Be the change.

2016 has been a year to remember, and some may emphatically say, to replace. In Portland, we have watched our school district, by far the largest in the state, struggle and falter, and fail to recover.  Our city council and developers have failed to respond effectively to our housing crisis, which has forced families into homelessness and pushed the number of homeless students to levels higher than the recession.

Our classrooms reflect our neighborhoods.  As our neighborhoods change and displaced families are being pushed out further and further from Portland, our classrooms are requiring us to be alert, aware, and ready to respond. The passing of the Arts Tax in 2012 allowed for over 50 art/music teachers in PPS alone, but the need for programs is still great. Many of the schools receiving a teacher are receiving one for the first time in years. Students have had little to no exposure to music education, and the teacher and the school, despite receiving arts tax funding, may not be able to meet the great need.  Schools outside of Portland are not the lucky recipients of an individual tax that goes directly toward arts education, and struggle with passing bonds, state legislature, and school boards. We decide to become music teachers because we believe in the power of music, and we believe passionately that music education saves lives- figuratively, and perhaps literally.  On my first day of student teaching, my mentor Dave Matthys, former band director of Lake Oswego High School, looked straight into my eyes and said, “this job has very little to do with music”.  How correct he is.  Our jobs require us to be counselors, mentors, disciplinarians, confidants, advocates, and finally, good music teachers. So much more than we originally signed up for, but we are still compelled and so we continue to move forward.

Social justice is a term that we are hearing more and more, and I believe it will become more pressing as we move into 2017. According to Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a leading scholar in education, a social justice framework is one that “actively address[es] the dynamics of oppression, privilege, and isms, [and recognizes] that society is the product of historically rooted, institutionally sanctioned stratification along socially constructed group lines that include race, class, gender, secular orientation, and ability [among others].  Working for social justice in education means guiding students [and often being guided by students] in critical self-reflection of their socialization into this matrix of unequal relationships and its implications, analysis of the mechanisms of oppression, and the ability to challenge these hierarchies.”

Is this our responsibility as music teachers? I am going to say yes. I entered the teaching profession to share my philosophy with others: every child is entitled to receive access to quality music education, as all children are entitled to the best opportunities leading to the development of their cultural expression.  That cultural expression is not up to me, but I need to recognize what it is for my students. Through the demands placed on me via curriculum requirements, through the limits our class schedule allows us, and through the pressures and challenges our students face every day.  By looking at our music classrooms through the lens of creating social justice, we begin to understand more how music education has the potential to impact lives far beyond the music we play and share.  Our students are coming from so many backgrounds, demographically, economically, culturally.  All are invited into our rooms, and we truly want that.  As things change, and we become increasingly aware of the incredible diversity among our students, let’s stay true and continue to look to honor the basic human rights of all of our children.  Is it not the fundamental aim of education creating a more humane society? This is a topic that we are beginning to explore and dig into with our upcoming Verite!/Teaching Music without Boundaries, starting January 8th.

Dunja Jennings Marcum is the music director for Vibe of Portland, sits on the Arts Tax Oversight Committee, teaches clarinet for Lewis and Clark College, teaches a studio of 25 clarinet students, and teaches beginning band at West Hills Christian school. She is also the creator of Verite!, a collaborative teacher training that encourages teachers to rediscover their personal “why” of teaching, and fully teach from the heart.


Heimonen, Marja. “Justifying the Right to Music Education.” Philosophy of Music Education Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 2006, pp. 119–141.

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