These instructors are not bad. They are doing the right things, but they just don’t fit into the overall program. This feeling is difficult to quantify, but it can only be identified after a hiring decision

My reviews to that point had seemed fine, but something clearly was not working. More importantly, I was now unemployed and all of the jobs that had been open (which I had applied for to hedge my bets) were filled. Suddenly, I began the most focused panic mode of my life.

I quickly reached out to mentors and colleagues seeking any kind of available work. I started thinking about what other fields I could go into. I imagined uprooting a family that had grown to love the community and their schools after only a year. Everything was upside down. I was in a daze, but also as focused as I have ever been. I had to do something.

“Do you still want the position?”

Then, the phone rang on the way to dinner after a long week with no new information. On the phone is my now-former boss. “Do you still want the position?” I breathe the largest exhale of relief of my life. I have a job again. I have security. No one has to be uprooted. The funny thing about tenure-track positions is you have to go through a similar process again several years later.

You settle into the gig, molding the program closer to your vision. You feel like it is going well. Then it happens: the mid-tenure review. Now, most of the time this is “You are doing great. Here are a few things to look at doing.” Occasionally, the review is so brutal that you draft a resignation letter that day, thinking it is time to leave the field entirely. All of the work you thought had been really good hasn’t been viewed that way. Remember this from earlier: “Every single person on a committee has a different view of what the job of a percussion teacher is.” This is even more true on tenure lines. Now you know you have two years to fix that which took you three years to break.

You take the criticism deeply to heart. You try and address every weakness that you see, going overboard to fix everything. In a happy ending, you get a promotion, tenure, and more. That’s what happened to me, but it is not true for so many others. Having gone through all of this, I feel deeply for them whenever it happens. It is awful, it is depressing, and it makes you angry. It makes you doubt yourself. Then you have to pick up the pieces and move forward.

I write all of this because someone recently told me that they have watched me over the years as an example of staying in the fight. I taught fourteen years of non-tenure-track, and eight years later have been promoted to professor. For so many people, that’s all they see because social media is a curated timeline of what we want people to know about us. We see everyone’s successes. This is the story of my failures. I was fortunate to have a happy ending, but there were many moments when my path seemed utterly hopeless. It is important for people to see that side as well.

To those out there fighting the fight, I admire you and root for your success. I respect that you are in the arena trying to make it happen. For those who have moved on to other careers, I also see how successful and happy so many of you are after that change. I wish the best for everyone on this journey.