Only the Lonely: A study of rural music specialist professional isolation and effects on efficacy

by Joyce Holoboff


Joyce Holoboff has taught elementary music and middle school band in Blackfalds, Alberta, for the past 23 years. She has recently completed a Masters of Education in Educational Studies through the University of Alberta. 



A huge paradox exists in the experience of teaching: while individual teachers are constantly surrounded by young people, many experience feelings of extreme isolation. Once that classroom door is closed, it’s the teacher and the students. Little time remains in a hectic school day for adult conversations of any kind, let alone those of a professional nature.

In the case of music teachers, the paradox is intensified: they not only share the same feelings of isolation as their generalist or core teaching colleagues, but music specialists are, more often than not, the only music teacher in the building. Having spent more than 20 years as a music specialist in a rural school division, I have felt isolated on many levels: as the lone subject specialist, as an itinerant teacher who negotiates the professional and social spaces between two schools, as a rural music teacher whose closest subject colleague is 20 kilometres away, and as one of only two band teachers in my division.

According to Sindberg and Lipscomb (2005), the topic of professional isolation has been well documented for general education. Using random sampling, Sindberg and Lipscomb confirmed the reality of isolation and its negative effects for music specialists. The isolated conditions of classroom work may inhibit the ability of teachers to exchange ideas (Sindberg & Lipscomb, 2005), yet teachers learn a great deal about their craft through collaboration with other teachers. In fact, teachers have reported that some of their best professional development occurred when collaborating with other teachers (Beauchamp, Klassen, Parsons, Durksen & Taylor, 2014). A culture of collaboration, in turn, fosters teacher efficacy.

For many classroom teachers, collaboration with colleagues can be as quick as a trip next door. Where I teach, Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) are formed, and grade level teachers meet regularly during district professional development days. What to do with the “other” teachers, such as myself, tends to be an after-thought and as often as not I am relegated to one of the existing groups deemed to be the closest fit. Collaboration with other music specialists occurs rarely, usually initiated by one of the specialists themselves, and only if the meeting can be coordinated around all music teachers’ school staff meetings and other PD day obligations. Stanley (2011) found that school leadership often addressed professional development training for music specialists by including them in training on topics outside the area of music teaching. Support of school and district administration is key in addressing isolation and fostering collaboration. Even with administrative support, specialists face logistical challenges in participating in collaborative opportunities with subject area colleagues.



The purpose of this research was to explore music specialists’ experiences of professional isolation in rural Central Alberta public schools. This research examined teachers’ perceptions of the effects of isolation on their sense of teaching efficacy and explored challenges and successes in subject-specific collaboration.


Research Question and Sub-Questions  


This research addressed the question: What are music specialist teachers’ experiences of professional isolation in rural Central Alberta schools and how do these experiences affect their efficacy as teachers? Three sub-questions arising from this question were:                                                                                 

1)      How do working conditions impact feelings of professional isolation?

2)      How does isolation impact perceived feelings of efficacy?

3)      What is the ideal scenario for music specialist teacher collaboration?



By examining the experiences of professional isolation for music specialists within the context of rural Central Alberta, this study added a rural and Canadian perspective to the existing body of research. For music specialists, it is hoped that this research may assist them in articulating their unique collaborative needs, which may in turn lead to improved teaching practice and efficacy. Implications for school and district leadership will be discussed.


Review of the Literature

This literature review summarizes previous research of the phenomenon of professional isolation in general and as experienced by music specialists. The effects of isolation and collaboration on teachers’ efficacy, as well as the role of leadership in alleviating isolation and supporting collaboration, are examined as they are represented in research.


Professional Isolation

Professional isolation for and of teachers is far from a new concept. In 1901, prominent Chicago educational leader Ella Flagg Young penned a dissertation entitled, Isolation in the Schools. Fast-forward 75 years to the publication of the book Schoolteacher, where Dan Lortie (1975) described the experience of teachers isolated in egg-crate like classroom compartments inside school buildings. Lortie (1975) depicted the social and intellectual cost to teachers who spent their days working alone with little to no adult interaction. The study of 1,110 Quebec teachers by Dussault, Deaudelin, Rover, and Loiselle (1999) brought a Canadian slant to the issue of isolation. Their findings showed the positive and significant correlation of teachers’ professional isolation with occupational stress.


Professional Isolation of Music Specialists

In their random sampling of public school music teachers in Illinois, Sindberg and Lipscomb (2005) confirmed that isolation was a reality, that isolation was related to the teaching of music, and that isolation negatively affected music teachers’ work. In a separate study, Sindberg (2013) went on to describe isolation of urban, mid-western US music specialists as “a difficult and sometimes painful working condition” (p. 398).

Conway and Zerman (2003) described challenges specific to the teaching of music. Music teachers often taught larger class sizes which required superior classroom management skills. Additionally, success in music class is often measured publicly by the quality of performances and results of competitions. Conway and Zerman  (2003) argued that the unique nature of music teaching further highlighted feelings of isolation for those educators. Sindberg (2013) added itinerancy as an additional complicating and isolating factor for many music specialists. While the Conway and Zerman (2003) and Sindberg and Lipscomb (2005) studies focussed on novice teachers, music teachers at all stages of their career face challenges unlike those in any other subject area.

From studies such as Sindberg (2011, 2013), Sindberg and Lipscomb (2005), and Conway and Zerman (2003), it would appear that the phenomenon of professional isolation as experienced by music teachers has been explored largely in urban settings in the United States. This opened the door for exploration of experiences of isolation among public school music teachers in Canada, whether they are in an urban or rural setting.


Isolation and Efficacy

There appears to be little research in terms of isolation as it may affect teacher efficacy. A search of the University of Alberta library database using the terms of isolation, teacher, and efficacy revealed few instances of recent research applicable to a public school setting. Looking back in time, Minaker (1993) interviewed eight Manitoban teachers to determine teacher efficacy and perceived professional isolation. While Minaker found that feelings of isolation varied among the participants, collegial sharing of a voluntary and purposeful nature was considered of benefit to perceived efficacy.

Jenkins and da Costa (2001) examined experiences of teacher efficacy for teachers in a geographically remote Canadian location who collaborated in a professional development group. As a result of the collaborative process, participating teachers expressed increased curricular and pedagogical knowledge, as well as confidence to take risks in their teaching practices. Overall participants found the collaborative experience enhanced their self-efficacy. While both Minaker (1993) and Jenkins and da Costa (2001) demonstrated an increase in teachers’ perceived efficacy as a result of overcoming isolation through collaboration, both studies were also focussed on core classroom teachers as opposed to subject area specialists.


Collaboration and Efficacy

As far back as 1938, the importance of collaboration to learning was recognized by Dewey who, in Experience and Education, wrote “the principle that development of experience comes about through interaction means that education is essentially a social process. This quality is realized in the degree in which individuals form a community group” (p. 58). Research into the effects of collaboration on teaching and learning reveal benefits to both. Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) reviewed 11 studies on the impact of teacher participation in professional learning communities (PLC’s) on teaching practices and student learning. Their findings showed collaboration in a PLC resulted in positive changes to teaching such as the use of more student-centered approaches. In their study of 47 American elementary schools, Goddard, Goddard and Tschannen-Moran (2007) found that teacher collaboration directed at school improvement was positively related to differences in both math and reading achievement.

In research carried out over a three-year period, Beauchamp, Klassen, Parsons, Durksen and Taylor (2014) explored the relationship between teacher professional learning and teacher efficacy in five Alberta school districts. Eighty percent of teachers in their study reported that their most valuable professional learning was collaboration with colleagues. They further found that successful professional learning promoted a collaborative culture which, in turn, fostered efficacy (Beauchamp et al, 2014). Their findings included: (a) teacher efficacy is enhanced by space and time provided for teachers to talk; (b) collaborative teacher learning must begin by teachers’ self-identified needs; and (c) the biggest change to a culture of collaboration is in “eradicating teacher isolation” (p. 49). The work of Vescio, et al. (2008), Goddard, et al. (2007), and Beauchamp, et al. (2014) support the positive impact of collaboration for teacher practice and student learning, which in turn enhances teacher efficacy.


Subject Specific Collaboration

In her discussion of factors contributing to success or failure of collaborative music teacher study groups, Stanley (2011) described district and school professional development whereby:

school districts often answer the professional development needs of their music teachers by offering training on topics outside of the area of music teaching. While these areas can offer music teachers a wider curricular picture of their school district, this approach is not suitable for developing competency in teaching and learning in the complex core academic area of music. (Stanley, 2011, p. 75)

Stanley called for music teacher professional development which “should be unfailing oriented around music pedagogy and/or content” (p. 75). Such professional development, she said, not only provided music teachers with a sense of agency and determination in their professional learning, but did so in a relatively cost-effective manner by mining the “rich resource” (p. 77) of the wisdom of participating teachers. Conway (2011) and Beauchamp, et al. (2014) echoed Stanley’s call for the provision of time and of informal settings in which single subject area teachers may share ideas and experiences.


Role of Leadership in Music Specialist Collaboration

Support of school and district administration is an important aspect in terms of addressing isolation and fostering collaboration. While Dussault, et al. (1999) suggested that principals be aware of isolated teachers in order to “help teachers cope” (p. 945), they offered no specifics as to the coping mechanisms principals might recommend. Similarly, Sindberg and Lipscomb (2005) hypothesized that isolation of music teachers might be connected to administrative philosophy, but also offered no further suggestions for alleviating this situation. Sindberg (2013) questioned the ways in which administrators might facilitate collaborative groups, especially for itinerant music teachers, but again offered no specific suggestions. Parsons and Beauchamp (2011) also pointed directly to principals as key figures in facilitating and supporting teacher collaboration.

This literature reviewed prior research into music educators’ experiences of professional isolation, the impact of isolation on self-efficacy, and the role of a supportive and collaborative environment may in alleviating isolation and enhancing efficacy. The focal point for my research was to bring the elements of music teacher professional isolation, its perceived effect on teacher efficacy, and the role of an environment of collaboration to the context of rural Central Alberta. Sindberg (2013) supported the need for such research when she stated:

 there is a need to examine isolation and collaboration in other educational settings. For example, in rural schools not only are teachers separated from by miles; they represent a population often neglected in research. What might their narratives of isolation, conversation and collaboration reveal? (p. 400)

The music specialist experience and need for collaborative professional development was corroborated by Stanley (2011), who maintained that “this relatively small number of teachers within a district still deserves the highest quality, most subject-centered professional development possible” (p. 75).



This section will explain the approach and theoretical framework used in this research. The research site, participants, data collection and analysis, limitations, and delimitations will be discussed. The research was conducted using an interpretivist/constructivist approach. Participants were conveniently selected as music specialists whose major teaching assignment was music in rural Central Alberta school divisions. Data was collected via face-to face, semi-structured interviews and post-interview email correspondence. Two participants taught at the elementary level, one taught elementary, middle school, and high school, and the fourth taught only at the high school level.

A significant limitation of this research was the short time frame, with data collection taking place over a four-week period. Given this time frame, my research was delimited to four participants.  



Themes emerging from the research included the face of isolation, issues of efficacy and time, and existing and potential solutions for music specialists. As well there are a number of possibilities for future research.


The Face of Isolation

Participants described lack of opportunities to share, relevance of school professional development, and being part of the school team as important aspects of their experiences of professional isolation.


Lack of opportunities to share.

When you are the only teacher in a school who teaches a particular subject, the lack of opportunities for sharing with in-house colleagues are obvious. Music specialists simply cannot pop into the music classroom next door. The face of isolation has unique characteristics for music teachers. Research participants expressed the loneliness of having no one with which to share good teaching practices or to “bounce ideas off”. The creation of grade-team PLC’s within schools to focus on district initiatives such as literacy, has resulted in music specialists feeling left out. As one participant noted, “Everyone else is part of a learning community except me and one of the Physical Education teachers... learning communities are tightly knit teaching teams. Not being on one of these teams creates a feeling of professional isolation.”

The lack of opportunity to share with like-minded teaching colleagues can result in a lack of confidence in teaching ability. Having no one with whom to check-in on a regular basis, participants questioned their teaching and their programs. One participant asked herself, “Am I teaching this right? Is it time to retire? Maybe I’m doing this wrong.” Another noted, “I’ve always wondered if I’m meeting the levels of performance as other schools are meeting… do I have a good program?”


Relevance of school PD

Research participants expressed frustration with the lack of consideration, relevance, or in some cases, with being overlooked in terms of school and district collaborative days. The current focus on the Collaborative Response Model and literacy in Central Alberta schools resulted in music specialists often being expected to be part of these discussions, although in most cases they did not teach language learning. On collaborative days, music teachers were often assigned to a group of classroom teachers, with what appears to be little thought or after-thought as to their placement in that group. One participant could think of no particular rationale for her placement on a Grade Five team, and she discussed the situation of “being ‘placed’ in a collaborative that has nothing to do with music… [which] didn’t help me improve my music lessons for my music students”. Interviewees described a range of levels of involvement in school-wide collaborative days, from listening but not participating, to being disregarded when attempting to contribute to the discussion, to feeling that their time could have been better used to prepare for upcoming performances. One teacher was required, along with the Physical Education and literacy specialists, to provide release time for grade group teachers to meet, however she was neither included in the grade group meetings nor offered an equivalent amount of time for her own collaborative needs.


Being part of the school team

Music teachers in this study described how they felt it important to be part of the school team. They therefore participated in school-wide collaborative activities and staff meetings, even when the material covered was of little relevance to their teaching. These teachers expressed understanding of the value of initiatives such as the Collaborative Response Model and the focus on literacy, and acknowledged that these initiatives were often district driven rather than school-based. When all collaboration is focussed on one area of learning; however, those who don’t teach in that particular area may be left feeling they are less valued: “As district directives drives PD day agendas, music educators are left with the feeling that music isn’t very important.”

These music educators also recognized the benefit of their participation in discussions regarding individual student learning needs. In more than one instance, however, these same teachers experienced either disregard or repercussions when expressing their perspective of individual student behaviours. One teacher described her experience:

I can give my input into a student… they use that…. It actually is detrimental to my program. I don’t see that behaviour; they [the student] love being here, they can play their instrument, it’s their emotional release, they love it. Next thing I know, they are not coming to class, because they are behind in another subject. And then I deep breathe and I think, “Why did I say anything?” But I’m supposed to.

In another instance, a veteran music specialist described how she could have suggested music strategies to support student interventions for classroom teachers but chose not to share these strategies, feeling it was not her place to do so, and that classroom teachers would be too busy to implement them anyway.



Study participants discussed the challenges of staying current with best practices as well as the challenge of having to make a choice in terms of collaboration for those teaching more than just music.


Difficulty in staying current

There is an aspect of freedom to being the only teacher for a particular subject area within the school; one participant described the flexibility to teach and revisit concepts as “empowering because you don’t have to follow anybody else’s drummer”. The cost of such freedom may be in the challenge to remain current in best practice. One participant discussed how, when there are no colleagues with whom to discuss teaching practices and current trends, it can become easy to teach the same way. All participants described ways in which collaboration with other music teachers might increase their effectiveness including sharing ideas and resources, developing engaging units and common assessments, and discussing classroom management techniques unique to the teaching of music.


Forced to make a choice of collaborative opportunities

While all the participants in this study taught only music, either part-time or full-time, two participants discussed a dilemma facing some music teachers within their district who also teach other subjects. During school or district wide collaborative days, these teachers were often forced to choose between collaborating with other music teachers or with learning teams for the other subjects they taught, as both collaborative opportunities were offered at the same time:

So if teachers are teaching other subjects, band is their strong suit, so they're going and getting art support or tech support or math support if they happen to teach in another subject area, because the collaboration days are all falling on the same day.



Study participants described the challenges of taking time away from their classes to participate in collaboration, the time required to search for resources on their own, and the problem of cuts to their teaching time.


Taking away from classroom and rehearsal time

“Time is the enemy.” While every teacher, regardless of subject, might make this statement, it could not be truer than for the participants in this study. Music teachers face performance demands unlike those in any other area of education and, as such, they are willing to sacrifice their own professional development and collaborative needs for time in front of their students. Study participants described how they might benefit from opportunities to learn and implement technology, to watch other music teachers teach, or to attend workshops or district PLC meetings however in every case these opportunities would be passed over if it meant missing a rehearsal for an upcoming performance.


Searching for resources takes additional time

One interviewee spoke of the additional time spent searching for information or resources. Unlike classroom teachers, who might share a book or a teaching idea with several of their colleagues within the school, single-subject teachers spend more time locating resources. Additionally, most music teachers in this study felt that they would be required to use their own time if they wished to observe other music teachers, either through the use of personal days, or on professional development days only if administration felt their presence was not required at the school.


Cuts to time

Classroom time for music specialists becomes even more precious as it is taken away. Two of the teachers interviewed had experienced cuts to their instructional time within the past few years. One teacher expressed the challenge of being cut from two to one 40-minute class per week for elementary music: “I’m supposed to… do everything in that time which… is impossible”. One interviewee had been forced to give up extra-curricular lunch hour choir when the school lunch time was shortened to mitigate student behaviours. Although it may appear that music teachers might be their own worst enemies when they choose to not take time away from their teaching to participate in collaboration or professional development, cuts to music teaching time add to the challenges and pressures of teaching music curriculum and meeting performance obligations, which in turn exacerbates feelings of not wanting to be away from the classroom.



Participants discussed successful collaborations both within their school and within the scope of the Alberta Initiatives for School Improvement (AISI) program. The factors of recognition, flexibility and the use of technology were all named as important to successful collaborative opportunities.


Past and current solutions

Study participants spoke highly of the learning and collaborative opportunities resulting from attendance at the annual provincial music conference. In terms of more meaningful participation in school collaborative days, most of these teachers had forged creative alliances. Participants designed successful units or common assessments with drama and visual arts teachers as well as with Physical Education and play-school programs. The current literacy focus in many school districts had inspired some of these teachers to emphasize music literacy in their classrooms.

The collaborative opportunities afforded during the time of the AISI program were also discussed by participants. Initiatives established during AISI, such as creating common objectives and levels of achievement or differentiating instruction, were seen as applicable to any subject area including music: “We had a chance to go with something where there’s a little bit of buy-in from everybody… they were more about individual learning.... anybody could use this stuff”. During the early years of AISI, music specialists in one district were given opportunities to meet as a group during PD afternoons, but the meeting times were eventually moved to after school. Despite this, one teacher shared many benefits of the AISI music PLC as expressed in her year-end reflection from that time:

This opportunity to meet on a regular basis with fellow music teachers has been a wonderful experience … the whole process of sharing with others who have similar interests, concerns and educational objectives has been most beneficial to me, my music program and my music students! I have appreciated meeting and getting to know the music specialists of other schools in the district. I also appreciate knowing that I can call on any of my colleagues for support and advice! I have incorporated so many of my team members’ ideas into my music program.



Overall, participants expressed their desire for recognition of the value of music education and of their unique collaborative needs. These teachers believed strongly in the benefits of learning music in terms of cognitive development, curricular connections, sense of community, and as a safe place where individual students may shine. Two participants who teach in a district where there is currently no allowance for collaboration with other music specialists, wished for recognition of the value of such subject-specific collaboration.


Flexibility and technology

Flexibility and time were named as two key ingredients needed for effective music teacher collaborations. Participants wished for flexibility or some degree of freedom within the scope of professional development days in order to attend regularly scheduled meetings with other music teachers or to observe other music teachers teach. More than one participant suggested that music teachers might embrace the advantages of technology in using Facebook or online meeting groups to create collaborative opportunities specific to their needs. While technology may open up new means of collaboration, especially for rural music specialists, participants who have been part of successful music collaborations emphasized the benefits of meeting with the same group members over a period of time. The social aspect of professional collaborations is crucial and is a key element of the following success story.


Success story

One participant described how she had experienced little or no professional isolation due to the support she and her band director colleagues received from their district:

We are given tremendous opportunities to meet with the other band directors in our school division. It's supported financially by our division, so we are given time away from the class to come together to meet, to organize, to debrief, to talk about challenges that are going on in our classes.

The school division in which this music teacher works has made subject-specific collaboration available in some form for many years, although more recently it has become formalized and regularly scheduled. The division provides release time three to four times a year for all middle and high school band directors to meet for the entire day, allowing for travel and meeting time. In addition to the professional sharing that occurs during these meeting times, this participant emphasized the significance of familiarity of group members. Such familiarity makes sharing easier, even across the miles that separate most teachers in her school district:

I feel very fortunate that I don't often feel isolated because I know those other people. I can pick up the phone and I have a face and name, and I know that that person’s teaching high school as well. “Are you having any trouble? I'm having trouble with this.” It just makes it really easier to feel connected.

This veteran teacher attributed much of her longevity to this music cohort:

 I’m quite serious about the longevity piece. It makes me survive this incredible journey. I’m very thankful for me but it’s a lot of work and when you deal with over 200 kids...it can be a little draining, and you wonder why you’re still doing it. But because of those band director meetings, you go, “Oh, I can keep going. I’m gonna see these guys again in January.” It has that kind of impact.



There are few, if any, teaching assignments for which the achievements of the learners are on such public display as for those who teach music. Given the time and energy required to create successful performances, perhaps more consideration and thought could be given as to how to best engage music specialists during school professional development or collaboration days. Time is a precious commodity for all teachers, and certainly no less for music specialists. Acknowledging their unique classroom and performance demands as well as their collaborative needs might serve to help music specialists feel they are indeed valued members of school teams. If teaching time for these teachers is reduced, then perhaps so should the expectation of the quality and quantity of performances, as well as the expectation of their attendance at school professional development and/or collaboration days.

Every teacher in this study expressed the importance of being part of the school team. These same teachers also acknowledged the value for learners of district initiatives such as the current literacy focus, and they have made efforts to participate in those initiatives. Further, they spoke of the importance of including classroom teachers in decisions about music performances. One participant was required to provide release time for her colleagues to meet with grade teams. Administrators may have a role to play in recognizing music teachers’ commitment to the school team, and rather than requiring them to “play along” in literacy or other discussions which have little bearing on their teaching, perhaps district and school administration might more closely consider the collaborative needs as well as the time demands of this no less important group of teachers.

The reality of rural Central Alberta schools is that few, if any, would be large enough to have more than one music specialist. It is up to the music specialists themselves to bring awareness of their needs for collaboration with their music colleagues. Perhaps teachers could point to the successes of districts such as the one previously described, or perhaps even to the results of this research, to make their case for subject-specific collaboration. It may be a matter of simply asking.

Recently I chose to take advantage of my division’s focus on technology by approaching my principal and technology coach to establish a regularly scheduled Google Hangout online meeting for music teachers in our division. My proposal was enthusiastically supported by the principal, and was generally well-received by my music colleagues. I would love to report that this attempt at collaboration has been a roaring success; in reality, it has been more of a baby step in the right direction. I have found that I am bumping up against some of the challenges as presented in these findings. While one colleague has been an active participant, several others have expressed interest but have been unable to participate due to their involvement with other subjects they teach. Regardless, I am collaborating with one more person than I have in the past and that in itself is progress. Perhaps my experience can demonstrate to other music teachers that support for their collaborative needs may be available if they make their needs known.

A number of possibilities exist for further research. While this research was limited to rural Central Alberta music teachers, other Canadian music specialists may bring unique perspectives to the issues of professional isolation and subject-specific collaboration in their regions. Music teachers are not the only single subject area specialists within many schools. Similar research could be conducted on the isolated experiences of those who teach physical education, art, drama, and Career and Technology Studies programs. The perspective of school administration in terms of their approach to staff and specialist collaboration and school professional development could also be explored.



There is ample support for the benefits of teacher collaboration to student learning across all subject areas. This study has revealed that some school districts have been successful in meeting the collaborative needs of music specialists. Such a commitment to collaboration may be a strong component in retaining talented music teachers. I will leave the final word to the participant who shared her division’s story of success:

If you want your specialists to survive from an administrative [perspective]...you want experienced teachers on your staff, let them get together. Let them talk. Because they can blow off steam, they can laugh about what kids do… and we all go back and go, “It’s okay. Our boat isn’t sinking because I have fifteen other people who are in the boat with me, and we’re all in it together”.




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