Parents take a lot of criticism and blame for the ills of the educational system and frankly, I think most problems could be alleviated with better parenting and stronger families. However, if we blindly accept the blanket statement that parents do not care about their children’s education we become defeatists, and this adversely affects our work with students.
I have taught the past three years in a school district where an inordinate number of children are raised by their grandparents or are from single parent homes. Many live in unstable home environments and are constantly moving from one parent, school, or community to another. One segment of our student population comes from a high crime area that lands many of its inhabitants in jail. Lack of financial resources is a problem for many, so 70% of the students are on free and reduced lunch. Major disciplinary, academic, and attendance problems are worse here than anywhere else I have been.
With these factors in mind, it would be easy for me to disparage parents and count them out based on stereotypes of a poorer population, but I refuse to do this, and with good reason. I have called, written, and held conferences with more parents and grandparents over the past three years than I had the previous 23 years combined. Some I have called or met with multiple times. Throughout all of this I have found that almost all parents, despite personal struggles and parental inadequacies, want their child to do what is right and are impressed that I care enough to call.
Few parents actually believe their children can do no wrong, and many of those who do become less defensive when they understand that the director cares about the child and wants him to remain in the program. Some might see this as coddling students, but some children simply take more time to mature. Band may also be one of the few times when a student is held to a high standard of accountability.
In interactions with parents I usually state my expectations and learn what they expect from me. I have come to believe that parents, regardless of background, expect similar things from the band director, and I have found that while directors focus on musical concerns, parents tend to think about practical matters.
Parents should know what is going on. The internet is a great tool, but very few families in my district have access to it. If I send a note home, I require students to detach and return the bottom portion signed by their parent or guardian. There is also a spot where the parent can write potential conflicts with band events so I can address these ahead of time.
I still try to mail as much information as possible. Until my three children joined band, I thought most notes arrived at home with the exception of an absent-minded student or two. I told them to pretend I was not their father (which they enjoyed) and take any band notes they receive at school to their mother. If I was lucky, one of the three notes made it home, and my children were more dependable than most students. Check any school music folder and you will probably find years of correspondence.
Good communication is particularly important in matters of discipline. Principals will be more likely to support you if you have worked with the parents on resolving problems. Sometimes I will give a problem child one final summer to mature, and I meet with a parent or guardian at the end of one year or the beginning of the next to make my expectations clear. I tell them that I want their child in band, explain my expectations, and express my hope that he will cooperate so we can have a great year. I also make it plain that the student will be on a short leash.
End Rehearsals On Time
Of course, directors think preparing for a halftime show or marching contest is the most important thing in the world, but parents have important things to do as well. Sitting in their car and waiting an extra 15 to 30 minutes for a director to run through a show one more time is not a parent’s idea of a good time. I never thought about this much until I had to wait on my children at athletic practices with no clue when they would be done. The coaches seemed to have no respect for my time.
Plan Concerts of Reasonable Length
I am a musician and even I have attention problems at lengthy musical events. Sometimes programs are Wagnerian due to the number of groups performing and the excessive dead time between each ensemble. Have small ensembles or a jazz band perform between set-ups to keep things moving. Sometimes the band booster organization can squeeze in a quick meeting between bands. Another idea is to have groups play on different dates. This may take two evenings instead of one but the concerts are easier to organize, shorter, and leave the audience wanting more.
Presenting too many awards can also bog down a concert. Use a school assembly or band banquet to give out awards and save the most prestigious ones for the concert.
Talk Sparingly at Concerts
It can be appropriate to talk during a concerts while the percussion section makes adjustments from one piece to another, but parents do not come to hear the director drone on about each composer and selection. If the information is important, put it in the program. Plan comments beforehand, or even write out thoughts so that they flow more smoothly without a lot of hemming and hawing.
Show Concern for Students
When a student is absent several days in a row, give him or his parents a phone call. It is possible that no other teachers have called them. I still remember my junior high band director who cared enough to bring my trumpet by my house one Friday when I had missed school due to illness.
Give Consideration to Other Classes
Teachers of the core subjects may be reluctant to admit it, but many students would not show up for school at all were it not for band. Parents have threatened to pull their children out of band if their grades did not improve, but I suggest that parents let their children remain in band but allow me to pull them from upcoming band events if grades remain poor. There is no reason for students to improve if they are pulled completely out of the group.
Other faculty members also appreciate it if the band director cares about students’ non-band classes. I take great pains to make sure that band students miss as little class as possible for band events. For some trips that involve missing classes, I send around a list of the participating students and ask if the teachers believe anyone should not miss class because of poor performance or effort.
Recognize Students for a Job Well Done
The director at my high school presented only two awards at the final concert: the John Philip Sousa Award and the award for the most-improved student. It is difficult to believe that of over one hundred band members, only two deserved any kind of recognition. Of course, the more awards you give, the more the remaining students may feel left out, but I believe it is best to err on the side of recognizing too many.
Before our awards concert or band banquet, I look over a list of every student in my program and consider what each one has done to determine who deserves special recognition. I give awards to those who receive varsity letters, the best marching band members in each class, overall outstanding band members in each class, and the student who shows greatest musical growth, as well as the John Philip Sousa Award, the Louis Armstrong Award, and various jazz awards. If appropriate I recognize unsung heroes who have provided some special service.
Make Band Fun
We can rightfully preach of all the tangible and intangible benefits of a band program but ultimately parents want their children to enjoy themselves. I’ve often explained to parents and students that there is an element of delayed gratification in many of the things that we do in band. However, it is best not to delay gratification too long by finding ways to enjoy everything along the way.
Feature Soloists in Concerts
Beginning bands lend themselves well to featuring individuals and sections. Each year I have at least one concert with only the beginning band. For the performance, I divide up songs from their beginning band book in different ways so parents can see their child individually or in small groups. Recently a young player who played a solo feature told me that after the concert his dad said, “I didn’t know you were that good. Anything you need in the way of music, I’ll do it for you.”
Memorable experiences are also created by featuring outstanding seniors on solo pieces. I sometimes divide a feature between two or three students when the music lends itself to a logical call and response structure. I even transpose parts to make this possible.
I have seen some amazing personal and musical growth in students that I had almost kicked out of band three years before. In most of these cases, the parents were a vital part of that transformation. Give the parents what they want, and there is no telling what can happen.