Design Thinking Impressions

Let’s Get Some Context.

I was accepted to Michigan State University’s Master’s in Educational Technology program almost exactly three years after I took my first class in user experience design (UXD). I know because I found the original Instagram post I made from a “take a picture of something that makes you happy every day” challenge and it showed up on my “On this day…” feature. Welcome to mood lighting, selfie-taking, long-hair-with-bangs, 2015 subway platform Lindsay.

I’m glad even then I knew this was poor lighting.

You could easily profile me. Young millennial living in Brooklyn, working for a large corporation in New York City, not using her degree from a public university. My job wouldn’t provide any additional training, so I decided to take this class after my dad suggested I might enjoy UXD and that I would make a better living with it. Considering I lived in a small apartment with two roommates, one of which was making pot cookies once a month on MY cookie sheets and dating a man who was almost her boss’s boss, twice her age, and married…but I’m getting off track.

I took the UXD course from General Assembly and made a fleshed out prototype of a Google Docs extension that would help educators assess who of the group members really did the work. It wasn’t real, and I didn’t have the ability to code it, but I made it! It was mine! But not enough to build a portfolio to get a job in the field. Lucky for me at this time, I had decided to move to Seattle in August 2016 and go back to teaching: I was tired of being the one who had to invoice and take money from school districts (even if they were paying for a product, most of them never used it).

Regardless, here’s the three years later equivalent social media post. Meet 2018 optimistic, Twitter-happy, itinerant music teacher Lindsay (who learned her lesson that bangs are way too much upkeep):

This is my personal Twitter account, please only follow if you want to see a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons discussion.

I’ve leaned on my design knowledge throughout my Master’s coursework at Michigan State University, and had looked forward to taking a design class again from the moment I put it on my proposed academic schedule. From the moment the class started, I felt right back at home, familiar with the content, proposed technologies, and the process itself. Proof:

Can you tell I have trouble finding things to post on my professional account?

It has not been the easiest few months. My husband’s application to be an Army pilot was denied after preparing for ten years to become one, my grandmother passed away in late January after two months of declining health, and COVID-19. That alone has impacted my job, my safety, where I live, and my plans for the rest of the year. This tweet from earlier today felt so accurate:

You Teach the Same Class How Many Times?

When I took the UXD course in 2015-2016, I remember thinking how much teaching was a lot like designing. I kept constantly making connections back to teaching throughout the course, and one of my biggest takeaways was that design thinking is perfect for teachers. They must do it all the time without thinking as part of their lesson plans. Then I started teaching again, and discovered I was incorrect. I really saw my design thinking this year was in the repetitive music classes I taught since. Over the past two years I have taught 10 kindergarten music classes for 50 minutes twice a week. That’s a lot of numbers, so here’s part of my schedule:

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
11:20-12:10Class AClass FClass AClass F
12:30-1:20Class BClass GClass BClass G
1:20-2:10Class CClass HClass CClass H
2:10-3:00Class DClass IClass DClass I
3:00-3:50Class EClass JClass EClass J
Please note the 20 minute break from 12:10-12:30.

This setup meant that for two years, I have taught the same lesson ten times in a row before switching plans. Only as I took this course did I realize that each set of ten classes was an encapsulation of iterative design. 

The content was there to start, and I knew what the students needed to learn, but it was a matter of pacing, delivery, and adjusting the lessons to my students’ needs. My first lesson of each set was always the roughest sketch – barely prepared fifteen minutes prior, sketched on the board so students knew what we were doing, and delivered. You’ll notice that there’s a 20 minute break after my first class. This was invaluable: I could teach the first class and if anything didn’t work, needed different supplies, caused issues, needed more content, I could redesign the lesson and test again with the next class. The next “break” my lessons got was between each set of five classes. After teaching five of the same lesson on Monday, I might discover that these students are not ready to do partner dances or that we never got to our last activity. The next day I would come in, change our schedule, and see how it worked. 

Depending on the needs of the classroom I might change the process as well. One class had a nonverbal student, who would do motions if I had them, but if I didn’t would space out and constantly go to use the bathroom. That class had movements for every single song. My class at the end of the day had more movement in their activities, as I discovered the students were antsy to get home and movement helped them focus.

Framing and Reframing

Design thinking has impacted how I have looked at the world around me as well. My husband and I had a discussion recently that framed how different our thought processes are when it comes to some of society’s biggest problems. It started with this tweet and article while drinking coffee this morning:

I found it originally from a friend, but did not get permission from her to link her tweet publicly.

The ideas discussed in this article and the ideas it created in my mind had me instantly messaging my husband:

Edited for language

After he read it, we had an in-depth discussion of the implications of what redesigning the restaurant industry would be, how many other industries and facets of society had also been living on this razor’s edge, and how COVID-19 would industries and patterns of human life going forward. Design thinking helped me frame these larger questions as problems that needed to be clarified and defined rather than immediately jumping in with the solutions that may be put in place. At first I thought it was the difference between being an idealist and a pragmatist, but I realized it was actually the difference being able to reframe issues in various ways and immediately making solutions based on what you know.

Design thinking has made me even more of an optimist than I already was. Being able to frame a problem, then reframe, define, then redefine, then throw it all out without feeling bad. As the “artsy” one of a friend group who prided themselves in being in the top 5% of our high school class, failing was not a thing I did. Honestly, it’s still not much of what I do. But I’m more comfortable with small failures far more than I ever have been. My cooking and baking has definitely been improved because I am willing to take chances and make substitutions, knowing that if this meal isn’t perfect, I’ll still eat it, and I’ll make even tastier food next time. For example, this fantastic “vegetarian” ramen my husband and I made a few weeks ago:

It’s the 9th picture, as the caption says. This is my husband’s Instagram.

That “homemade vegetable ramen” clearly has eggs in it that were not a part of the recipe. I discovered early that afternoon that it called for dried shiitake mushrooms, not fresh ones, and had to learn how to dry mushrooms quickly. The broth is not vegetarian either; its water base we swapped for equal parts chicken stock and bone broth because I thought it might amp up the flavor. And in these times, those are definitely not fresh ramen noodles. They’re dried packaged “Asian noodles”, whatever that means. The fact that I can recall each of these substitutions 15 days later means that yes, the mistakes still bother me. But I was able to iterate on the original recipe to make something that I would probably enjoy (and did!). A lot of social distancing cooking has involved finding solutions that I would not have been ready for before.

Looking Ahead

 Looking forward, I hope the principles of design thinking help define my style as a leader. I love being in a classroom and singing with students, but the testing of this step of my career has shown me that there is more that I could be doing in other positions. I want to be able help those in struggling positions feel supported, like I tried to do through my problem of practice for this course. I want to be comfortable testing something to see if it works, and trying something else if it doesn’t. I want to be creative with my solutions by defining the problems I encounter properly. Even if it’s as simple as keeping the design model steps on a Post-it on my laptop, I want to ensure that I remember this model.

I hope it keeps me an optimist. Everything is so unstable right now, I’m not even certain what I will be doing Tuesday. But I feel more prepared to tackle problems ahead with the wealth of knowledge that comes from theoretical and practical experience in design.

Supporting Itinerant Music Teachers Through Design Thinking

Introduction

I accepted my first teaching job three years ago as an itinerant music teacher. Our district has gone through a lot of changes in staffing, funding, and schedules over that time. Itinerants teach at different buildings throughout the day, starting in one building, traveling during the work day, and ending at a different building. I spoke with a few of my colleagues about being itinerants at a biweekly meeting. Many of them spoke to me about feeling unsupported in their roles working at two to seven buildings a week with minimal supplies. Some teachers even spoke about not having instruments or space to dance with primary students. They feel they are often the last to find out about news because they do not always have mailboxes and are overloaded with the distribution list emails from each building.

I explored this situation using the Stanford Design Model which has five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test (Plattner, 2018). Through the process, I learned how to create solutions using design thinking and developed a prototype to help my colleagues.

Empathize

Many of these were struggles I have also experienced as a fellow itinerant music teacher and I have wanted to change. As a peer and not an administrator, there are not many ways that I can have a large impact on our funding and scheduling. I would have to find ways to make the most impact that I could for others within my own role, but first I needed a better picture of the demographic I was trying to help. Although we share the same title, itinerant music teachers do not have any group meetings throughout the year so I do not know most of my peers in person. 

Using our email distribution lists, I broke the teachers down into groups by experience, subject, location, and resources. Two distinct types appeared, and I created two character profiles based on these discoveries: Laura and Steve. “Laura” is an instrumental music teacher who has over a decade of teaching experience, and teaches at approximately four schools a day. “Steve” by comparison is new to teaching and teaches general music classes at two or three schools a day in wherever the school can find space to teach. You can find the full profiles below.

These helped me discover that the person that really needs help are those general music teachers who are new to teaching and being an itinerant. Being a first-year teacher is hard enough but learning how to be an itinerant at the same time is very difficult. 

Define

Embarking on this design process, I first needed to settle on what problem could use a solution I could provide. The original statement read as follows:

“I am an itinerant music teacher, one of approximately 30 in my district. We travel between buildings during the school day, and end up teaching in very different rooms. I’ve taught in six schools over three years in: the primary general music room, carpeted cafeteria, tiled cafeteria, music portable, overload portable, and a loft space that was originally the teacher’s lounge. Some of these rooms do not have speakers, instruments, or smartboards. We are contractually given 45 minutes to pack up, drive, and set up at each new building (this year they cut us short).”

(Luft-Dixon L., 2020, p.7)

I originally believed that I should solve for how we could create engaging and useful lessons for students while dealing with the conditions that surround our positions. Working through various exercises to discover the smaller problems along the way helped me see how the overarching issue is that itinerant general music teachers feel unsupported. My perspective of the problem had shifted radically from my original definition after discovering the population that is truly underserved and needs the most help. My problem was redefined as “itinerant general music teachers are feeling unsupported in their transient positions.”

Ideate

Ideation is defined as “…the mode in which you generate radical design alternatives,” (Plattner, 2018, p.iii). In this case, it meant understanding why itinerant teachers felt unsupported. Due to COVID-19 isolation and school closures, I met with my siblings via Discord video chat to discuss the conditions my colleagues and I have experienced. My siblings include:

  1. A 26 year old who works for Donor’s Choose and is intimately familiar with the supply and support deficiencies for modern educators.
  2. A 22 year old music education major who is exploring future job conditions.
  3. A 14 year old freshman in high school familiar with a strong district music program.

We developed a fully fleshed out list that clarified a lot of the areas where itinerant music teachers might feel unsupported. After listing so many reasons they felt unsupported, my brothers and I struggled to find ways to truly make them feel supported within the constraints of my current position. The ideas for possible prototypes developed over the next few days as I did some journaling about my problem whenever a related idea came to mind. 

Prototype

Eventually I settled on one idea that I knew I could implement: a handbook given to all general music itinerants that would provide specific information relevant to the position that they would otherwise assume they do not have or ask a colleague. At first I envisioned this as something given to them during new teacher orientation, but pivoted to a digital version so that it would not be a burden to keep with you while traveling. An important part of this was deciding how to organize the information. I started with a list of topics I felt necessary to include, then organized them into categories based on similar content.

From there I was able to structure the table of contents, lay out basic information and what would be in every section and subsection for a basic prototype. The next important step was to share it with some colleagues to see if they would find it as valuable as I believed it would be.

Test

How I planned to test my prototype changed drastically with the onset of COVID-19. Originally the prototype would be brought to my professional learning community to be workshopped and discussed during our biweekly meeting. Instead I asked four of my colleagues to view and comment on personal digital copies of my handbook. Unfortunately I was unclear in my directions when I should have been explicit and received varied levels of feedback. While I had done well to get varied levels of experience and population to test my prototype, I did not give enough incentive to follow through on participation or provide in-line feedback. Even with those setbacks, I received some important feedback from my testing:

  • Teacher C said they would review but never did.
  • Teacher E reviewed the handbook and replied “This looks GREAT! A perfectly comprehensive overview of what an itinerant music teacher might expect when walking into a new position. Really, I can’t think of anything I would add to or take away from your document.” (S. Erak, personal communication, March 31, 2020) She may have had issues working with technology that was new to her.
  • Teacher M provided comprehensive in-line feedback throughout the handbook, and shared “I edited based on a) ease of reading and b) questions/concerns I’ve heard from teachers I’ve worked with at [school].” (R. Martinicchio, personal communication, April 3, 2020)

In the future for testing, I would set clear expectations and provide an incentive so that all that volunteered would follow through with the proper testing procedures. Based on the limited feedback I did receive, I believe that my prototype would be successful.

Conclusion

Stanford’s Design Model is incredibly helpful in finding possible solutions for explicitly defined problems. I believe that an itinerant general music handbook would help support new and experienced itinerant teachers based on the testing results. I plan to continue fleshing it out and developing the handbook to provide for next year’s itinerants, and will be paid for my efforts through effective education hours. I also plan to update the handbook with a section on how itinerant teaching looks with distance learning.

References

Luft-Dixon, L. (2020). CEP 817 Feedback Notebook – Spring 2020 – LUFT-DIXON. Retrieved from: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E5y2ikElQR2OgcsQWGTiyJnNzYp37Z45zH6oN16-DLo/edit#

Plattner, H. (2018). design thinking bootleg. Retrieved from: https://lindsayluftcom.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/3265f-dschool_bootleg_deck_2018_final_sm28229.pdf

Testing…now with video!

My specific problem is that itinerant general music teachers are feeling unsupported in their transient positions. Going through the design process, there are several steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This shows my prototype handbook to solve the problem going through the testing phase. 

Due to the testing happening during social isolation for COVID-19, it looked different than originally planned and went suboptimally. I asked for volunteers from a music teacher email distribution list, and received three responses. The three eventually gave me three levels of feedback: in-depth, a brief summary, and no response. I could have followed up to create more in-depth responses, but our school was also not requiring heavy work from us during this period (only email checking once a day during the work week) and may not have produced more responses.

The feedback I did receive helped me decide that I was moving in the right direction and mostly needed minor tweaks to create the most effective handbook. I will spend the next few weeks fleshing this out and creating a useful document for future itinerants.

Testing, 1, 2, 3!

Testing became a more difficult process to implement than I had expected. My original testing plan included bringing copies of the handbook to my PLC: a group of seven teachers of varied experience levels, many who have been an itinerant before. I would give them time to review on their own and then come together to discuss for 15-20 minutes. With the changing policies and school closing, my plan had to shift dramatically. I e-mailed a group of music teachers who I’ve personally worked with to ask if any of them would be interested in providing feedback on the format/layout/information included in my handbook.

Three of my colleagues responded, and I was excited to have a varied experience group: a first-year teacher, a third year, and a veteran teacher. However, these were all teachers who were in one building, not itinerants. This is a helpful viewpoint but not the people this would be helping in the long run.

My plan at this point was to have them comment on a copy of the document, let me know when they finish, so I could plan a videoconference or phone call with them around it. Due to time zones and how long they took to complete the feedback portion, I was unable to complete the verbal feedback portion. The three performed different levels of feedback:

  • First-year: did not respond after I sent them the document, did not make any comments/edits
  • Third-year: thorough reflection throughout, edited, suggested, added more information
  • Veteran: thankful someone was doing this, but provided no in-line feedback.

At the end of this unit, it was clear to me I was not specific enough in my instructions of what I wanted the feedback to look like from my peers. For future revisions, I would rewrite my introductory e-mail, be more specific with my follow-up email on how I would like to see edits, and include in that follow-up email that I would like to plan a call to further discuss their thoughts and opinions for the handbook.

Creating a Prototype

After all the brainstorming, it was time to create something. I decided to go with the option that I knew I would be able to complete in the given time frame (and with my level of ability to effect change in my district): an itinerant elementary music teacher handbook. As a new teacher in my district, you go through lots of new employee orientation sessions, but when it came to music in particular? We were sat in a room, with three books as a sample of what was available, and told there was no district curriculum. This did not prepare me at all for what the future of my position looked like, and I don’t wish that situation on anyone else.

I’ve started a basic outlined prototype with some of the information I’d like to include: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1uJ55uk37w5v19R5-D-06kI8XQdoCvCg3NUcPWVMiuEA/edit?usp=sharing

Sample table of contents from the handbook prototype

I think that this will best be kept digitally so that it is easy to update and distribute. I considered a website format for a while but decided against it because not as many people are comfortable updating a webpage as they are a word document. The end goal is for this to remain accurate and up-to-date, and that won’t happen if there are barriers to change the information.

There are a lot of parallels in creating a document like this and creating informational documents about your duties when you leave a role that isn’t teaching. When I left my previous position as a Client Services Assistant for an educational technology company, I created many documents around my clients, updating SalesForce, using our back-end to renew clients, etc. As I know I will be leaving my itinerant position at the end of this school year (whenever that may be!), this felt very similar.

This document felt difficult to prepare considering the uncertainties of the rest of the school year. Teaching in the Seattle area has been incredibly stressful this month, and even as we are not required to teach during the school closure, I worry about my students and colleagues. Hopefully there will eventually be a return to normalcy and this document will aid future itinerants, improving their experiences as educators.

Connecting All the Dots

I originally wanted to reflect on “things that don’t add up”, focusing on how right now we are told to be healthy we need to stay inside. During this time away from school I’m staying at my husband’s apartment rather than my own so I didn’t have the supplies that I wanted to do this. As I was ideating, I thought about how last night my friends and I played Animal Crossing from five different states. I then switched to the “connected world” theme. 

I wanted to show how in our small apartment, we are still connected to the outside world in so many ways. I decided to focus on “What devices are connected to our wifi?” as the main connector. Turns out there are a lot! Each of the devices I connected helps us connect with others and the world around us, which is why the string ends outdoors.

It didn’t occur to me until I was unwinding the yarn and taking off the tape that I liked the symbolism of how the yarn touched so many other objects along the way. My husband and I have been cooking a lot of recipes we have found online with our opened schedules. We ordered groceries to fill the pantry online. There’s a cleaning schedule I found on Instagram that I printed and put on our fridge to declutter the space. 

It also showed me just how difficult it would be to untangle ourselves from the Internet at large. My husband and I met on Twitter, our friends and family live around the world, and our work is mostly online. I have sympathy for my students right now who are unable to be connected while they are away from school, and hope that we can find a way to help them feel the interconnection of our school’s community in other ways.

Braining up a Storm…

As I continue to think about my problem of practice, I have taken some time over the past week to let my brain run wild on its own, and with some familiar faces. I kept an idea journal of sorts in Google Keep for a few days to help gather some thoughts I have while I teach and struggles related to feeling unsupported as an itinerant.

I wish I was better at journaling my thoughts throughout the day! I keep my own journal at night, but that’s for personal stuff. I use Google Keep to make my grocery lists, to-do lists, bucket lists…so I figured it would be a good way to keep track of my thoughts. I did my best, but it was also a hectic week (as you can tell from the first item).

I also had the opportunity to video chat with three of my brothers around my problem. One is studying to become a music teacher right now, the other works in IT for a local credit union, and the other is a freshman in high school. Getting varying perspectives was really helpful. Additionally, we come from a very strong music program, so having that background knowledge to help develop other good music programs is useful. The freshman helped a lot by asking the two of us questions about how teaching works overall and it dived into places that my college brother and I would’ve taken for granted.

After all of that, I came up with two lists. The first is ideas that I love but are just not feasible for me to accomplish in one way or another:

  • Practicing app to interface with teachers (not in scope)
  • District-scheduled specialist schedules (not school-by-school)
  • Building a bunch of new schools
  • Adding a music-only portable at each building
  • Required lunches each week at different buildings so you can interact with staff in a way that’s more than pick up and drop-off
  • Creating more support at admin level (our director is already stretched thin)
  • Itinerant staff office at each building so that we have a place that is “ours”
  • District-wide curriculum so that everyone is teaching the same stuff
  • Making the primary music teacher at each building the “Music Overseer” on top of teaching (take some classes out of caseload and give to itinerants, give them time to ensure that the itinerants are supported and provided what they need at their building)

These are a few that I might be able to work with and develop:

  • Welcome Itinerant Building Doc that explains procedures, classroom sharing, curriculum requirements, other building-specific knowledge that would take a long time to learn otherwise
  • Microsoft Teams or other platform to encourage communication between itinerants to share materials, classroom management strategies, and develop bonds
  • Attending PD at whatever building you need to at that moment rather than always at your home school
  • District-wide music itinerant PD during a workshop day
  • Itinerant’s first two weeks at a building are shadowing the primary teacher to encourage a continued program K-6 and build rapport with students before working with them on their own.

I’m looking forward to getting started and making something out of all these words!

In a World of Pure Ideation!

Ideation has a lot of wiggle room in it…including taking time for yourself. Sometimes that even helps us produce better ideas! So when it was time to move on to the ideation phase of design, I was looking forward to it. I started with taking some quick notes about how I was thinking about the project currently.

Then you get to take a break! Do something else low stress. I chose to work on my cross-stitch project from CloudsFactory. I finished my February section about the Princess and the Frog.

Pattern available from CloudsFactory, stitching by me

After about an hour of stitching and listening to some music, I went back to my original notes and added a bit more.

I found this process pretty enjoyable! It was encouraging to be told to slow down for a moment and relax. With my pre- notes, I felt myself getting frustrated as I wrote them and that I felt there was not a good answer for me to create. After working on my stitching, I was able to come back with more stable emotions, look at my list and expand upon it rather than continue writing things angrily. This process inspired me enough to do it on a smaller basis through the Pomodoro method. I tried using Pomodoro in college but it didn’t work for me then. Doing my graduate work this week has been much easier since I have given myself the grace to fully focus on the work because I know I will get free time later.

So Here’s the Problem…

My problem of practice that I have been focusing on for design purposes is...

Itinerant music teachers are struggling to teach successful lessons.

Our district is increasing population steadily and requires each class to have two 50-minute music classes a week. With the number of classes in each elementary building, they need more than one dedicated music educator to teach that many classes. This does not create a second full-time position at that building, so the district creates various “itinerant” or traveling music teacher schedules where teachers go to different buildings throughout the week to teach these classes. 

Each building provides a different amount of space (cafeteria, classroom, portable, shared classroom) and equipment (a whiteboard and a projector to a fully stocked music classroom). The teachers in these positions are usually inexperienced and new, which makes the varied teaching and learning situations difficult. There are also discipline and behavior issues due to fluctuating faculty, learning spaces, and inconsistent consequences.

Ideally, the outcome would be that the itinerant music educators feel supported and able to teach engaging lessons despite their environments. Once they feel comfortable in these roles, they will stay, gain experience, develop better lesson plans, and have stronger classroom management skills.

Making Things Up As We Go!

Sniglets
The internet is constantly making new words, especially using portmanteaus. This week I came up with three of my own for phenomena in my life that I don’t have an easy way to explain. I hope you enjoy them!

  • Pristinate (prih-STEE-nayt) – v. To clean as a means of keeping yourself from doing other work that needs to be done.
  • Slup (sluhp) – v. when you trip going up the stairs.
  • Cherakri (chuh-rack-ree) – n. The side of your hand made up of the side of your palm opposite your thumb and your pinky (if you made a fist and put it thumb side up on a surface, your cherakri would be touching the surface).

The musician in me wanted to be fancy with the last one, so it uses the Greek words for edge (ákri) and hand (chéri). Considering I use my cherakri as my eraser for my whiteboard, now I have a way to explain why there’s ink on that part of me to everyone else!

Reframing a Problem
While learning about design it has become clear that not all problems are what they seem – sometimes they need to be looked at in a different way. When we reframe the problem, it creates new viable solutions. Here’s an example from my own life:

I am spending the week with my husband at his apartment in DC, and I’m struggling with being stuck in an apartment by myself with no way of leaving while he is at work. The building requires the same key fob to get in and out whether it’s the garage or the front door. He also drives a manual so I can’t drive him to and from work so that I have a way to leave. The problem, in this case, was me saying “I can’t leave, and I’m just stuck here while you work all week.” It seemed as if I was restless and frustrated that he was unable to take time off while I was visiting.
When I arrived here, we started talking about different things that he hadn’t had time to do (cleaning, organizing, make dinner at night, cross-stitching, videogames that I hadn’t played that he owns) and started making a list. Providing a list of options helped me realize that it was not that I was “stuck”, but that I was worried about feeling bored or that I had nothing to do while he was gone. 
I’m now feeling much better about going into the week, knowing I have so many options and will most likely not get bored.

I really struggled thinking of a problem that I could reframe from my own life. I asked my husband for ideas as well, and he could not think of any. What I discovered about myself is that my “shifts” in thinking feel too fluid to recognize them as reframing or shifting my thought processes around it. I learned that reframing can be simpler than I think, but requires much more explanatory knowledge about the situation. Sometimes that means being really in the situation itself. So far I think this solution will work, but I won’t know until the end of February break! I will try to remember to update this later.

Empathy for Itinerants

In Kent School District, our increasing population has led to complications in elementary music programs. Our buildings all have one full-time music teacher and a few other music teachers who rotate in throughout the week. These teachers are full-time by working at 2-7 buildings a week with few provided supplies. I’m hoping to find a way to support the music educators in these scenarios through learning more about the issues they face. As one of them I can be blind to some of our issues, so I started by creating character profiles.

I put together these profiles after combing through the seniority list cross-referenced with our itinerant e-mail distribution list. What I discovered is that we have two different “users” in this scenario: the experienced band/orchestra educators, and the inexperienced general music educators. I did not realize that the group was so especially divided in terms of experience. On average our ensemble teachers have 18 years of experience, while our general music teachers only four. This wide berth between the two populations shows not only a generation gap, but also that among peers, the general music itinerants do not have experienced role models to observe and imitate.

This experience gap may also demonstrate that this is an unwanted position – low experience may indicate high turnover, and that itinerants leave the role quickly to become full-time in one building or to leave the profession.

Something I also noted was that the ensemble teachers have a biweekly PLC meeting that they are immediately invited to upon starting the school year. If a new general music teacher with no experience is hired, they are part of a first-year teacher mentor program but are not invited to a music-specific PLC unless directly invited by a one-building (primary) music educator.

Another lens I wanted to look at the situation through was the eyes of the one-building (primary) music educators and building administration. One school provided me with a copy of their itinerants’ schedule for the week:

This school has six music teachers, the five listed and one primary. After reading the schedule, it seems that only five teachers would be necessary. How did the schedule end up this way? Did the numbers change that wildly to create the need for another teacher? How do we create a consistent learning environment for students when an educator is only in the building for 50 minutes twice a week?

In a meeting with staff to discuss issues around itinerants, here were a few of the issues brought up by primary music educators:

  • Different curriculum taught, so students are unequally prepared when taught the next year
    • Some curriculum materials provided, but not mandatory
  • Issues with space/co-teaching
    • Where do we put them?
      • Portables
      • Gym
      • Cafeteria
      • Vestibules
      • Informal teaching spaces
  • Inability to do grade level performances since there is no common planning with their colleagues
  • Discipline issues
    • general ed teachers complain to them that their students are having a harder time in music with the itinerants than they had in previous years with the primary music teacher
  • Materials
    • Insufficient supplies
    • I can’t move my xylophones over there twice a week
    • Who has the money for two sets of instruments?
  • Lack of consistency
    • Can’t get subs for itinerants
      • Lack of subs in district pool
    • Not always notified in changes in the itinerant schedule for their school (the impetus is on the itinerant, not the district/administration)
    • Itinerants at each building change from year to year, you’re lucky to have the same one twice in a row
    • Based on enrollment
    • Music leadership has changed 3 times in 3 years

I cannot solve all of these issues but there are a few places that are open for change. Combing through this information has led me to believe that I should focus on finding ways to provide resources and materials to general music itinerants. They seem to be less supported and experienced than the ensemble educators and cause the primary music educators the most concern.