Today In the United States, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday focused on community service and social justice. It’s also a day off of teaching for me, and I’ve gotten to thinking about how music teachers can continue Dr. King’s dream of providing opportunities for every child. Just a quick glance around practically any large Suzuki school, workshop, or institute will show that, unfortunately, our Suzuki communities do not yet reflect the diversity of our communities. This is, of course, not just an issue with Suzuki. Due to the income disparities in our country which often fall along racial lines, most extracurricular enrichment activities for children tend to skew towards white, upper or middle-class families. I don’t have an easy answer for how we can get to a place where every child has access to a quality music education, which was Dr. Suzuki’s dream.
There are certainly social, financial, and legislative actions that would help to reduce the inequalities which exist in our society and we should all work on those bigger fixes. But there are also little things each of us can do as teachers to create an environment of inclusiveness where students and families of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and backgrounds can feel welcomed and empowered. As a white, middle class woman, I also feel it’s important for me to reflect honestly on the assumptions I might make or implicit biases that can creep into my teaching. As I go about creating a studio community, these are some of the questions I try to ask myself regularly.
My Suzuki Families
Does the language in my lesson materials and handouts reflect the diversity of modern families? Do I use games or activities with language like “Mom picks a review piece” or “Hug Mom”, which implicitly reinforces gender norms and excludes fathers, grandparents or other loving adults in a child’s life? When meeting new parents, do I make assumptions about which parent will be the practice partner/home teacher, based on traditional gender roles? When working with Suzuki dads, do I assume that they bring the same level of parenting skills as Suzuki moms? Am I flexible in my approach working with divorced, blended, or other non-traditional families? Do same sex parents and their children feel welcome in my teaching studio?
My Suzuki Students
Do I regularly try to check my assumptions about my students based on race, background, or other factors, seeking to see them as whole and multi-faceted persons? Examples of problematic assumptions: “She practices a lot because she is Korean.” or “He must not have a lot of support at home because his family is low income.” Acknowledging cultural differences in parenting style or educational expectations is fine, but pigeonholing students is not.
Am I careful to treat boy and girl students equally? Do I make comments about a girl student’s’ appearance or cuteness instead of praising her work? When giving out stickers or other incentives, do I let students choose what they want, or do I steer the girls towards princesses and the boys towards trucks and sports? Do I allow boys share their emotions in the same way I let girls share theirs, without stigma?
If I have a student with a learning or other disability, do I define them by their disability, or do I recognize their potential and adapt my teaching to fit their needs?
Do I foster a community based on mutual respect, tolerance, and inclusion? If I observe students teasing or excluding each other, do I immediately step in? Do I avoid “tokenism” by not expecting a minority student to speak on behalf of his or her entire race, religion, or cultural group? In teaching group classes, am I aware of implicit bias towards students of color in classroom management and do I reflect on how I can be more equitable toward all students? In classroom management, do I maintain a “boys will be boys” attitude, or do I try to hold all students to the same behavioral standards?
Do I engage my students in discussion about how different cultures have influenced the pieces they are playing? Do I take opportunities to expand my student’s repertoire to include women composers and composers of color? Do I find ways to incorporate non-classical repertoire? If I teach seasonal or holiday music, do I find ways to include music from non-Christian traditions? If I organize run-out concerts, do I try to have my students play for a variety of audiences? Do my students have a chance to see themselves represented in the performances they attend?
Does my school policy allow families flexibility to fulfill their religious observances? Am I equally understanding when a Hindu student requests an excused absence as I am when a Catholic student requests a similar allowance? In creating the semester schedule, do I use neutral language such as “Winter Break” over language the favors one religion “Christmas Break”?
Do I advertise and recruit in a wide variety of areas? If I am in a position to do so, do I provide scholarships or financial aid so more families can take advantage of Suzuki lessons? If I am in charge of studio space, is my building ADA compliant or could I find ways to improve accessibility?
These are just some of the things I think we can all work on as teachers to create the learning communities of the future. It is by no means inclusive, but it’s important to keep thinking, keep questioning, and keep improving. The more we do this, the closer we will get to a point where we can truly say that Every Child Can.