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Music teachers talk about itinerancy

Kathryn Roulston
Graduate School of Education
The University of Queensland
Over half of primary music specialists in Queensland teach in more than one school each week. Although studies from various fields of education have investigated the ways in which the itinerant teaching delivery model has been used, no studies have focussed on the issue of itinerancy in arts education. This paper discusses data derived from a pilot study investigating the work of itinerant primary music teachers in Queensland. Information was gained in two ways: (a) interviews with 12 practising music teachers in South-East Queensland and (b) a state-wide survey of itinerant teachers. In teachers' accounts of their work, itinerancy emerges as a complicating feature in the management of time and workload. While itinerancy is often seen to add 'variety' to teachers' work, the state of itinerancy is described by teachers as compounding the difficulties which arise from work intensification and a perceived lack of time in which to achieve teaching and performance expectations.

The itinerant teaching delivery model has been used for many years in Australia - as is evidenced by historical reports which provide descriptions of the work accomplished by itinerant teachers in the early days of distance education (Fogarty, 1983, 1985; Higgins, 1981). While other modes of delivery are now used in distance education, itinerant teachers from the Brisbane School of Distance Education still travel in their work with show children in Queensland (Danaher, 1998; Wyer et al., 1997). The itinerant mode of delivery is also widely employed in the delivery of specialist curriculum areas such as Languages other than English (LOTE) (Miller, 1996, 1997), physical education and instrumental music (Briody, 1982; Fowler, 1980; Hammond, 1981, Watson, 1994, 1997). Itinerant teaching is also common in many areas of special education, such as physical education and hearing impairments (Ellis & Mathews, 1982; French, Lavay & Montelione, 1986; Lavay, 1990; Luckner & Miller, 1994; Schmidt & Stipe, 1991; Weber, 1987). Several of the studies in special education grapple with the difficulties faced by itinerant teachers.


Ellis and Mathews (1982) investigated first year teachers who worked in a number of areas - as speech and language pathologists, or with children who had physical, hearing, or visual impairments. 'Time' appeared to be an issue of first importance for these teachers, who reported that they did not have adequate time to travel between schools, or did not have enough time to deal with their heavy caseloads. Some teachers felt that they were not accepted by their peers and experienced 'animosity from their peers due to the fact that they were not required to carry out extra classroom responsibilities at the school such as lunchroom and playground duty' (p. 11). These problems are among those identified by French et al. (1986) as being a cause of dissatisfaction among physical special education teachers who report that often the teacher is not regarded as a regular member of the school, and staff and other school personnel are confused about where the itinerant teacher will be at a specific time or day. Teachers in this study also reported the 'need for equipment and a storage area and that the lack of appropriate teaching stations, time wasted travelling, and the inability to provide instruction to each student on a daily basis' were sources of frustration (p. 84). Likewise, Weber (1987) and Lavay (1990) list similar problems to be overcome by the rural co-operative itinerant adapted physical educator. Weber concludes with thirteen suggestions to make 'survival possible' for these teachers (p. 409) while Lavay (citing French et al. 1986) provides eight strategies for 'successful delivery' of itinerant special physical education services (pp. 28-30).

Reports by Luckner and Miller (1994) and Schmidt and Stipe (1991) both note the lack of research into the effectiveness of the itinerant teaching model as it is used in the education of the hearing-impaired. Luckner and Miller (1994) conducted a national study in the United States of itinerant teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. In like manner to those researchers in other areas of special education, they found that teachers identified time and scheduling factors as limiting their ability to deliver services effectively. Luckner and Miller (1994) point out in their discussion of the results of their study that the 'roles and responsibilities of itinerant teachers are significantly different from those of teachers of students who work in self-contained settings or resource rooms' (p. 116). As do Schmidt and Stipe (p. 7), these researchers indicate that the teachers surveyed in these studies had no pre-service preparation for their itinerant role.

In considering the findings from these studies on itinerant teaching it is worthwhile noting two differences in the way in which the work of itinerant classroom music teachers differs from the work of special education teachers. First, special education teachers generally work with small groups of students and not whole classes as is the case for music teachers. Second, teachers of students with physical or intellectual impairments quite often work co-operatively with classroom teachers to provide individualised learning programs for students. In contrast, music teachers are often providing 'non-contact' time for classroom teachers which allows scant opportunity to work cooperatively with classroom teachers.

Several case studies have investigated the teaching of the arts in elementary schools and while the itinerant nature of specialist teachers' work is not a focus, reference is made to it in reports. Stake, Bresler and Mabry (1991) examined the work of visual art, drama, dance and music teachers in seven school districts across the United States. In relation to itinerant specialist teachers they observe that

[i]tinerant specialists, those assigned to two or more schools concurrently, lose time and energy transporting themselves and their materials, lack a familiar home base, and have difficulty perceiving themselves as bona fide members of faculties (p. 331).
A similar observation is made by May (1993, p. 30) who notes that
[a]s itinerants, most elementary specialists are more professionally isolated or 'invisible' than classroom teachers because they do not work in a single, stable context or school community where collegial relations, mentoring, and the swapping of professional wisdom and tips might develop informally and naturally.
The isolation arising from being itinerant has been noted as one of the findings in a study of the work of Languages other than English (LOTE) teachers (Miller, 1996). She found that the teachers who participated in her research expressed co ncerns which could be grouped into three categories: intensification (volume of work and pressure of time), interactions (with other teachers and the classes taught) and no real sense of belonging. Miller argues that itinerancy 'adds a critical load to the work of teachers, and must therefore be taken into account in the ongoing implementation of programs involving itinerant specialists' ( p. 74).

While researchers have investigated the nature of itinerant teaching in other areas of education, no researchers in music education have studied itinerancy as a central issue. This paper will analyse data drawn from a three-year study into the work of itinerant music specialists in Queensland. In Queensland, just over half of primary classroom music teachers work in more than one school [1]. What are these teachers' perceptions and beliefs about their work? What do the descriptions of work by primary music teachers reveal about the nature of itinerant work?


In fourth term of 1996, semi-structured interviews with 12 practising primary music teachers in South-East Queensland were conducted by the researcher. Teachers worked in a variety of teaching contexts, in both full-time and part-time capacities and had varying lengths of teaching experience. The sample included male and female teachers. Interviews were designed to elicit as much information as possible from participants and were transcribed verbatim. Information gained from these audio-taped interviews was used in the construction of a survey which was initially piloted by two teachers. As a result of these teachers' comments, the interview was substantially changed and re-piloted by a further five teachers who worked in both city and country schools.

In February 1997, a listing of all primary classroom music teachers was obtained from Education Queensland. Of the 417 teachers listed as currently teaching (that is, not on leave or in advisory positions), 240 were classified as being itinerant.[2] The survey was mailed to 230 of these teachers[3] in April, with a second mail-out conducted in June. The overall response rate was 63 percent (n=145). Of this number, one teacher was on leave, and twenty-six teachers were not in itinerant positions as had been indicated on the departmental listing.


While just over one-fifth of the respondents (32) had more than ten years' experience in classroom music teaching, relatively few (12) had taught in an itinerant capacity for more than ten years. Thirty respondents (21%) had taught in an itinerant capacity for one year or less, 60 for one to five years (41%) and 34 for five to 10 years (23%).

It appears that there is some volatility in the circuits of schools serviced, since one-third of respondents (50) were in the first year of teaching in their present circuit of schools (that is, these teachers were teaching for the first year in at least one of their schools). Only two respondents indicated that they had taught in the same circuit for more than five years. Although it is not possible to ascertain the reasons for this volatility from survey data, it is possible that not all circuit changes result from departmental decisions beyond the control of the teachers concerned. For example, although only one of the twelve teachers who participated in pilot interviews conducted in 1996 continued in the same teaching circuit in the following year, in several instances, changes were initiated by teachers who had moved from full-time to part-time work, or had adjusted their fractional appointments.

With this background information in mind, let me turn now to responses tendered to the following questions on the survey:

Q. 10. If you have been, or are currently in an itinerant position, what do you consider to be the advantages of teaching in more than one school?

Q. 11. If you have been, or are currently in an itinerant position, what do you consider to be the disadvantages of teaching in more than one school?

Responses to these questions were classified thematically and will be presented below. Interview excerpts will not be included here because of their lengthy nature, although all of the issues noted by survey respondents were raised by teachers during pilot interviews.


The majority of respondents (132) answered this question and their responses fall into three main categories. First, 103 respondents (71%) mention some aspect of 'variety' as a positive element of itinerant teaching. Itinerant work provides teachers with the opportunity to experience:
  1. teaching diverse groups of children within differing communities;
  2. working with a variety of staff in differing school cultures;
  3. exposure to different school procedures, practices and teaching methods; and
  4. access to a wider array of resources than is possible in one school.
Two responses below illustrate this theme.
Observing the differences between children at different schools (even when they're very close in proximity).
Meeting a range of teachers & parents from varying backgrounds, etc. (Respondent #60)

Develop your own skills to adapt to different rate of learning.
Different schools - different children's abilities.
More entertaining mixing with two staffs and two schools.
Can't teach exactly the same in different schools. (Respondent #207)

The second main category of response relates to aspects of 'avoidance'. Because itinerant teachers do not spend each of their working weeks at a single school as do classroom teachers, the possibility arises for them to avoid certain aspects of school life which may be perceived negatively. Twenty-one respondents (16%) noted that an advantage of itinerant teaching was that it enabled them to avoid:
  1. difficult situations, cliques or 'problem schools';
  2. responsibilities and additional duties (such as meetings or playground duty, or housekeeping duties related to classroom teaching); and
  3. planning.
Two excerpts serve to illustrate this theme:
Not doing playground duty.
Not involved with the 'housekeeping' aspects of classroom teaching, for example, collecting money/tuckshop forms.
Not involved with the mainstream changes in education, for example, the year 2 net, student performance standards etc. (Respondent #2)

Not so enveloped in the 'culture' of one school e.g. gossip, morale problems: each school is different.
There's a little whiff of freedom as you drive from one to the other in the middle of the day! (Respondent #111)

The third category of response given by 19 teachers (13%) was that there were no advantages whatsoever to being itinerant. Several other advantages which do not fit into these categories were mentioned by a small number of teachers. These are (a) the enjoyment of teaching in country schools; (b) the opportunity to learn skills of tolerance and flexibility; and (c) the 'break' time made possible by travelling to another school.


A notable feature of the response to this question is that when responses are taken overall, teachers had almost twice as much to say about the negative aspects of itinerant teaching than they did positive aspects. As in the previous question, the majority of respondents (137) answered this question, and their responses fall into four main categories. It may also be noted that there is some overlap in the thematic content of excerpts included here.

First, 102 respondents (70%) described features of what has commonly become known as 'work intensification' (Hargreaves, 1994). In these descriptions of itinerant teaching, teachers note that they do not have enough time to:

  1. work with extracurricular ensembles;
  2. teach programs effectively; and
  3. liaise with classroom teachers and principals.
Teachers also note that time is wasted travelling, and 37 teachers (25%) express dislike for the travelling involved in their work at multiple sites. T hree responses illustrate this theme:
Heavy workload. Heavy extra-curricular activities (each school expects choirs, ensembles, etc.); constantly moving resources and teaching aids; lack of time to communicate effectively with other staff, wear and tear on vehicle. (Respondent #125)

Having to carry boxes full of gear and resources.
Learning so many names.
Travel time (over the last seven years I spent about 4 1/2 hours a week travelling to my circuit schools).
Adjusting to four different timetable break times - in one week.
Participating in eisteddfods. Impossible. If you are only in a school for one day a week you can't properly prepare - more than one practice in last few weeks. You can't run a last minute run-through. (Respondent #155)

Different schools have different lunch & tea breaks and you can miss out on breaks altogether between schools.
Although travelling time between schools is rostered duty time, no time is allowed for setting up, moving furniture, organising instruments, photocopying and finding resources etc. Although departmental policy suggests you do no choir/band etc in schools other than base, there is pressure to use your expertise in these areas. You are expected to attend Carols by Candlelight, Concerts, Eisteddfods in all your schools. (Respondent #174)

Second, half of the respondents (72) describe difficulties in forming good working relationships with others. In these accounts, itinerant teaching prevents teachers from:
  1. feeling a 'sense of belonging' in schools;
  2. getting to know staff and children well;
  3. gaining access to relevant and necessary information; and
  4. undertaking adequate follow-up of behaviour management problems.
Two responses illustrate this theme:
Don't 'belong' at a particular school - 'outsider'.
Don't get to 'know' other teachers because you're not at the school very often (one day or less a week).
Remembering timetables, routines, discipline policies etc for each school - for example, no two schools have the same lunch breaks this year. (Respondent #88)

Don't get to know children/staff as well.
Two different programs running.
Not going to be at the same school the next day therefore the children know you can't follow up with behaviour problems.
Dealing with two or more different administration systems. (Respondent #154)

Third, 59 respondents (40%) recorded problems relating to adequate support for music in schools. Issues raised here related to three areas:
  1. inadequate material support (such as appropriate teaching space and insufficient resources);
  2. few opportunities for professional development (particularly in regional areas); and
  3. lack of follow-up by classroom teachers.
Two responses illustrate this theme:
Carrying books, tape recorders, instruments etc.
Having no set room for preparation, or teaching (quite often).
Not being seen as part of the staff.
Not being seen as a 'real teacher' (affects discipline). (Respondent #98)

Transporting equipment & materials.
So many students & so many names.
Lack of time to set up classes.
Lack of resources & music room. (Respondent #99)

Fourth, 26 respondents (18%) noted that itinerant teachers face difficulties in dealing with competing expectations from multiple schools. Some teachers noted that their loyalties to schools were often divided. A small number of teachers (5) note that small schools are disadvantaged in regard to provision of music programs.
Identification with and loyalty to more than 1 school is difficult at times. (Respondent #27)

Difficulties of being 'owned' by both staffs but not part of any - double workload.
Hard to get to know children.
Expectation that you will be involved in the extracurricular at both schools. (Respondent #51)

Finally, two respondents stated that there are no disadvantages to itinerant teaching.


One of the interesting features of the data presented here is that the majority of teachers do note positive aspects of itinerant teaching. First, itinerant teaching provides 'variety' in one's work, and second, it provides some possibility of avoiding 'negative' aspects of teaching in schools. Other studies concerning itinerant teaching have reported negative aspects and difficulties to be overcome by itinerant teachers (Ellis & Mathews, 1982; French et al., 1986; Lavay, 1990; Luckner & Miller, 1994; Miller, 1997; Weber, 1987). There is little or no mention in these studies of aspects of itinerancy found to be positive by teachers. However, it must also be pointed out that nineteen respondents indicated that they could cite no positive aspects to being itinerant, and a further seven mentioned disadvantages in the course of their descriptions of the advantages. Further, a word count reveals that the quantity of descriptions provided by survey respondents regarding the negative aspects of itinerant teaching was almost double that provided about positive aspects.

That itinerant teachers do encounter many difficulties in their work is reinforced if one considers the final survey question in which respondents were given carte blanche to voice further comments on any aspect of their teaching. The majority of survey respondents (73%) responded by providing accounts which reverberate with concerns already presented in response to Question 11. A summary of findings classified by theme from this question provides a glimpse of issues about which teachers feel strongly enough to elaborate further:

An examination of these responses reveals that with the exception of two issues (vocal strain and delivery of the QMP), all have been identified as being problematic in terms of itinerancy in the earlier question. Many teachers (20%) also expressed their love for the work of teaching music despite difficulties encountered.

Information derived from this survey of music teachers supports Miller's 'three themes of itinerancy' (1997). That is, itinerant teachers - who often feel no real sense of belonging at any one school - face difficulties in their work through the combined complexities of dealing with the pressures of work intensification and handling multiple interactions with others (staff, students and parents). It appears then, that although itinerant teaching is bound by its very nature to provide 'variety' - which is seen by teachers to be positive - the obverse is that itinerancy also generates a multitude of other difficulties. Itinerant teaching appears to have Janus-like qualities. It is ironic that Janus, the ancient Roman God of entrances, was also the god of exits - of going in and coming out.


One unexpected outcome of the survey was that it elicited numerous personal stories from teachers. It is to these that I now turn, as they provide teachers' perspectives about how they cope with the ongoing difficulties in their work. Woods (1986) has written extensively on the survival strategies adopted by teachers, and provides a dramatic portrayal of those who do not survive:
...there are those who die or get killed off through dismissal or nervous breakdown. Some commit suicide through resignation. Some are bleeding to death, slowly losing the struggle for survival. Some are murdered, and come back as ghosts to haunt their murderers (p. 156).
Teachers' responses to this survey indicate that many teachers are struggling to cope, while some are losing the battle. Whereas some teachers have undertaken radical changes in their program delivery under school-based reform initiatives such as indicated by this teacher:
I am enjoying it, for a change. I am covering the syllabus on Monday (SENIOR), Tuesday (JUNIOR) and Thursday (JUNIOR) but in a more condensed way - mainly just 'theory'. Assessment is difficult. I'm gradually working out better strategies to cover this (Respondent # 8).
Others have turned to teaching part-time (thereby avoiding itinerant teaching) in order to cope:
I choose to work part-time because full-time classroom music would be physically too exhausting! (Respondent #33)
Still others are contemplating moves in other directions:
I have had great difficulty with my throat because of the constancy of the job.
Have arranged to split my days Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday to try to alleviate the problem.
In comparison to my days in the 80s the stress levels, much of which has been brought on by NCT, have been so heavy that I have contemplated going back to the classroom (Respondent #51).
Some teachers provide lengthy accounts which indicate that, for the time being, they have lost the will to continue their battles.
Sorry it's taken so long to get this back to you. [Teacher's name] encouraged me to give you a call, but now I'm writing to you instead. She said I should have a talk to you because I have been thinking very seriously about resigning this term. I have talked to the primary staffing officer at [Regional Office] and have decided to stay on till the end of the year and have next year off on leave. All the usual things that itinerants have to put up with have just got too much this year. Behaviour has been a large factor in my growing dis-ease with this position. When you are only in a school for one day per week and don't have your own room and the kids are dropped off at the door and 1/4 of them don't have books etc and all the teachers seem concerned with is their NCT, it's quite hard I think to command a lot of respect from the students. Having to deal with the discipline of a different group of 30 children every half hour is stressful, as is trying to teach them something in 20 minutes of actual lesson time. I am taking next year off to look at getting into something else. Thanks for listening. (Respondent #53)

Due to heavy work load (particularly at end of year with full school concerts, report cards, etc., as well as usual lessons) I have suffered stress and voice strain on and off over the years as a music specialist - tonsillitis (which I had never had as a child), laryngitis, and finally nodules on the vocal cords and severe throat muscle dysfunction. The increase a couple of years back from 28 classes/week at two schools to 32 (and many teachers I know taught more) was the straw that broke the camel's back. I have been treated by an e.n.t. Specialist and a speech therapist for the past 1 1/2 years and have taught no music classes for 1997 (Respondent #36).

Accounts such as these indicate that music teachers find that together with work intensification, itinerancy is a complicating factor which adds to the 'critical load' of their work, as argued by Miller (1997, p. 74). When the orientation towards the production of performances expected of and by music teachers is also taken into account (Roulston, 1998), it is evident that itinerancy serves to compound difficulties engendered by work intensification. As Miller argues (1997, p. 74), it is essential that itinerancy therefore be 'taken into account in the ongoing implementation of programs involving itinerant specialists'. In light of the findings from this study, it is important that the conditions surrounding the work of itinerant specialist teachers be further investigated.


This study has noted that itinerancy is seen by many music teachers as ensuring variety in their work, in addition to providing an escape from onerous duties and troublesome aspects of work in schools. Previous studies of the work of itinerant teachers have overlooked these positive aspects of itinerancy. Analysis of teachers' accounts about their work also indicates that itinerancy compounds the difficulties which arise from work intensification. It is essential that these issues be addressed if further exit from the profession by music teachers is to be avoided. Findings from this study serve to support recommendations in other reports that itinerancy be taken into account in the implementation of programs which involve itinerant teachers. It is of particular importance that this occur, since a growing number of teachers in a variety of curriculum areas - such as LOTE, English as a Second Language, physical education and instrumental music - are itinerant.


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Danaher, P.A. (Ed.). (1998). Beyond the ferris wheel: Educating Queensland show children. Studies in Open and Distance Learning 1. Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press.

Ellis, J. R., & Mathews, G. J. (1982). Professional role performance difficulties of first year itinerant specialists. Illinois. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 228 802).

Fogarty, M. (1983). The itinerant teacher service, Queensland 1901-1930. [Monograph]. Qld, Australia. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 248 999).

Fogarty, M. (1985). The early Queensland itinerant teacher service 1901-1930. Unicorn, 11(3), 185-192.

Fowler, C. (1980). PCAP: A growing area of concern. Quest, 29, 8-11.

French, R., Lavay, B., & Montelione, T. (1986). Survival strategies: Itinerant special physical educators. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 57(8), 84-86.

Hammond, R. (1981). Bringing music to the outback. Education News, 17(7), 32-35.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers' work and culture in the post-modern age. London: Cassell.

Higgins, A. H. (1981). Distance education and pupils: From horseback to satellite. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society (11th Brisbane, Australia). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 350 138).

Lavay, B. (1990). The rural itinerant special physical education service delivery model. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 10(3), 25-30.

Luckner, J. L., & Miller, K. J. (1994). Itinerant teachers: Responsibilities, perceptions, preparation, and students served. American Annals of the Deaf, 139(2), 111-118.

May, W. (1993). A summary of the findings in arts and music: Research traditions and implications for teacher education. (Elementary Subjects Centre Series No. 88) East Lansing, MI: Centre for the Learning and Teaching of Elementary Subjects. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 360 247).

Miller, J. M. (1996). Languages other than English in primary school contexts: Teacher perceptions and practice. Unpublished Master of Arts Thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Miller, J. (1997). Teachers who don't belong anywhere: Three themes of itinerancy. Unicorn, 23(1), 74-84.

Roulston, K. J. (1998). The integral nature of extracurricular work. In B. Baker, M. Tucker & C. Ng (Eds.), Education's new timespace: Visions from the present (pp. 74-80). Brisbane: Post Pressed.

Schmidt, T., & Stipe, M. (1991). A clouded map for itinerant teachers. Perspectives in Education and Deafness, 9(4), 6-7, 24.

Stake, R., Bresler, L., & Mabry, L. (1991). Custom and cherishing: The arts in elementary schools. Urbana, IL: Council for Research in Music Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Watson, A. (1994). A week in the life of an instrumental music teacher. Victorian Journal of Music Education (Special Edition)(2), 21-24.

Watson, A. (1997). Music on the move: Reflections of a n itinerant teacher. EQ Australia, (2), 21-22.

Weber, R. C. (1987). Survival as a rural cooperative itinerant adapted physical educator. Physical Educator, 44(4), 406-410.

Woods, P. (1986). Inside schools: Ethnography in educational research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wyer, D., Danaher, P., Kindt, I. & Moriarty, B. (1997). Interactions with Queensland show children: Enhancing knowledge of educational contexts. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(2), 28-40. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/wyer.html


  1. Of the 483 primary classroom music teachers employed by the state education authority in Queensland, 259 (53.6%) were classified in February 1997 as being itinerant.
  2. The classification code is 'TCPMUI' for primary classroom music teachers who are itinerant.
  3. Teachers who had piloted the survey and teachers who were currently undertaking a music in-service.

Author details: Kathy Roulston is currently completing her PhD at the Graduate School of Education. Her research concerns the work of itinerant music teachers in Queensland. Other research interests include conversation analysis and qualitative research methods, and their application in the field of music education. Kathy also teaches music on a part-time basis at Springfield State School.

Please cite as: Roulston, K. (1998). Music teachers talk about itinerancy. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 14(1), 59-74. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer14/roulston.html

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