Interview with Christine Cumberledge, 2017 Music Educator of the Year

Each December, Music & Arts honors a music educator with the Music Educator of the Year AwardThis year’s award, which is reserved for an educator who shows outstanding achievement in music education, was given to Christine Cumberledge, a junior high teacher from Euless, Texas. Renier Fee, Marketing Director at Music & Arts, had the privilege of interviewing this year’s winner to learn more about her love of music and contributions to music education.

Congrats on receiving the Music & Arts 2017 Music Educator of the Year award. I’m humbled to meet you!

Thank you! I am humbled to have been picked among such a great group! I know what a deep pool of educators you had to choose from. I can’t imagine the hard job the judges had choosing a winner after reading about each person.

Is your adrenaline rush still high since receiving the congratulatory phone call?

It has been a whirlwind since I found out! To be honest, the hardest part has been keeping it a secret from my students. I have been at Central Junior High for 17 years, so this award is as much about them as me. Our school is the second most diverse junior high in the nation – a fact we are very proud of. This provides an invaluable education to our students and really sets us up to be global thinkers. My school district, Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD is a close-knit community in the middle of two big cities, Fort Worth and Dallas. I know everyone will be excited to hear the news!

Let’s start off with your background. What early life moments led to you becoming a music educator?

A lot of stars aligned to allow me to end up where I am today. Ironically, I only joined the beginner band because my friend was playing the clarinet and I wanted to be in class with her. My junior high experience was not great, but I loved the clarinet. We moved at the start of high school, and I had two great band directors who took an interest in me, Francis Badrak and Andy Davidson. Until that point, I had not ever had a private lesson! I was able to take lessons privately with Mr. Larry Mentzer, principal clarinet of the San Antonio Symphony throughout high school and it changed my path! He helped me get a fabulous Buffet R-13 that I still play today and it helped lead to a scholarship to the University of North Texas. While there, I was fortunate to study clarinet with Dr. John Scott. Before graduating, a friend suggested I student teach with her father, Joseph Grzybowski at L.D. Bell High School and also Steve Madsen at Bedford Junior High. They are both master teachers who taught me how to be a band director. I ended up teaching with Mr. Madsen for three more years before I became the director in the same district at Central Junior High. During that time, Mr. Grzybowski took his band to The Midwest Clinic and Mr. Madsen won honor band for Texas. We have some amazing teachers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and you don’t have to go far to improve your craft. Even now, I bring in clinicians and other teachers who can make us better. Melodianne Mallow comes to my school several times a year for what I call “quality control.” I want my students to see that you never stop learning!

Your music program has seen a 75% increase in student growth. This is a great number but even more so impressive considering that over 60% of your students live in poverty. How do you raise funding to support low-income students interested in music? Can you share your tips and tricks for leveraging donations, fundraising or booster clubs?

That student growth happened my first few years at Central. When I arrived, I was following students down the hall asking why they were not in band! I probably gained twenty beginners that first year. The next year, our beginner band grew another 30%. From there, we have maintained a solid number of 250-300 each year. Along the way I have worked with some fabulous assistants like Richard Stephens, Benjamin Aune, and currently Nicholas Wilson. It is a team. We do not turn away any student who has an interest in band. I make a promise to every 6th grader (we start in 7th grade) that if they want to learn an instrument, we will figure out a way to make it happen! I have created relationships over the years, and often have parents who donate back to the band. In particular, Victor Blood, whose sons played horn and trumpet, has been responsible for bringing us well over a dozen instruments to use for students in need. The district provides us with larger school-owned instruments. Because HEB is such a strong band community, we have great support from parents. Our Director of Fine Arts, Mark Chandler does a great job of advocating for the arts. On our campus, it is not uncommon for parents to send two band fees – one for their own child, and one for a child in need. We do fundraisers twice a year – and most of our money goes right back into student needs.

Randy Belcher, the principal at your school, said, “Since 2007 Hurst Euless Bedford Independent School District has been named name one of the Best Communities in the Nation for Music Education.” He said you are a key component in this distinction. What is your advice for other educators looking to increase community involvement in music education?

It is a well-researched fact that learning an instrument increases academic success. I am fortunate to teach in a district that believes in educating the whole child – beginning with great elementary music teachers. At the junior high level, a lot of schedule work is done by adults to allow students to try many different things. At the age of twelve, how do you know where your talents are? Over 70% of my band students participate in other activities. I have a ton of athletes, cheerleaders, gymnasts, choir and orchestra members – just about everything you could think of! It does make scheduling difficult at times, but our first priority is creating a world class experience for students. On more than one occasion, the coaches and I have sat down to figure out a conflict – and there is give and take on both sides. When this happens, the student wins. I may be biased, but there is something special about Central Junior High. We have a large number of students transfer here for the special programs offered such as world languages, orchestra, and STEM. Every student at Central can take part in those subjects – not just those who transfer. It is a wonderful opportunity for the student who attends Central. Parents seem to understand the benefit music has on every subject so our numbers have stayed high. In fact, more than 65% of the students at my school participate in a music class.

You’ve been teaching for 20 years and have accumulated many awards in that time. You’ve won Teacher of the Year in Central Junior High, Hurst, TX, in 2005; Secondary Teacher of the year in Hurst-Euless Bedford ISD in 2006; top 25 semi-finalist for Music & Arts 2016 Educator of the Year; Who’s Who Among America’s Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017; and countless more. What is your most rewarding teaching experience so far?

When I was younger, I wanted to build a great band program and I was pretty competitive. Winning the TMEA Honor Band for Texas was a true professional highlight in my career, but my goals have changed as I have gotten older. I still hold my students to a very high standard, but we focus more on creating great adults instead of winning. I have found that when that became my focus, making great music became easier. We spend a lot of time talking about the future and how education can take you places. Seeing young people work through difficult situations has been the best reward. For example, a former student was homeless for a while. Each night, the family parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot so she could do homework. Throughout this difficult time, the student maintained all A’s in her classes. I have had students go from a tough situation to earning a full scholarship to college. After 20 years of teaching, most of my “rewarding experiences” are seeing students achieve.

One of your student recommendation letters tugged at my heartstrings. Your student wrote: “At home I don’t really have someone who pushes me to be better or lets me know they care about me. But you, every day you encourage us to be the best we can and it’s because you care about us.” How did that make you feel to read that?

It tugs at my heartstrings, too! I am pretty demanding with my students, but they know my heart is in the right place. I believe when someone understands the discipline it takes to be good at an instrument, they can apply that work ethic to be successful anywhere. I think it is one of the reasons music education is so important. When it is time to work, we take it seriously, but we play hard too! A colleague once told me, “You manage to get every last drop of effort out of your students.” Sometimes, as a teacher, you can see the potential before students see it in themselves. I think motivator and supporter are just some of the many hats a teacher wears every day.

What do you say to all the other kids out there who don’t feel encouraged at home?

There is a quote from Mr. Rogers he attributed to his mother, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This subject is a big part of my classroom. We’re all going to have points in life where we struggle. I hope I create an atmosphere where students can always come to me for help. As a band, we look out for each other. As a school, we make it a goal to find students who might slip through the cracks. We have a teacher mentor program that meets and makes individual connections with students. This incredible culture is widespread in our district. A few years ago, People magazine did an article on one of the Trinity high schools custodians, Charles Clark. He mentors young men who might need a little encouragement. That is just another example of the safety net my district provides kids and how we can all make a difference.

Your Music & Arts Educational Representative, David Hill, is also a strong supporter of your award. What role does he play in making your curriculum work?

I can’t imagine how much harder teaching band would be without David Hill! He visits Central each week to check on us, take in repairs, or just lend some advice. He has a unique perspective since his children were band kids in our district! Some of the biggest help comes each spring, when we place students on instruments for beginner band. David brings the instruments, mouthpieces, and supplies needed for tryouts. I am a bit of a control freak about placing students on the right instrument, so my assistant and I meet with every parent and student one-on-one. This process takes at least half a dozen nights, but David is always there, ready to go over information with parents once the student has chosen an instrument.

As a Music & Arts Educator of the Year, you will receive credit to our services, among other prizes. How do you plan to spend the money?

I have been thinking a lot about this, and I may use it to purchase a flute. While many of my students rent their own instrument, we always have a few more perfect “flute faces” than we do instruments for those in need. For the past few years, I have loaned out my flute to a student. Since I like to demonstrate in my beginner classes, this has been an issue. I feel fortunate that Music & Arts includes a credit towards something that can be used like this!

We’ve got another surprise for you. P. Mauriat and Music & Arts will be donating to your school a P. Mauriat System-76 Limited Edition Alto Saxophone, a retail value of $3,000. I know you are an expert on the clarinet but how are your skills on the sax?

Oh my gosh! That is a great surprise! The image that popped into my head was the faces of my saxophone players. The second thought was instituting a ban on that beautiful instrument ever playing “Careless Whisper.” The Central Junior High Band Hall is a “Careless Whisper-Free Zone,” but that doesn’t seem to stop the older students from teaching my impressionable beginners the notes. In all seriousness, saxophone is one of my favorite classes to teach. Once our faces are set, we tend to move fast! We can usually play the entire fingering chart before November. I definitely play clarinet better than saxophone, but I can teach both well!

What are your professional goals in 2018?

My principal is fond of saying to teachers, “go down fighting each day.” If we are a better player at the end of the day, it is a victory. Professionally, I hope to take a band to The Midwest Clinic in the near future. My daughter will be in the band program in just a few short years. . .and I imagine that will make life even more interesting!

I know she will be a rock star like her mom! Thanks for your time.

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