By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Yael Rothfeld, a music teacher at Thurston Elementary, has been named the Michigan Music Education Association’s Music Educator of the Year. She will be presented with the award on Friday, Jan. 17 in Grand Rapids.
Yael Rothfeld grew up in Haslett with her parents Dany and Ellen, and her two younger sisters Liat and Talya. A week after she was born, a piano was delivered to her house. Her mom thought it was a mistake, but it turned out her grandmother had it delivered so she could be exposed to music from an early age.
When she was growing up, she loved to sing. She began piano lessons at age 4, and she started playing the flute in 5th grade. When she got to high school, band was her favorite class. She participated in marching band, where she played the piccolo, concert band, where she also played the flute, and jazz band, where she played piano. Rothfeld also played these instruments in the orchestra pit for the high school musicals. Most of her close friends were also in band and shared the same passion for music.
Rothfeld began as a Piano Pedagogy major at Michigan State University, and while she loved it, something was missing. She spoke with a music professor who suggested that she assist in an early childhood music class. As soon as she did, she was hooked. Rothfeld then went on to get her Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Music Education at MSU.
Rothfeld has been teaching music in Ann Arbor for the past 17 years. Rothfeld also teaches a class at Eastern Michigan University, where she teaches education majors about music in the elementary school. She became certified to teach yoga classes a few years ago and also teaches various yoga classes throughout the week.
When she’s not teaching music or doing yoga, Rothfeld loves to travel and spend time with friends and family.
How do you feel about being named MMEA Educator of the Year?
I feel so honored to win this award. I have had the pleasure of learning from amazing teachers and professors throughout my time as a student as well as an educator. These experiences have helped me become the teacher I am today. I am so thankful that I get to share my love for music with my students, as well as watch them musically progress. I still get excited when students make connections and am always striving to challenge them to learn.
When did you first realize you were musical?
I think I always felt musical. Music was always a part of my life, and it was always something I did. Growing up, I loved to sing. My mom started teaching me how to play the piano when I was four years old. In elementary school, I loved performing for (and with) others, whether it was playing piano, singing songs, or performing in my elementary school musicals. That love for music continued throughout my life.
When did you know you wanted to be a music teacher?
I always enjoyed participating in music, and I also enjoyed helping and teaching others. I knew that I either wanted to be an elementary school teacher, or something related to music. When I realized I could do both, I knew that would be the perfect job.
What instruments do you play, and are you a singer, too?
I play piano, flute, piccolo, and ukulele. I also love to sing.
When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?
My first year was a learning experience. It was a lot of trial and error and learning what not to do. I quickly realized that teaching was so much more than just the lessons I had planned. I needed to think about how students would respond and how to transition from one activity to the next. I learned that I needed to get to know my students, and they needed to get to know me. By the end of the year, I was not only amazed at what the students had learned, but also what I had learned about teaching, and about my students.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
Ask for help. Your colleagues have experience and ideas that can help. Observe other teachers. Go to workshops and conferences. Take what you learn to help shape the kind of teacher you want to be. Know that the first year is a lot about learning what works and what doesn’t. You’ll make mistakes, and that’s okay!
What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?
The best compliment is when students come back and tell me how much music class meant to them, and how they’ve used what they learned to continue a passion of their own.
In your 17 years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?
The lessons are only a small part of my everyday teaching. Besides working to build independent musicians, I also strive to build relationships, give my students a voice, grow their self-confidence, create a safe place, and make them more well-rounded human beings.
Describe an average workday.
On an average day, I teach around 250 students anywhere from preschool through 5th grade. My Fitbit often vibrates well before the day is over, to tell me that I’ve already reached my 10,000 steps! I rarely stop moving during the day, as I want the students to experience as much music as possible in their 30-minute music classes with me. Because I see multiple grades, it involves different setup from class to class. We also never stick to one activity for too long. We sing, we dance, we move. We play instruments, such as xylophones, recorders, or ukuleles. We use props. We use iPads and computers. We alternate between whole class, small groups, and individual activities. Each day and each class is different. On Tuesdays, I run a volunteer-based 5th grade choir during my lunch, and I also teach a music class for education majors at Eastern Michigan University. Some days there are staff or department meetings after school. The school year is always busy, and never boring!
What’s the happiest part of your workday?
The happiest part of my workday is teaching the preschoolers and seeing the pure joy on their faces when they come to music class. I also enjoy seeing when something clicks with my students, or when they’ve successfully performed something challenging, knowing that they’ve worked hard to be able to accomplish it.
Five favorite CDs: I don’t listen to a lot of music for myself during the school year. On my drive home I usually listen to NPR, podcasts, or I drive home with silence. However, I do enjoy soundtracks to musicals, and a variety of styles of music.
What do you love about Thurston and how do you show school spirit?
I work with such amazing staff, students, and families at Thurston. Because I’ve been at Thurston for 17 years, I get to work with many of my students from preschool through 5th grade. Watching them grow and develop from year to year is such a rewarding experience. I also enjoy getting to teach siblings and getting to know their families throughout the years.
What do you know about teaching now that you wish you’d known that first year?
I wish I would have known how much I would struggle that first year, but how much better things would get as I continued to teach. The first year was a lot of learning what not to do, but little by little, things got better. I learned from mistakes, and I got more comfortable in making decisions that worked in my teaching and in my classroom.
How do you keep students engaged?
I teach a variety of music activities throughout each class to give all students something to get excited about. I alternate between whole class, small group, and individual activities. I ask questions. I use props. We sing, dance, move, compose, improvise, and more! I try to keep my class “game-like” and student-centered so that the students can have fun while also learning a lot.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
The most rewarding part of teaching is seeing my students make musical connections. I love watching their musicianship grow and develop, watching them become confident musicians, and knowing that I played a part in it.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?
It’s never done! After the school day ends, there is still lesson planning, grading, thinking about what to do differently, how to challenge the students, and what new things to add in to keep things exciting.
How do you recharge?
I take—and teach—yoga classes throughout the week. It helps me de-stress, keeps me healthy, and helps to recharge my body and my mind.
How do you spend your summers?
Teaching yoga, traveling and spending time with my friends and family.