Backwoods to Big City – Pluses and Minuses

So, have you thought about where you want to teach? Rural, suburban, urban–how different are they? Janice Smith, Frank Heuser, and Michele Kaschub offer up the rewards and difficulties of teaching in each area.

Rural Teaching


  • You can design your own music program. You will most likely be alone when planning curriculum and concerts. But be prepared to be creative, as limited budgets and resources require you to see things differently.
  • You can observe and contribute to each child’s musical journey because you span multiple grade levels and disciplines.
  • You often become admired and cherished community treasures because you “are the music.”


  • Isolation – it can be difficult to be the lone music teacher within a school system.
  • Limited funds – responsibilities are plentiful, but you often have small budgets.
  • Limited diversity – you may have limited access to live performances and limited cultural diversity. There may even be complete cultural uniformity.
  • Social challenges – being one of very few young professionals means having an exceptionally small pool of friends.

Suburban Teaching


  • Most of these schools are well-equipped with resources.
  • You’ll have lots of supervisors and mentors available for support.
  • There’ll be supportive parents and communities.
  • There’ll be top notch performance ensembles.
  • You’ll have more financial support – field trips, visiting artists, instruments and repairs.
  • Many students can afford private lessons.
  • You’ll have written curriculum for guidance.


  • The teacher gets blamed for problems, not the students.
  • It’s all about grades.
  • There’ll be competing interests, such as sports or community music groups.
  • It’s hard to get promoted from within to upper level jobs.
  • You’ll face exacting standards – only one way to write a lesson plan, and lesson plans a month in advance.

Urban Teaching


  • Students are students, no different than rural. They may be more streetwise, but are often more accepting.
  • In lower income schools, students will be attracted to teachers who nurture them.
  • The performance level may not be as advanced, but the students will work hard.
  • Large districts often have resources like music libraries, instrument repair, and instrument inventories.


  • District edicts can impact your program (schedule changes, testing, implementation of standards).
  • Elementary music teachers are often assigned to multiple schools, which makes it difficult to build the program.
  • It can be difficult to interact with the school board.
  • District level personnel can be remote and unsupportive, and may change frequently.
  • The local population may be somewhat unstable.

These tips were featured in the “Survival Tips for Rural, Suburban, and Urban Areas” session given by Janice Smith, Frank Heuser, and Michele Kaschub during the 2010 Biennial Music Educators National Conference, March 26, 2010, in Anaheim, CA.

Janice Smith is the undergraduate coordinator of music education at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, New York. Her research interests include music teacher education for urban settings and children’s music compositions. Prior to her appointment at Queens, she had a thirty year career as a public school classroom music educator.

Frank Heuser is director of the music education program at UCLA. His research interests are in music teacher education, motor skill development in music learning, and instructional design in music.

Michele Kaschub is professor of music education and coordinator of Music Teacher Education and Graduate Studies at the University of Southern Maine. Her primary interests lie in music teacher education, and teaching and learning in music composition.

NAfME Resources:

Urban Music Leadership Conference
Motivating Urban Students
Some Proven Keys to Urban School Success

NAfME Articles:

  • Teaching Music magazine’s “Classrooms” column focuses on issues in urban and rural settings.
  • “The Rewards of Teaching Music in Urban Settings,” by Rhoda Bernard, Music Educators Journal, March 2010.
  • “It all Depends on You: A Rural Music Educator Who Won’t Quit,” by Ella Wilcox, Teaching Music, February 2005.
  • “The Urban Teacher Struggle,” by Lisa Renfro, Teaching Music, October 2003.
  • “A Mid-Career Teacher’s Juggling Act,” by Ella Wilcox, Teaching Music, February 2003. (Suburban focus)
  • Music Education in Rural Areas: A Few Keys to Success,” by Daniel Isbell, Music Educators Journal, November 2005.
  • “More Than a Living: Teaching in an Urban School,” by Ella Wilcox, Teaching Music, February 2004.

–Jen Reed, June 2, 2010 © National Association for Music Education.