The Music Educator Award, presented by the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Museum, recognizes current educators who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the music education field and demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools. The recipient will be recognized during GRAMMY Week 2022. Below, 2022 Music Educator Award recipient Stephen Cox, who is the band director at Eastland High School in Eastland, Texas, shares his tried-and-true philosophies and strategies for reaching and nurturing his students.
This interview is taken from the 2022 GRAMMYs program book, your ultimate guide to navigating Music’s Biggest Night and its 86 categories and hundreds of nominees.
Teaching today, in 2022, is relationship teaching. You have to get to know the students, you have to get to know what they’re interested in, and you have to relate to them.
I think people had this sense for a long time that being there — being the teacher, the authority person — meant that everyone would listen to what you said. That may have been true 50 or 70 years ago, but now, more than ever, connection and relevance are far more important than authority.
You can’t stop a student that wants to learn and you can’t teach one that doesn’t.
It’s important to take an interest in what students care about. A lot of times, kids bring me music they like. And it may not be music I like, but if there’s any way we can incorporate it in the class, we do it.
You have high expectations, and you have to have high expectations. Whatever the expectations are for your students, it sets a standard in their mind for what is possible.
By setting high expectations for performance, attendance and all these different things, the students will do it because that’s the expectation. But while you have those expectations, you also need to have fun with them.
An example: We programmed a concert once at a historic theater here in town. This is when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was coming out. It coincided with a holiday concert. We did a mix of holiday music and Star Wars music at the theater and performed at the local premiere of the movie.
The kids had a great time going to the movie together, but we also got to nerd out about the music of Star Wars leading up to that. Try to find ways to tie in relevance to things they’re interested in and program it.
It’s really important that we get students outside of the campus. Most school concerts are held at school auditoriums, gymnasiums or cafetoriums, but we try to get the students out around town, performing at nearby venues. Performing at the park, nursing homes or anywhere where the students and community can interact in a way they might not have expected to opens doors for the students.
In any community — especially when it’s small like ours — there’s going to be people that would really love and be excited about the music programs as soon as it’s brought to them. But they’re never going to show up for a concert on campus because it never crosses their radar.
We try to tie specific performances to the history of the town. Sometimes, we’ll find people who have been in the band program before or were connected to it and learn about them.
Then, when we program our regular concerts, we’ll dedicate a piece to them: former students, directors, local musicians, or businesses. That’s been a lot of fun. It creates an extra layer of relevance to everything we’re doing.
Teaching in a small town can feel really limiting. You don't have the same access to resources and culture. By engaging the community, you open up the door to the resources you do have: human resources. Small town people are incredible and an engaged community can amplify the educational opportunities for students.
One benefit of band is that it requires a lot of help. Especially in marching band — there’s loading up trucks and all these things you have to do. There’s a lot of people, and therefore, a lot of work.
We try to get the students to take over — if not the whole process — every single part of it that they can. I think that really, really matters: letting the students have some of the control. This can feel terrifying for the educator, but it can be life-altering for the students.
Students need to know you care, they need to know what’s possible, and they need the resources to accomplish it. It’s our job to provide this to them. This next generation has to be better than us, that’s the only way that humanity progresses.
See a complete list of the finalists for the 2022 Music Educator Award.
Nominations and applications for the 2023 Music Educator Award are now open.
As told to Morgan Enos