The 50 music educators were chosen from nearly 300 nominations for their outstanding accomplishments teaching music in the nation’s public schools.
Swartzel is the only music educator receiving the biennial award from Tennessee.
“I was very stunned because I never ever expected that,” Swartzel said. “I really thank Jeff Elliott for doing this.”
Elliott, supervisor of instruction K-12, asked Swartzel to apply last November. She said she did not think anything of the task. According to Swartzel, “When your boss asks you to do something, you just do it. I didn’t think about whether or not I would get it.”
Applicants were asked to answer how they use music as a vehicle of reform in education.
“One of the things I talked about is how music helps to break down barriers for students,” Swartzel said. “I talked about a student I taught who had just had cochlear implants put in. He had never been able to hear or speak.”
She said the kindergartener would come to class and curl up into a ball, experiencing sensory overload. Swartzel had her student teacher lead class while she held the young boy on her lap. Sometimes they would just take a walk through the halls.
“... My student teacher asked me what we were going to do with him. I told her, ‘We are going to teach him,’” Swartzel said. “Gradually he started joining in and then he started speaking.”
Continued Swartzel, “I had him until he was in the fourth grade and by then you could not distinguish him from the other students in the classroom. He played instruments, he played on tempo and he stayed on task.”
All 50 educators will receive an all-expenses paid trip to the Symposium on Music in Schools held every two years at Yale. Activities include three days of talks, intensive discussions, dinners and speeches by Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post; Richard Deasy, former director of the Arts Education partnership; David myers, director of the University of Minnesota School of Music; and Scott Shuler, Arts Education specialist for the Connecticut State Department of Education.
Swartzel told the Cleveland Board of Education she is eager to bring back new ideas to Arnold Elementary.
Another source for ideas and inspiration is Swartzel’s own children.
“My son and I sit down and talk about ideas. I can’t tell you how many times they have given me great recommendations. I realize I am not in [my students’] generation, but my kids are, and being able to draw on their good ideas helps,” Swartzel said. “I kind of preview things to them. If it is boring to them, then I ditch it.”
A recent class project was inspired by one of Swartzel’s daughters who enjoys the Cup Game. This game involves one cup for every student. They clap out a beat against their hands, the floor and the cups before passing it along to the next student.
“It teaches them teamwork,” Swartzel said of children playing music together. “It took the students in the video 20 minutes to figure out how they were going to work together.”
Swartzel said the students were challenged and encouraged by seeing another group perform the task.
“I don’t want to be that teacher who says, ‘Well I’ve done it this way for 20 years ...,’” Swartzel said. “I always want to be trying new things. I want to be the kind of teacher who is as fresh and current at 60 as I was at 25.”
Added Swartzel, “Sixty seemed real old, but it doesn’t seem so old now.”
She said when she retires she still wants to be inspiring. According to her, this is in direct relation to the great students she has been blessed to teach. One of her former students is Janelle Arthur, a singer who made the Top 5 this season in American Idol.
According to Swartzel, Arthur is just one of many success stories.
“You know out of this pool of children, somewhere in there is another Janelle Arthur. ...You know they are there. so you teach your heart out. The job is to treat everyone that way and know some of them are going to make really amazing people,” Swartzel said. “And they are not all music people, either.”
“One of the kids I taught just graduated from Emory (University) and I am so proud of him. I have tears in my eyes just talking about it.”
Continued Swartzel, “Your goal is to see them outshine you — no matter what they choose, to see them outshine you.”
Swartzel has taught music at various levels for 27 years. She graduated from Lee University in 1983 with a bachelor’s in music education. She studied voice under Virginia Horton and holds an MA in performance from CFSU.
Twenty-seven years of educating youth has repeatedly hit one point home to Swartzel.
“I don’t teach music,” Swartzel said. “I teach children, and for me, it is the most important thing to see the children for who they are ... outside of the walls of this school.”