By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News
Katie Ryan grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota—the eighth of nine children, with seven brothers and a sister. Her father, originally a Yooper, was the first of his family to attend college and later medical school. He was an active orthopedic surgeon who made several medical missions to Bangladesh. Her mother, an only child, loved being a mom and the unique challenges that come with having nine children within a 17-year span.
Ryan says she had amazing music teachers throughout her academic career. She studied piano and played saxophone and added choir, madrigals, and jazz band to her music interests in high school. She attended Loyola University in New Orleans for two years and finished her degree in music education at the University of Michigan.
Ryan was hired by the Ann Arbor Public Schools in 1997 and has taught music at Pittsfield, Angell Dicken, Bach, Carpenter, and Allen elementary schools. She’s been at Angell for 25 years, and became full-time there in 2010.
The mother of Maggie, an AAPS graduate now studying music at the University of Michigan, and Jack, a future AAPS student, Ryan lives in Ann Arbor with her husband, Dan, two Maine coons named Mac and Gigi, and a golden retriever named Murphy. She enjoys attending her daughter’s concerts, cooking, running, and spending time outdoors with her family.
When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?
I was incredibly young. I turned 22 on the second day of school during my first year of teaching! I remember having big ideas of what I wanted to do with my students but not yet having the skills to put it together the way I envisioned. I shed a lot of tears and had many after-school naps. I feel very fortunate that I had wonderful colleagues at Pittsfield and later, Angell, that first year who took me under their wing. I also had an amazing cooperating teacher and mentor, Lynda Berg, who helped me find my way that first year.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
This is a great question. I worry about our young teachers so much. It is a very difficult time to enter the field. The last three years have been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We veterans are struggling with the realities of teaching right now and we’ve got a lot of tricks up our sleeves.
I think some of our young teachers enter the field full of hope but issues with classroom management, student behavior, scheduling, and workload quickly overwhelm them. They may feel isolated as elementary specialists usually do not have a colleague in the building who teaches the same subject. Reaching out to a mentor or colleague in another building can feel burdensome or awkward. The financial realities of adulthood and a beginning teacher’s salary sink in with student loans, rent, car payments, and so on. It’s not financially viable for many young teachers to stay in the field and they feel discouraged. Many are choosing to leave and seek out other career options. It’s so very sad.
I do think we are going to see some big changes in education in the next few years. We are seeing the beginnings of a teacher shortage exacerbated by the pandemic and the demands of the last few years. We cannot continue down this same path. I don’t know exactly what the future will hold, but I am hopeful that it is going to be better.
In the meantime, I hope our young teachers can find good mentors to support them. Get to work on continuing education as soon as you can to build relationships in another community of young educators; it will also help you to increase your salary. Be gentle with yourself; it’s impossible to know everything the first year. Build relationships. Remind yourself that we have this unbelievable opportunity to help shape the future by working with young people. Look for the moments of joy and beauty with students each day and seek them out as often as you can!
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I had amazing music teachers during my K-12 schooling. I had a lot of different musical interests and luckily, the chance to explore them. One significant piece was that I was a student accompanist in my high school. I accompanied musicals and choral ensembles under directors Ken Sherwood, Glen Wolf, and Brad Sherwood. The Sherwoods are second and third-generation music educators. Mr. Wolf helped me discover my place in music when I found an old saxophone in our basement! They are all amazing human beings and teachers. This was my first real training in music education and I was hooked.
What makes Angell so unique?
As we prepare to say a sad goodbye to Principal Gary Court as he leaves for retirement, this has been a big topic of recent discussions. Mr. Court has been such a positive force for our school.
Mr. Court is an incredible leader: he works harder than anyone I’ve ever met! He is constantly working to make things better for our students. He organizes workdays for families to come in and clean up the grounds and paint. He teaches reading groups so that teachers can work with smaller groups of students. He created a walking club for students who might have difficulty navigating recess or want a challenge. He knows every single student by name and works hard to connect with each one. When working with students who need redirection, Mr. Court is firm but kind and caring. He treats families with honesty and compassion.
Mr. Court has incredibly high expectations for students and staff but also understands that school should be fun. He’s always up for a Crazy Hat Day to break up the winter doldrums; he places singing toys outside his office; he will make pancakes for a surprise staff breakfast; he’s been known to go for scooter rides in PE and he organizes recess times for kids to throw snowballs onto the roof of the building. After hours, he’s teaching Love and Logic classes through Rec and Ed. I don’t know where he gets his energy but clearly, he’s a phenomenal leader, tireless advocate, and part-time Energizer Bunny! I have learned so much from him and to say we will miss him is an understatement. We wish him the very best in this next phase of his life.
There are other items that I think make Angell unique, too. Our staff is innovative, outgoing, and caring. Many teachers who come to Angell stay for several years of their careers. This is a sign that our environment is healthy and happy. I’m honored to teach with hard-working professionals who are always working to improve their craft.
Our staff and parent community value the arts! My colleagues are always open to and supportive of my ideas for assemblies, performances, and special projects; even when these plans add more to their already full plates.
Our community truly values and respects the work of our school and staff. Parents are supportive and appreciative of our school.
I think because of our families from Northwood IV, a family housing unit at the University of Michigan, we frequently have families who come and go with their studies at U-M. As a result, I think our students are especially welcoming to new students.
Speaking of Northwood IV, many of the families who attend Angell are international families. I can’t imagine navigating the logistics involved in moving to a new country and sending my child to school, especially if language is a challenge. It’s a privilege to have these families entrust their children to us. It’s amazing to see the students acquire skills to communicate and develop friendships across cultures during their time at Angell. Our ELL teacher, Mary Catherine Rudberg, does a wonderful job working with these students and their families.
During my tenure, Angell has always supported an enrichment program. This program is amazing and every single student benefits from it. Sally Freeman is our enrichment teacher and she is truly inspirational. Sally is a lifetime educator who constantly works to better her craft and meet the needs of students: whether it be math enrichment groups, setting up a Scavenger Hunt to engage students while on a field trip or working on feature articles with our fifth graders for the school newspaper. Sally Freeman is truly the best.
Lastly, I think our nearly 100-year-old physical building is beautiful. The terrazzo tile floors on the first floor are stunning, especially when freshly waxed over the summer. Contractors believe these are on the second floor as well, currently hidden under other flooring. Recently, an electrician found a covered skylight in our auditorium that we hope will be restored in a future construction project. I think our stage and balcony are charming and full of character. I would love to see our building enhanced, preserved, and protected for the future.
Why do so many students say music class is among their favorites?
I’m pretty sure it’s because I give them Smarties candies from time to time! I try to do my best each day. I would love to be a kid in any class at Angell School. My colleagues are the very best.
In your 25 years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?
Sometimes I feel the longer I’ve been teaching, the less I know. Or perhaps the better answer is the more I realize that I have to learn.
I think there are a few things that have helped me along the way: I think trying to build relationships with colleagues, students and families is really important. We are in this together and finding common ground is critical.
I believe keeping high expectations regarding achievement and citizenship in the classroom is important. I’ve been fortunate in that my colleagues, administrators, and families along the way have also supported this view.
Students learn best by doing. Kids are excited to be actively involved and learning new things. I also think that kids are unbelievably smart, capable, and eager to find success, especially when we teach them how to meet our expectations.
I find I am a better teacher when I am pushing myself to learn and grow. Again, I am fortunate in that I’ve had family, colleagues, and administrators who have supported my personal growth as a teacher.
Lastly, it may sound cheesy, but I do think excitement is contagious. Kids are perceptive and sense right away when I am lukewarm about a song or activity. This is why preserving academic freedom is so critical in our classrooms. If we are able to choose curriculum-supporting activities and materials that we are passionate about and that we know will engage each unique group of students, everyone benefits.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
It’s a privilege to have students for multiple years and to be a part of their educational experience. It’s fantastic to see them grow, change and develop confidence during their time at Angell. I see my job as sowing seeds with students in hope that something will take root and “hook” them somehow: maybe they love being on stage or playing in an ensemble. Perhaps they will love composition, experiencing live music or an all-school song, and the joy of singing in a community. Seeing what takes root in each child is delightful.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?
The work of a teacher is rewarding and extremely exhausting. The daily load on our mental desktops is heavy. No teacher sleeps well the night before school starts or a return from break. We stay up late worrying about the students in our care. Many decisions are out of our control but we do our best to make them work. Unkind words on social media are hurtful. An encouraging note sent to a teacher can really turn a rough day around.
Describe your perfect meal. Who would be at the table, where would you be, and what would you be eating?
I have siblings on both coasts and many places in between. I am grateful that we get along well and genuinely care for one another. Any meal with my siblings is full of reminiscing and great laughter. I am fortunate that even during the most difficult of times, my siblings use humor to create these moments of respite. I think we got this trait from my mom: you have to be able to laugh when you have so many children!
What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?
This summer, I’ll be working on my Level II certification in the Orff methodology of teaching music. This methodology is child-centered, hands-on, and creative in nature. I worked on my first level last summer and it was perfect for our return to in-person music learning. I am excited to learn more in Level II.
In my personal life, I am excited for my older child to wrap up her first year of college and come home for the summer. Prior to college, I was amazed by the experiences Maggie had in her K-12 career in AAPS. She had outstanding music teachers: Kristi Bishop, Andrew Steck, Rosalie Koenig, Ingrid Pylvainen, Jonathan Glawe, and Steve Lorenz. I’ve been a part of the AAPS music department for a long time but I developed a new appreciation of my colleagues from my experience as a parent. My son, Jack, will start kindergarten in the fall and I am excited to see where his educational experience will take him.