No Teacher Is an Island 

Tools for Survival in Today’s Climate


By NAfME Member Dr. Jenny L. Neff


School breaks can lead to thoughts of taking vacation or escaping to a tropical island. The breaks are much needed for creative minds to relax, recharge, and perhaps be inspired by the beauty that surrounds us. But when it comes to working in the arts with colleagues, staying on your private “island” can leave you stranded and fighting for survival.

It seems like a simple notion, but how we understand and get along with others can often influence our success, not only as individuals but also as a department. Maintaining a positive department climate, better understanding others, uniting with colleagues to face adversity, and building consensus, can help us survive and make our newfound ways of knowing, become waves of knowing.


Living the Island Life 

As teachers, we may feel like we are on a deserted island sometimes. Often in the arts, our location in the building is already remote to accommodate everything from equipment to noise reduction (such as high school band). We may be the only ones who do our job in the building (such as an elementary general music teacher). We may travel from one building to another with little collegial interaction, (like a traveling string teacher). The course scheduling can be designed in a way that we do not see many of our arts colleagues, or anyone at all! Additionally, PLC groups might keep us confined to the same group of peer interactions.


Photo: Jenny L. Neff


If it’s not isolation, it can also be a time of the year when we feel like we are on the TV show “Survivor.” The tribe may be busy. The tribe may be tired. The tribe might not be getting along. And even worse yet, the tribe could be building alliances. Somehow, amidst the feelings of isolation or surviving, we need to find a way to make it to shore.


Making It to Shore

Communicating is the first step in building and maintaining professional relationships with your colleagues. We have a wide age span of those working in the field, which can expose us to generational differences. Understanding where everyone is coming from, and how they approach and solve problems, can help resolve these differences and help unify departments.

Schools maintain traditions and take part in celebrations that help build a culture and create a positive climate. The arts are often part of this. But does your department have its own traditions and celebrations? We are faced with a lot of day-to-day fires to put out, so celebrating when things go well is important in maintaining balance. Establishing celebrations can also help us make it to shore and show support for those in our department. Some of my department experiences over the years have included birthday celebrations, dressing up for Halloween as a team, eating at certain restaurants on one of those first “we can actually leave the building” in-service days, having the after-concert “hang,” and many other fun times.

Outside of these celebrations or milestones, how do you support others in your department on a day-to-day basis? When things are not going so well for someone in the department, it’s important to lend support in whatever way you can offer. How’s the weather where you are? How can you help improve the climate?


Paving Pathways Instead of Problems

We know communication is key, but our mindset in how we approach different situations can also help make a difference. Are you that department member who always says, “No, we can’t do that” or “We’ve always done it like this”? Maybe this year you can ask yourself, “Is it possible?” Consider new ideas. Think them through. And if there is some long history that doesn’t make it possible, it is probably worth explaining the WHY (or why not) to those with new ideas so everyone has a better understanding. Explicit sharing of your thought process can help create better understanding. And it’s just as important to listen to others as part of this.


Going Out on a L.I.M.B.

Everyday we Lead, Inspire, Motivate, and Build consensus with our students. But are we doing the same with the adults? Sometimes the department will face an issue that needs to be addressed or resolved. Are you the one who digs your heels into the sand? Are you the crab that runs away and digs a hole where you hide and hope problems disappear? Or do you go out on a L.I.M.B. to help find a solution? In all departments, there are people who have different specializations. One person may be good at planning the calendar. Another person may be the advocacy expert. You may even have a “dealing with difficult parents” superhero. It’s OK to rely on such skill sets and roles, but be sure to contribute and step up instead of walking away or becoming part of the problem itself. Everyone wants to succeed in some way, so whenever possible try to continue that motivation and be cautious not to demoralize. Leave the alliance forming on the island as you unite with others on shore.


Weathering the Storm 

Not every day is an island paradise. We need to learn how to weather the storms.

Lightning – Nature’s Power

We might not think of it in these terms, but we are in very powerful positions as educational leaders. Believe it or not, there is an actual Power Taxonomy (French & Raven, 1959) that is still referred to in the field of business. If we explore it more closely, we see similarities in our schools. The types of power that yield the highest levels of commitment, rather than compliance or resistance, are Expert Power and Referent Power. It’s worth recognizing the types of power we use in our roles, as well as knowing how others’ might be using (or misusing theirs). What is most effective?


Taxonomy of Power

(Green, 1999)

 Summary from French & Raven’s Studies of Social Power (1959)



Reward power: Person complies in order to obtain rewards; is controlled by the agent.

Coercive power: Person complies in order to avoid getting in trouble; is controlled by the agent.

Legitimate power: Person complies and believes the agent has the right to make the request.

Expert power: Person complies and believes the agent has knowledge of how to do something.

Referent power: Person complies, and admires or identifies with the agent and wants approval.


Surviving the Sharks – How to Face Conflict

How people handle conflict is so important to success in the workplace. Yaeger’s (2016) book Great Teams describes different roles people take on when facing conflict. They might look like this in a music department:

  • Competitor – The person who feels entitled to get the best “deal” in the department.
  • Accommodator – The person who keeps the peace and wants to smooth everything over.
  • Avoider – The person who avoids discussing topics at all costs or disengages.
  • Compromiser – The person who makes everyone feel heard and will comply as needed.
  • Collaborator – The person who stresses the common purpose of the group and shared value of the department through listening, discussion, and validation.

Photo: Jenny L. Neff


Yaeger states that a Collaborator approach is the most effective in resolving conflict. How can help create a more collaborate environment?


Pirates on Board!

Hasson’s (2015) book How to Deal with Difficult People lends insights into how to survive the sharks that enter our department waters; when colleagues, administrators, or even parents might exhibit difficult personalities. While sometimes it’s temporary and due to other life events or stressful situations, it’s still good to know what you are up against, or even know when you might exhibit some of these traits. For the purpose of this article, I’ve even named the characters.

  • Negative Nancy/Ned – Is impossible to please and sees the negative in every situation.
  • Drama Dory/Dave – Reacts with excessive emotion in theatrical and attention-grabbing ways; blows things out of proportion; turns ordinary problems into catastrophes.
  • Self-Centered Sammie – Constantly talks about their thoughts, feelings, and needs.
  • Bully Bobbie – Is badgering, dominating, and intimidating; often criticizes others.

Recognizing these traits can help us predict and prepare for various scenarios.


Heavy Seas – Staying Afloat 

During heavy seas, the department must join together to stay afloat and survive. It is much easier to survive a crisis if a positive and collaborative culture has already been established. For example, if your department has met to review and update your curriculum philosophy, you are one step closer to knowing where everyone stands and the direction you would like to move as a department. When a crisis occurs, you already know the direction of the ship. You can spend time advocating or addressing the issue at hand. Instead of “sink or swim,” it’s better to have the mindset of “sync and swim” in order to gather the strengths of everyone and face the stormy seas.



Photo: Jenny L. Neff


Sync and Swim Summary 

Yaeger (2016) summarizes some important points that can apply to our departments. Great teams: build a mentoring culture, understand the reasons behind conflict, and find ways to rise above conflict. He points out, “No matter the talent of the individuals, competing egos can disrupt even the most successful organizations.” In a field where we have many developed performer egos and successful musician-educator ways, this becomes important to remember as we build successful departments that can survive today’s climate.

“Our WAYS of knowing become positive WAVES of knowing, that can reach those around us and make our organizations better.”

When we know better, we do better. When our departments get along, it makes a difference. It benefits our students. But it also reaches far beyond what we experience in our classrooms day-to-day. Our WAYS of knowing become positive WAVES of knowing, that can reach those around us and make our organizations better. This collaborative current can help lead everyone toward success.



Green, R.D. (1999). Leadership as a function of power. Retrieved from

Hasson, G. (2015). How to deal with difficult people: Smart tactics for overcoming the problem people in your life. United Kingdom: Capstone Publishing.

Yaeger, D. (2016). Great teams: Sixteen things high-performing organizations do differently. Nashville, TN: W. Publishing.


“No Teacher Is an Island: Tools for Survival in Today’s Climate” was presented as a session as part of the “Amplify: Community” strand at the 2019 NAfME National Conference on November 9, 2019, at 10:30 AM. Proposals are being accepted through February 3 for the 2020 NAfME National Conference.


About the author:

teacher evaluation

Photo by Sherri Ciancutti Portraits

Jenny L. Neff, Ed.D., is Associate Professor and Director of the M.M. and Summer Music Studies programs at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is also an Educational Clinician for Conn-Selmer. Dr. Neff serves as the Eastern Division Representative for the NAfME Council for Band Education. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music Education degrees from Michigan State University, and her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Immaculata University. Additional information can be found on her website:

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

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