DTE’s Educator of the Year, an Ann Arbor teacher imparts life lessons through music
When you walk past Caroline Fitzgerald’s band room at Ann Arbor’s Scarlett Middle School don’t be surprised if you hear some Post Malone or Panic at the Disco playing.
It’s all part of Fitzgerald’s unique approach to teaching music to kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grades: meet them where they’re at. If it’s school appropriate, she says, “we’re playing it in the band room.” “I’m constantly finding out what my students are listening to and watching what they’re immersed in outside of school and trying to bring that into my classroom,” she explains. “I think music is an outlet for students to explore what they love and I teach them notes and rhythms and all the things they hear in their music so they can make connections easier.”
After all, she explains, her time with them is limited to 47 minutes a day – “but I hope that it’s 47 minutes of something they’re really passionate about.”
And that’s not just so Fitzgerald can teach her students about rhythm or playing their instruments well. Through music, her students learn vital communication skills, the ability to work together as a team and how to treat others with respect.
“It’s not so much me teaching them how to play in tune – of course we do that too. But it’s more about learning skills that you need to function in life,” she says.
Having her students perform alone in front of the class, for example, becomes a broader lesson.
The importance of arts education
“Not only do we learn how to be vulnerable but how do you treat each other with kindness while your peer is doing something so vulnerable,” she says. “I have really high expectations. I know they really appreciate that.” Her dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. The DTE Energy Foundation and the University Musical Society recently honored Fitzgerald as their 2019 Educator of the Year, an award that celebrates teachers who “value the importance of arts education and create a culture for the arts to flourish in their school communities.”
The recognition means a lot to Fitzgerald, a mother of two who knew she wanted to be a music teacher ever since first taking a band class in seventh grade. It also came as a shock, she says, since she’s surrounded by fellow arts educators she admires. “Just in Ann Arbor there are incredible, absolutely amazing arts teachers and music teachers. My colleagues influence everything I do,” she says. “I know there are so many incredible teachers so for me to be acknowledged as one of them was a really big deal to me.”
Collaborating and perspective
Looking to the upcoming school year this fall, Fitzgerald has exciting plans to collaborate with visiting artists and to get her students out into the community – one of the perks her classes will receive thanks to the award, as the University Musical Society is providing her with a free class trip to a UMS performance and a school visit from a touring artist. “I’m going to focus on what artists are coming, learn about them and hopefully go and see them and get a new perspective,” she says. “Every summer I always get all these ideas of what I want to focus on and what I want to explore. Every year that I teach I do pretty much everything differently.”
Arts education matters, Fitzgerald emphasizes – and, as someone whose life was impacted so positively by music, she’s proud to play a role in it for today’s middle schoolers.
“I see arts education as a huge tool for relationship building,” she says. “You put your technology down and it’s a way that they can communicate with each other and they really have to learn the skill of listening and working together or it will not work.”
Though her students may joke that her class is like “band therapy,” Fitzgerald believes music education truly teaches skills that youth won’t learn elsewhere.
“They’re learning a new skill with everybody else at the same time. It kind of builds up everybody’s self esteem when your classmates support you and love you and encourage you,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with giving kids confidence.”
The DTE Energy Foundation and the University Musical Society recently honored Fitzgerald as their 2019 Educator of the Year…
Get to Know Caroline
What’s your go-to place for eating out with your family?
Frita Batidos. I like the black bean burger and my kids like the french fries!
What are some of your favorite spots in town?
We love Gallup Park, Zingerman’s Deli and there’s always music at Kerrytown Concert House. We like to explore the toy shop at Kerrytown. When they shut down Main Street either for Taste of Ann Arbor or the car show, it’s all so cool.
What’s the best place to enjoy music in Ann Arbor?
Top of the Park! I love how many young people are always performing. I love that it’s all local artists.