“Education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace, if one is rightly trained.”
In October, New Hampshire’s Department of Education Commissioner, Virginia Barry announced that a music teacher had been named 2013 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. Teacher Heidi Welch has served as the director of music at Hillsboro-Deering High School for 16 years. She teaches chorus, A Cappella choir, concert band, and musical theater, and music theory, American history through music, film music, and guitar classes.
She is a member of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and the New Hampshire Music Educators Association, a federated state association of NAfME.
Prior to teaching in Hillsboro, she taught elementary general music, chorus and beginner band in Claremont, New Hampshire for more two years.
Welch has also served as the music director for a number of shows, and most recently worked as an actress in New Hampshire with the Not Your Mom’s Musical Theater Company. She received a bachelor of music education from Keene State College, master of education from New England College, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in K–12 Educational Leadership from New England College.
Welch joins other recent recipients of each state’s Teacher of the Year award who have made contributions to the education profession. Each will be evaluated by a national selection committee for the National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). http://www.ccsso.org/ntoy/National_Teachers.html.
The next national Teacher of the Year will be announced in April, 2013.
She was chosen as the state teacher for promoting the music education profession in many positive ways including serving as a mentor to pre-service music educators during their practicum and student teaching experiences.
Sandra Howard, president-elect of the New Hampshire Music Educators Association interviewed Welch after her selection. Howard is assistant professor of music education at
Keene (New Hampshire) State College.
The following transcript, which Howard made available to NAfME, is from a recent interview with Welch, who shares the extraordinary role music education has played in her life as an educator and a musician.
Here Welch discusses her teaching life, both her personal experiences and work with students. In a second part she talks about the profession of music education.
Please describe your teaching philosophy
Music education is an integral part of every student’s educational life. It should be valued just as mathematics, English, science, and social studies, for it indeed encompasses all of these aforementioned items. Music is the universal language; therefore it can be understood, respected, enjoyed, and loved by all. It is not and should not be viewed as an extra-curricular activity, for the word ‘education’ in itself describes an intellectual benefit. Research shows a strong correlation in students who learn music and success between peers in all academic areas; therefore, it is a core-curriculum area as defined by Congress in the No Child Left Behind Act.
All children need to learn music and understand music so that it informs their souls as well as their minds. This means all children. From students with special needs to all-state level students, each should have the ability to experience and create through music. A proper music education provides students with an emotional and creative outlet, and it is my philosophy that when students learn to love music, it stays with them forever. This can be in an aesthetic and appreciative sense or a career of lifelong performance. In essence, it is my goal as a music educator to assist in the creation of well-rounded, musically appreciative students.
Discuss how the teaching profession has led you away from poverty? How does your personal background inform your approach to teaching and to students?
I have always loved the warmth and comfort of a school, of the people in a school, of their caring and purpose. It was a safety that was not found for me at home, and I came to realize throughout my educational career the true level of importance that a teacher has in a student’s life.
Growing up in an extremely abusive home, being evicted countless times, homeless, and living in project housing, all forced me—as the oldest of four—to look for a positive end to my situation. I knew that education was the key to success. I remember my fourth grade teacher slipping me lunch money so that other class members would not see. I remember my high school band director opening the doors at 6:00 a.m. for me as I escaped the house early to go practice. I remember my teachers accepting handwritten work because we did not have access to a typewriter.
I remember the love, devotion, and sense of caring that those teachers among many offered me…It was not until high school that I found how a teacher could truly impact a student’s life, and in some cases, save it.
Growing up the way that I did, there would have been no possible way to go the traditional route of a musician, as there was no money for rental fees or lessons. I started my music career in a more unconventional manner: I hung out in the music room. For me, in a school of over 2,000 students, where every day you were measured by socio-economic status symbols by your peers, it was a safe space. I was in chorus, but eventually the band director asked me to join and handed me a euphonium to learn how to play. That large piece of heavy brass changed my life forever. The band director’s faith in a kid that had never been given a real chance was crucial. I yearned to get better…to be one of the revered Manchester Central High School band members. They were incredible, and he was the Obi-Wan Kenobi of band directors (and still is.)
My grades had always been solid, as I was determined to be the best student that I could possibly be. I studied under the blankets in the cold attic room at night with a flashlight on so that my mother would not suspect that I was awake. I read all that I could get my hands on, and eventually happened upon a book that I treasure to this day. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and great orator said, “Once you learn to read, you are forever free.”
In that statement, I knew that education was the key to a door that would lead me out of a life of poverty and fear and into a life of freedom and opportunity.
I then did everything I could to get into college. This became my obsession and my goal. I entered with dreams of becoming a British literature teacher, but within a few weeks, I found the pull of being a music teacher too much to ignore. I knew that if music education allowed me to find myself as a student, instilled in me a passion for the arts and for learning, and gave me a chance to push myself in ways that I never thought possible, then it would surely do the same for other young people trying to find where they fit.
I would give them a chance to learn, to express themselves, and most of all to find a safe space to call home for a few hours a day: a space where they belonged, were part of a group that was achieving excellence, and learned valuable life lessons along the way.
Who or what kinds of individuals inspire you as a teacher?
I am inspired by hard work, people that do not make excuses, and people that give their best no matter their circumstances. I have a student who lost both of her parents and her grandmother within a six-month span under extremely tragic circumstances. She also lost everything that she owned but the backpack she went to school with because of a house explosion after she arrived at school that day. She still comes to school every day and works hard with a smile on her face and never says a bad word about anyone. THAT is inspiring. I am inspired by students that accept challenges and overcome odds.
You are an honored and distinguished teacher by colleagues and educational organizations. What areas do you still want to further develop as an educator?
There are so many ways that I am constantly learning. I want to further develop as a leader, be able to read situations better, and be more flexible. I will always be looking for more effective assessment strategies for band and chorus. I want to grow in my knowledge of technology and how far we could go in not only guitar and music theory courses, but band and chorus as well.
Will it be possible to be “sheet music free” in ten years and have everyone carry their music on an iPad? The possibilities are endless! As a teacher, I believe that I am forever learning, and eagerly so. When we stop yearning to learn more, we become stagnant in our teaching —n and that is when it is time to move out of the profession.
What are some changes in education or music education in New Hampshire you have encountered during the last 16 years that have impacted your teaching?
There have been so many changes in nearly 17 years! I think that the move to competency-based instruction and the use of technology have impacted me the most. I have fallen in love with using a Promethean board in all of my classes including chorus and band. Course competencies better assess our students, learning and give better accountability measures and validity to our programs.
What advice do you share with pre-service educators or new teachers who are entering the music education profession?
As a longtime mentor and cooperating teacher to many pre-service teachers, this is one of my favorite areas to speak on: Tell them to steal ALL that they can. Take every trick, every worksheet, and every idea and fill your toolbox. Fill Your
Sometimes the tools will work in your classroom as well as they worked where you first saw them. Sometimes they will fall very flat. Don’t worry about it, and don’t dwell on it for too long.
It will hurt. You will feel like you are the worst teacher on the planet. You are not. Get up the next day and try something else. Your toolbox should be packed so full with so many ways to teach:
- Everyday gives you a new opportunity to try something new.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but learn from them and get better.
- Never settle for mediocrity, and don’t let your students, either.
- When you find yourself spending more time prepping for a gig with your band then prepping for your classes…get out of the classroom. This is not a fall-back position! (props to Mr. Holland’s Opus for that line.) The students that you teach depend on you to be there for them, to create a safe and welcome space to teach them. If you are not in it truly for the right reasons, then it is time [for you] to find another profession.
- Have the skills for the job. Make sure that you have piano skills, are proficient in designing solid lesson plans, and have strong management and communication skills;
- Have the time to commit to the job. You may end up in a department of more than just you, or you may be the only one for an entire district. Each will have a different set of needs from your time.
- It is the greatest job in the world. Never take it for granted.
Throughout your career, what have you learned about the delicate balance between teaching and personal or family life?
This is the tough part. Being a young mom at the beginning of my career, I know the struggles of balancing a small child, a new marriage, and a new job. I missed a lot of younger years of my daughter because I was so busy trying to be the best teacher that I could be, and getting my master’s degree. I was a good mom, and I tried hard, but I missed a lot. Now, many years later, with a solid program built and another young child, it is much easier….but still provides challenges. I have learned how to say “no” so that I can spend more time with my family, while still saying “yes” to everything that is imperative to the growth of my students. It is possible. A supportive spouse is imperative. I am lucky that I have that – but it is a second marriage.
My earlier teaching years took a toll on my first marriage, but I was able to learn from that, become a better teacher and a better parent. It takes time and energy, but it is worth it. I have learned only to bring home what I absolutely need to, and budget my prep and after-school time to better get things accomplished. I force myself to be out of the building by 5:00 each night, and not bring anything home. Home time is family time. I have to be away on weekends, and some nights with parades, parent meetings, festivals, competitions, etc., so that is my trade-off. We will eat dinner together, and I will not grade work at home. (Unless it is report card season…then I MAY need a pass!)
What are some of your proudest moments as a teacher?
Over the last 16 years, the HDHS chorus program has grown from an after school group of six girls to a whopping 70-member full-voiced choir. This year, two of our former students graduated with degrees in music education and began their full-time teaching positions in New Hampshire, and many other former students are currently pursuing advanced degrees in the field of music performance, composition, and education.
We have brought our “small but mighty” band and chorus to Disney World to perform and participate in workshops twice and will travel there again in 2013. We have brought home first place trophies in competitions from Cleveland and Philadelphia, Agawam and Pittsburgh. We have received over $100,000 in grant monies that helped to further our students’ enrichment in music, from hosting artists in residence to attending musical theater trips to playing pieces of music written specifically for them. We have added the electives of American history through music, guitar, music theory, musical theater appreciation, and film music to our course offerings. We have founded the award-winning and in-demand a cappella vocal ensemble “Red, White, and A Cappella,” which has performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and at a plethora of other venues, and we have seen the renovation of a new music room.
I get to see most of my students every day for four school years. Very few academic areas afford that amazing opportunity to see a student grow over that period of time. I have seen students accomplish great things in four years, and I have seen students accomplish an incredible amount in one; however, when a student finishes a four-year experience in the music department, there is an incredible connection.
I have many students pursuing music in college, and some are teaching music full-time now. Those are incredible rewards of this job. Seeing students continue to understand the importance of music and arts education and entering the field because it meant so much to them is a tribute to the effect of the Hillsboro-Deering music program in their lives. The greatest reward, however, is the look on students’ faces when they feel proud of their performance and know that they worked hard to gain success, whether it was perfecting a two measure passage, nailing a solo, giving a concert performance like no other, or walking through the gate onto Main Street in Walt Disney World.
My greatest pride comes from the success of my students every day, from the student who entered as a freshman with no voice who turned into a soloist by her senior year, to the student who began playing for the first time as a senior and finally mastered the B-flat concert scale after a month of practice.
I see success mirrored in the students with Down’s syndrome who learned to play the guitar by connecting a sticker of a bee on their guitar fret board to the B note in their guitar book. Each student that attends a Broadway show or concert or that plays an instrument or sings in a college or community ensemble, the former students that enroll their elementary age children in band – they are all reflections of having a positive education in the arts in school. These are my proudest moments and greatest accomplishments – passing the baton on to the future music teachers and arts supporters.
As recipient of the 2012 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year award, you are a candidate for the National Teacher of the Year award. What is your main message to other educators in our country?
To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, I am a firm believer that reading and writing are the keys to providing a path to success for every student. All teachers, regardless of discipline, must take responsibility for assisting in developing the fundamental skills that all of our students need in order to be successful in school—as well as in life. If education equals the freedom for students to follow a path out of poverty, insecurity, and ignorance, then literacy and numeracy need to be the cornerstones of each instructional area.
Coming from an extremely abusive and poverty stricken home, nothing was ever handed to me. I grew up living out of our car, in shelters, in churches, begging for food at stores and church food lines, and climbing into the clothing donation bins looking for something to wear to school. It was a life of chaos and fear that many of our students may live themselves, and a life that many of them will thankfully never understand. Reading was my escape from this reality long before music was.
All teachers, regardless of discipline, must continue to develop lesson plans that incorporate these basic skills as much as possible and communicate these connections to their fellow staff members and students. If we are all teachers, we should not just consider our content area to be the only area of instruction. We also must be promoting writing, reading, numeracy, and 21st -century learning skills within the structure of that content area.
Every teacher has a moral imperative to create a safe and caring learning environment for their students. I believe strongly, however, that outlets in arts education can be the door for many students, opening their eyes to new possibilities through learning. With a large variety of students in our classes, art and music teachers have the ability to reach and instruct students in literacy skills though our content areas via outlets that students understand and from which they can make stronger connections. My first love and true passion lies in the musical education of each student who chooses to enter my classroom door, however, the more we connect what we are doing in our classrooms to what is occurring down the hall, the more students will realize how connected all of their studies are.
When all teachers work together to create a vision for academic success within their school, district, community, state, and country, all of our students can find a level of success. Literacy in and through the arts is a passion for me and will continue to be. Though music is my filter, literacy is my ultimate goal, because my message to my students will continue to emulate Frederick Douglass’s words from long ago. When you can read and write you are truly free, and through music education, everyone can find a way to sing.
November 9, 2012. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)