Sometimes a school is no place to teach
by Chris Quinlan 27.10.2000 revised 07.11.05

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Sometimes a school is no place to teach
by Chris Quinlan 27.10.2000 revised 7.11.2005

Author's note: I initially wrote this article in late 2000 for Mixdown Magazine in an attempt to air an issue that was plagueing Instrumental Music Teachers in the Australian Private Primary and Secondary School System; I received a lot of feedback; (overwhelmingly positive) over the next few months.

Five years later, in 2005, with the unveiling of the Howard Liberal Governments Plan for Industrial Reform; I had cause to readdress this issue.

In the five years between the writing of this article in 2000 and late 2005; the situation with Instrumental Music Teachers was seen by many to be slowly improving; The Industrial Reforms Package as it stands now in 2006 is a body blow for all, particularly for Music Teachers.

Let me make this clear, it is not all about money, it is about Respect.

Like so many cases of Social and Industrial Injustice, many people are simply unaware of the situation and the ramifications of some systems that are put into place "with best intentions".

The article I originally wrote in 2000 and revised in 2005 is now, far more relevant than it ever has been .... 50,000 Mums and Dads protesting these divisive Industrial Reforms at the M.C.G. on November 30th 2006 is proof of that.

Chris Quinlan 5th December 2006

Sometimes a school is no place to teach

The pros and cons of teaching music in the secondary school system

Having taught music since 1978; Chris Quinlan weighs up the differences in the quality offered between private music lessons and the instrumental music systems of secondary schools, both for the student and the teacher.........

One of the immediate main distinctions between private music lessons and school music lessons I have found, is the difference in student attitudes towards music lessons; Secondary school music lessons are often thought of as soft or "a bludge" by some students, often taking up a lesson because it gets them out of maths, geography or some such thing.

Students who take private lessons mostly do so because of a dedicated interest in music; private lessons means lessons after school hours, extra travel, extra cost, all of which combine to create a dedication to the instrument; the student has to WORK for the lessons.

Even for dedicated students in secondary school, lessons have to be juggled between classes, excursions and sport; often having to miss lessons because of these factors as well as only having lessons during school terms; this means the secondary school student has an average of 30-35 lessons per secondary school year compared with an average of 40-48 lessons privately.

As well as this, these 30-35 lessons are often shared with other students who have varying degrees of commitment; in trying to save money, parents often overlook the fact that cheaper group lessons are often made worthless because of other students "on the bludge" taking the teachers attention away from the committed student, leaving him or her to practice the same thing over and over.

Another factor in weighing pros and cons is the quality of teaching given, often in schools, a "qualified" teacher in one instrument (perhaps piano) is given the duties of lets say guitar teaching as well .... some teachers in my experience have stayed one or two lessons ahead of their students, teaching a student an instrument they have little technical knowledge of; this is not only totally unacceptable to paying parents but also endemic in the system as well. Many years ago and a lot younger, I was asked to teach instruments other than my drums and guitar in order "to help out the school" .... after a short while I vowed never to be coerced into this type of teaching again.

The word "qualified" is also a subjective term; some music teachers in secondary schools may have the little "piece of paper" they need but have little or no experience in the "real" world. Conversely, some "unqualified" teachers giving private lessons are amongst the best musicians in the country. I am still to this day, suprised at the level of arrogance and elitism this "piece of paper" gives to some entrenched music education industry workers.

The drumset for example is an instrument that has not had a set series of music examinations for it until ANZCA first introduced them in 1996, yet Australia has produced some of the finest drummers the world has seen ... to call the likes of a David Jones or a Virgil Donati "unqualified" to teach because of paperwork is in my opinion obscene, yet some "qualified" teachers with their "piece of paper" do just that.

I believe the guide for any dedicated student wanting to take lessons is finding out if the teacher whether "qualified" or not, teaches you to READ for your instrument. My opinion ... if you have been taking lessons for a certain amount of time and you are still not "literate" on your instrument, find another teacher who WILL make you literate for your instrument, it really IS that simple.

The easiest way to test literacy for your instrument is to take an ANZCA or AMEB exam, it can be organised both privately or in a secondary school; if your teacher doesn't want to know about it .... find ANOTHER teacher who will.


Payment Rates and Conditions for Instrumental Music Teachers are of major concern; it is not uncommon for secondary schools and some private teaching practices to pay, in some cases, only 75% of the current award rate for Instrumental Music Teachers.

The award rate is based on several factors including CPI increases and the typical situation of casual employees; i.e. no holiday pay, no superannuation in many cases, no long service leave, no job security, together with varying degrees of working hours per school week (if the year nine students are away on camp, you don’t work/don’t get paid)

Some instrumental teachers are being paid as low as half the current casual award rate in Australian Schools and Colleges. The way an Instrumental Music Teacher is paid in many schools is also of major concern; many schools simply want a monthly invoice from Instrumental Music Teachers in the same manner as a visiting tradesman, thereby avoiding any Superannuation or Holiday/Leave payments or reponsibility for the Teachers welfare.

Some schools go so far as to make visiting Music Teachers chase the lesson fees directly from the students. If a student’s family decides not to pay the fees, the School claims no responsibility and the Teacher is left unpaid.

This situation is a complete Contradiction and Double Standard when compared to a School’s “Mission Statement” of “Christian Values” “Fairness and Excellence” etc...

A Common Example:
A College in Werribee uses a policy of Individual Work Contracts, with each teacher being paid only 75% of the current award rate.

One Teacher’s Story of an Individual Work Contract

A Music Teacher working in the Western Suburbs was contacted by the Co-Ordinator of a College in Werribee to urgently fill a vacant Instrumental Music Position.

After an initial interview where the Instrumental Teacher was told he had the job, the subject turned to rates of pay; The Music Teacher said “I simply ask the Victorian Music Teachers Association Award Rates”. The Music Co-Ordinator replied “We treat our teachers here very fairly, we pay $30 per hour” The teacher, nonplussed, replied “That was the casual award rate in 1988! The current award rate is $40 per hour, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.” and rose to leave.

The Co-Ordinator, taken aback said “OK, we will pay you your rate, just don’t tell the other teachers.” The teacher refused this unless the other teachers were paid the standard casual award rate. The next day, the Co-Ordinator rang the teacher and said that “Everything is fixed, please come and teach at the school.” Based on being told the situation was resolved, the teacher accepted the position and signed a Contract.

Teaching went well and the Teacher soon built up the teaching load from a few students one morning per week to a full school day’s teaching schedule.

At the beginning of the Teachers third year at the Werribee College, Contracts were sent to all the teachers, The Teacher noticed there was no increase in pay since the original contract; He drew this to the attention of the Co-Ordinator who said that he would “fix that up”. Based on this understanding, the Teacher signed the Contract in good faith with a note attached pending a review of the current award wage which had increased by four dollars to $44 per hour.

Three weeks passed with no return of the contract; The Teacher asked the Co-Ordinator for clarification; “Well, you’re on a good wage, the other teachers are only getting $37 per hour.”

The Co-Ordinator realised what he had let slip; The Teacher realised he had been lied to and said so; The Co-Ordinator then said ”I’m giving you twenty-eight days notice as per the termination clause in the Contract, (which stated “Either party can terminate this contract, giving 28 days notice”) The teacher replied “So, you’re sacking ME because YOU lied?” The argument deteriorated with the Teacher telling the Co-Ordinator that he will be claiming “unfair dismissal”.

Lawyers representing the Teacher served letters on the College in Werribee; the College replied that they will be defending the claim based on the termination clause in the signed contract.

In the meantime, a cheque for $1000 was sent to the Teacher by the College; (colloquially known as “goodbye money”) The Lawyers representing the Teacher advised him to take the money; the Lawyer’s bill for two letters was $350. The Teacher wanted to pursue the case but could see it would take too much time and money he didn’t have.

The Teacher, after fifteen years service in the secondary school system, now prefers to teach privately and has set up a successful teaching practice in his home studio. His experience with this particular school has soured any thoughts of returning to that type of teaching .....

Efforts by the Victoriam Music Teachers Association (VMTA) and the Victorian Independant Education Union (VIEU) have been trying to rectify these unfair situations.

The 2005 Howard Liberal Governments "Work Choices" Industrial Reforms Legislation would only serve to legitimise inequitable and UN-Fair, UN-Ethical, UN-Christian, UN-Australian workplace practices.

Every secondary school will tell you they are under the pump both financially and for space; it is not uncommon for instrumental teachers to teach in places that were originally designed as storerooms for some secondary schools, cramped conditions with sometimes no window or ventilation. This situation is slowly improving, but some lessons have been given right next door to toilets, in waiting rooms, and rooms that would measure no more than eight feet long and six feet wide. Personally, I have taught drums and guitar and also examined in a room full of cardboard boxes and in a "room" which was really just a passageway (that had a door) to a toilet.

Equipment in most secondary schools is usually "just adequate"; Guitar lessons are for the most part given on cheap $50 classical guitars that are affectionately known as "orange crates" ... drums are usually taught on cheap "$500 specials" with skins that have not been changed for years. It is also a sad commentary on many things that "anything good in a school is eventually thieved". Private lessons conversely fare much better, the equipment is often the teachers own, so it is obviously cared for and protected much more.

Moving onto the subject of music activities and groups, The secondary school has the resources to provide concert bands, choirs, musicals and other various musical outlets that private teaching is often unable to provide, however the private teacher is often able to liaise with the school through the student.

It is usual for a school band to accept any musical students at the school into their bands whether they learn at the school or not, so it is in the student's interest to play and be involved as much as possible in school music activities. Unfortunately, it is the policy of a very few schools to only accept students learning "at the school" into their various bands; this practice has always been dubious and is generally thought to be exclusionist and cliqueish. Most schools affirm that they are an integral part of their local community, so it would be in that school's best interest to draw on the private teachers within that community as a valuable resource for their students.

In my travels, I have found an overwhelming majority of opinion from both Instrumental music teachers and music examiners (teaching BOTH privately and in school) that the quality of teaching AND learning given in private lessons outweigh that being able to be given at secondary schools.

FOR THE STUDENT: Private music lessons are given in an environment dedicated to that instrument, uninterrupted and free from outside distractions and activities, they are more expensive but in the end much more value for money.

Secondary Schools have more resources at their disposal such as various school bands, choirs and the like. Lessons are often in groups, so progress is subject to that group's commitment to learn. Private lessons inside school are still subject to everyday school distractions and activities.

FOR THE TEACHER: Private music lessons are taken up by students who are usually wanting to learn an instrument over and above their normal school hours, their general attitude and dedication is much less distracted than in a school environment. Private teaching often involves "being your own boss" so award rates and equipment quality are in most instances an immediate improvement. Private teaching also involves finding your own clientele.

Secondary Schools provide you with clientele and the opportunity to involve your students in the school band(s) etc ... the equipment and conditions are often less than hoped for due to limited space, budget and sometimes not so nice stuff such as school vandalism. You are at the mercy of school timetables and often a "school" mentality from some students,"You are a school teacher so I HAVE to stir you as much as my maths teacher", this is a rarity in private lessons.

My own experience with secondary schools is that like all things, there are good, bad, inbetween and sometimes just ugly. There are schools that border on being bankrupt twice a week and are great to teach music in, caring hard working teachers that work hours over and above what they are paid for; there are rich schools with nice equipment and facilities being run by some of the nastiest people you will ever see. Some schools seem all ok, then you find the "I've got a piece of paper ... have you?" mentality from somebody you could only describe as counterfeit.

In closing, there are far too many good, hard-working music teachers in the secondary school system being hamstrung in their efforts to give a good quality lesson to an interested music student; The secondary school music system as it stands has lost many music teachers to private teaching practices vowing never to return, there are many reasons for this.

I hope this article goes some way to opening a discussion that has been considered taboo to talk about for far too long.

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