Herald Head of the Class 2021: Eliza DellaMonica, Wantagh Elementary School Music

On helping students love learning

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Eliza DellaMonica of Wantagh Elementary School talks about her love of music and instilling that love in her students.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I wanted to give students the opportunities and positive experiences that I had with learning music growing up. Some of my most favorite memories as a student were in my music classes - from the lessons, to the concerts, and everything in between. I was a pretty shy and introverted student in school, but I felt the most confident playing the violin in orchestra. I believe every student can find their voice, whether it be in math or in music, but it takes a teacher to listen to that voice and to bring it out of them so that it can be heard.

Tell us about a teacher that inspired you as a student.
I have two important teachers from the Valley Stream school districts who have shaped the teacher I am today. One is my elementary string teacher, Ms. Gaertner, and the second is my high school orchestra teacher, Mrs. Hayden. Ms. Gaertner not only introduced the violin to me, but she showed me how much joy there is in performing music as a young student. This enabled me to start building my confidence at the time; her enthusiasm and encouragement made me feel like I had someone who believed in me. Mrs. Hayden was not only an amazing teacher who gave me opportunities to be a leader in high school, but she also became a mentor to me when I finally decided to go into music education. She is the teacher I emulate the most in the way I run my classroom. I would not be here today without both of them!

What did you experience or learn about teaching—yourself, your students, the process, etc.—during the pandemic that you think you will carry forward?
Despite all of the challenges this year, I learned that my students are resilient and empathetic. As an elementary music teacher, many days were difficult this year with having to balance both remote and in-person classes, pushing into classrooms, and maintaining a string instrumental program as well as teaching General Music. However, seeing my students engaged in music, between practicing their instruments and still having fun in Music class, has motivated me to keep working hard for them. Many of my students were aware of my new responsibilities this year, and we were all able to embrace this new reality and work together to still continue to make music.

What’s the most memorable thing a student has said to you?
In my district, students start learning a string instrument in third grade, and then they have the opportunity to switch to band or to continue in orchestra in fourth grade. One year, I had a student tell me that she wanted to stay in orchestra because she still wanted me to be her teacher. I have had many students say that they want to continue to play in orchestra because they love their instrument, but it felt really special to know that this student wanted to stay in because of me.

 What has been your toughest challenge as a teacher so far?
This year has been the most challenging year as a music teacher. I not only had to adapt to what I already knew how to do as a string teacher, but I also took on the responsibilities of being a first-time General Music teacher this year. Fortunately, I had a lot of help from all of my other colleagues in Wantagh’s music department and other friends who are more experienced teachers of elementary General Music - I would not have survived this year without their help!

What has been your proudest moment as a teacher so far?
Some of my proudest moments as a teacher is seeing the growth in my students during the end of the year concerts. A few years ago, I had a student who experienced anxiety when she first started as a beginner violinist in third grade. When she became anxious, she would have a difficult time continuing to play. However, by the end of her 5th grade year, she was able to perform a solo that she composed by herself on stage at the spring concert. I will never forget that moment and will always remember how far she had come!

What surprised you the most when you first started teaching?
During my first year, I was surprised that being a music teacher was less about teaching music, but more about being a presence in the school community. I think most music educators would agree that our formal education has prepared us for all the musical aspects of the job, such as conducting and ear training. However, between the hundreds of students we teach and the many performances in front of parents, administrators, and the community, being a music teacher is such a public role in a school environment. Because of this, I believe that we have a responsibility to be leaders and advocates for our students.

How do you keep students engaged and interested?
I keep my students engaged by creating goals or opportunities for them to look forward to as musicians. In a normal school year, my students would perform at music festivals and other public events outside of school, in addition to our regular concerts. This often helps motivate students to improve on their instruments. This year, I had to be more creative. My students performed in both video and audio recordings that were shared with their families, played for the morning announcements, and participated in virtual solo festivals.

What is an aspect of being a teacher that you think most people outside the profession don’t know or fully understand?
I think one thing most people do not realize is that teachers often see a side of their students that their parents may not see at home. As a music teacher especially, I see so much growth in my students during the years I have them in elementary orchestra. I see my students struggle as they learn new techniques, but I also see them be brave enough to try something challenging in front of their peers. I see them deal with frustration and adversity, but then I also see them feel that confidence when they finally master a skill. This is the most rewarding part of being a teacher!

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers?
My biggest piece of advice for aspiring teachers is that the most important thing you can plan for is to plan on being flexible. I think this year especially has shown teachers that we must be adaptable - almost everything we were so used to doing as teachers had to be modified in some way. As educators, we need to continually learn and adapt, so that we can grow within our craft of teaching.

What is the most important thing you hope a student takes away from your class?
I hope that my students can use music as the universal language that brings us all together. In my classroom, I try to create an environment where my students have a sense of belonging and feel like they are part of a family. I believe the best part of performing music is creating it with others. If I can make that experience happen for my students, I know they can continue to be kind and thoughtful individuals to themselves and everyone around them.

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