A conversation with Janet Thompson

Let’s start with the strategy and how it’s evolved. Can you talk about how you’ve approached building relationships in the schools and how that approach has developed this year?

When I came on board with MMI, I really felt that my first priority should be to extend the reach of the In-Schools program. There were many touches in terms of who we are, our marketing, our role and responsibility to the students and to our our partner schools. Our primary endeavor was to determine the strategy with the most profound impact. We began to think about a new approach to our strategy that would support and strengthen relationships, increase visibility and buy-in with our partners.

One of the key things that I knew as a veteran administrator was that more than a few of those partner principals were not really clear of who we were or our impact. Speaking to the program, most principals might respond: “I know something about someone coming in to do something, and I’m pretty sure they’re working with Mr. or Mrs. X for a few hours. I’m not really sure of when they come or who they are, I just know I signed off on assistants coming and any amount of help that we can get in the building is certainly welcomed.” As a result, I felt that our focus, our Professional Development sessions, our messaging, needed to shift to developing a stronger, more personable kind of partnership. It was essential that we get that central message out on developing a true partnership so that both sides understand the significance of the fellow’s role, allowing us to align with the goals of the teacher and the school to have a seamless process that would be comfortable for both sides.

Sometimes you can’t just go on “gut,” so we began to also take a closer look at reflections and feedback from our Music Engagement Teaching Fellows following their monthly professional development sessions. A number of fellows started speaking to the same kind of concerns that I had expressed and had also heard from some of my principal colleagues at that time. “Good work, good to have help, but I really couldn’t tell you much more about a Fellow or about the details of the program.” Some of the feedback that we got from our fellows was kind of alarming – particularly when a couple of fellows expressed that in late spring when they were walking down the hall or somewhere in the school building and someone said, “Oh, may I help you,” or “I’m sorry, this lounge is only for teachers,” and it was from a key staff person and they would have to explain that they had been there all year.

Some of the fellows were saying, “Sometimes, I just feel like a teacher’s assistant or clerical assistant,” or “I feel like a sub.” Sometimes students would ask, “Who are you subbing for” And from teachers they may have heard, “Can you watch this class, I need to leave for a minute to do something,” or they were a hall monitor.  And that’s not our purpose. That’s not our role. So with that shift, the whole mindset moved to empowering our fellows to really engage and take a leadership role in the work.  Developing a strong partnership needed to come first before partners could see the significance and importance of the fellows’ role.

That also leads to the importance of connecting with the faculty. Our fellows were sometimes not necessarily feeling like they were a part of the family. One of the key things that I know to be true is the importance of developing buy-in and building an atmosphere of trust where everyone is moving in the same direction for the most part, where everyone has a central vision, focus on student growth and success and being a part of team. It’s critical to the mission!

That’s continuous throughout the year – you don’t just build a team at the beginning of the year when everyone is getting to know each other. Relationships are developed over time with trust, support and voice. We started looking at possible communication barriers and the need to communicate more effectively with our stakeholders. We have the monthly PTP’s, which are Parent-Teacher-Principal Cohorts. They are designed and planned very well – there’s a meal, it’s informal, sort of a fire-side chat if you will – but attendance was not where we hoped each month to have a big impact.  Granted, it’s after school, it’s evening. But as a professional, you just need to commit to hours beyond the school day to increase effectiveness and strengthen relationships in your building. Particularly when you have a program such as MMI coming in, who has the capacity to drive high quality, arts-inspired youth engagement.

MMI provides rich experiences and many growth opportunities, often filling in gaps for students who have not had the opportunity or resources for private or small group lessons and who may not have the skills and tools to overcome barriers for success in school and life.

In spring of 2017, we revised our monthly professional development sessions, using the carousel approach, which wasn’t a “sit and get information session.” The fellows were grouped sometimes voluntarily, sometimes intentionally, either by department or by program type (either a fellow-led, teacher-led program, vocals, strings, percussion, production).

You were able to do some things this fall in terms of the relationship building work with schools that are rather rare, like getting time on in-service agendas to meet with teachers. Can you talk about how you did that and what some of the goals were?

Certainly.  We shifted our strategy during our End of Year Retreat to focus on empowering our fellows and shifting toward a major collective impact with defined pathways. This strategic plan would increase collaboration, strengthen relationships and help us to get across the table to our partners. We needed that dialogue. We knew that we had to get in front of them to really share our mission, vision and collective impact. We reached out first to the director of music for the school district. His response was, “You know, Janet, that agenda time is so protected because we have so many state standards and indicators and benchmarks that we’re trying to meet. Even as music teachers, there’s a portfolio that’s evaluated and you know, we only have a day or two because In-service is only one week, and students will roll in a few days later.” We insisted that we really needed to be included on the agenda to help move the needle, fill the gap and try to make a difference in student growth, student voice, cultural responsiveness, and quality programming.

And he said, “Well, let me think about it again.” Low and behold, after a couple of conversations, he called and said, “You’re in.” We were really excited and began planning to meet our partner teachers.

Because I had been a player on the field for so long, I knew that this would be helpful and possibly a game changer.  We were added to the in-service agenda for Fine Arts and World Languages.  Meeting with our partner teachers, we were able to unpack MMI’s mission and vision, where we’re trying to go and what success may look like. The role of the Teaching Fellow, how their weekly planning works and the need to empower and engage fellows for increased effectiveness and impact with students was emphasized.

We also had courageous conversations around what the role of a fellow was not. We further explained that fellows were not clerical assistants, hall monitors, disciplinarians, though every staff may need to sometimes step into that role. It was received well because it was open and honest conversation. We made available copies of MMI’s Lesson Plan template, observation rubric, final project and field experience planning forms.

A bonus was to have the district’s Director of Music present in our In-service sharing  what it was like from the side of a classroom teacher, their challenges and a glimpse of their observation and evaluation model.  The fellows were able to ask questions in a comfortable environment which helped to increase the comfort levels of moving into their school environments.

It’s imperative to join the team at the start of school, to hit the ground with everyone else, it’s how you become a valuable member of a team. Teams are formed on registration day, when a music teacher may be recruiting band booster parents and students. Your customers are literally walking in and excited to get to know you! The timing for building relationships is perfect!

The agenda for day three of our in-service included two key presenters: Associate Superintendent of School Operations, Parent Engagement and Associate Superintendent of Academics, two key areas that shape our entire work.  Referring back to fellow feedback – there were questions around classroom management, barriers, limitations, safety, security and liability. Clear messaging provided much needed clarity on protocol for best school practices, field trips, after school and athletic events, performances and student travel. It was an “AHA!” with comments ringing: “Oh, I’m so glad to have it explained that way, this is really helpful.” The Associate Superintendent of Academics works directly with all school principals and shared the importance of student growth, engagement, professionalism and achievement.  Having support at this level was a win for our program.

We also reached out to the Catholic Diocese of Memphis and welcomed The Chief Academic Officer who provided an overview on what to expect, lines of communication and how to build teams in our Jubilee Partner Schools. How to appropriately partner with these programs in terms of faith – what to say, what to wear, communication streams, and parental involvement was highlighted. The Chief Officer spoke directly to our fellow-led environments on the importance of curriculum planning and student engagement. The Diocesan Principals of our partner schools were in attendance which helped to form a stronger bond for team building.

The agenda for day four of in-service included an administrator from one of our charter schools who spoke passionately about the charter program and what that looks like, their state mandates, their reaches, and their benchmarks. This presentation was particularly important because this is one of our few elementary programs. Additional topics of interest included school connections to community organizations, creative scheduling, extended learning and additional resources to support the Arts.

That day we also welcomed Grizzlies Prep Administrators, who shared programming strategies and emphasized the importance of a positive climate and culture.  A big part of their success is embedded in work with great partners, community partnerships, community engagement and solid networking.

To connect with student voice and cultural responsiveness, the Regional Director of Facing History and Ourselves invited our team to the National Civil Rights Museum for a full morning of coming to an awareness of space, of time and the communities that we serve.

Conversations on how to be a part of the community and what our cultural responsiveness looks like and how to work better as a team with our school partners was our focus. The workshop involved a lot of soul searching and looking in the mirror to really see and connect with who we are as we move into this work. The presentation included activities and conversations that challenged us to face our prejudices and fears.

It’s early in the semester yet, but what has the feedback been like from the fellows and the principals so far? Anecdotally, what do you see?

We feel positive about the growth and connections that appear to be almost seamless. Fellows entered the room at our September professional development session more confident, grounded and empowered as a result of a more strategic and robust start to the school year. An air of self-assurance and knowledge on processes and structure was evident. Comments around the room included: “In my Fellow lesson plans,” or “I shared it with teachers and it was received well,” “I really do have a more supportive co-teacher, I really do have someone who understands some of the same language, what it’s like to be a part of a team, how to work with student achievement and growth.” And they Love  what they’re seeing!

Community connections and comments have been very positive and rewarding. Students and teachers have more of a buy-in with our efforts and presence on school campuses. We are receiving numerous calls and requests for programming in additional locations throughout the city.  I’m excited about the future of Memphis Music Initiative and excited about opportunities for our Fellows, particularly those who came in through our pilot program less than three years ago. Interest in creating and sustaining this kind of work is our best play!

I really believe that we’re on the cutting edge of providing avenues for communities to have voice in matters that are important to them. There is so much more work to be done in our communities, but we feel that the impact of our incredible in-schools team will continue to make a huge difference and we’re off to a great start!


Janet Ware Thompson has spent her adult life in service to the students of Memphis and Shelby County. She began her career in education as a classroom teacher. From there she transitioned into the role of professional school counselor and was later recruited and served in an administrative role in Memphis and Shelby County Schools for nearly three decades. Thompson joined Memphis Music Initiative in September of 2016, managing the InSchools Team, which currently provides arts engagement in over sixty programs across thirty-three parochial, public and charter schools.