How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Melissa Salguero returned from spring break to find that thieves had raided her music classroom.
Faced with empty instrument cases, torn drum heads, and missing recording equipment, Salguero did the only thing that felt right. She grabbed a guitar and held music class in the auditorium of her school, P.S. 48 in the Bronx, while police dusted for fingerprints.
“It was important to me that they had music that day to show the kids that we can survive anything,” she said.
A marching band devotee in high school and music lover since childhood, Salguero spends three hours a day commuting from Connecticut, arriving by 7 a.m. for early-morning band practice. During the school day, her classroom can feel like a science lab as students learn about sound waves and electricity through experiments — such as when Salguero recently connected a banana to a computer in order to play it like a piano.
Most of the materials she uses for these lessons are donated. Salguero has raised more than $200,000 for the music program at P.S. 48, including $50,000 presented to her on the Ellen DeGeneres show. This year, she is one of 25 finalists nationally for a Grammy Music Educator award. The winner will attend the Grammy Awards.
Here is why Salguero asks her students for “brutally honest” feedback on her lessons, builds pianos out of playdough, and makes sure to remember birthdays.
Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What do your students get in music class that they can’t get in any other subject?
Music education teaches my students the value of working together and the sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards performances. In my music class, students are able to express themselves, explore the questions they may have, and develop their curiosity for learning.
When you went on Ellen, she described the neighborhood your school is in as “scary.” What do you you wish people understood better about your students?
It is a rough neighborhood, but I see potential in every one of my students to rise above their circumstances. I want people to understand how music education can foster a love for learning, especially in Hunts Point. The kids are bright, talented, and have so much to give; their voices just need a chance to be heard.
Why do you mix science with music?
Science helps my students better understand musical concepts because they’re encouraged to try to understand how things work. Some musical concepts are abstract, such as a sound wave. Performing experiments in class gives them something concrete to explain these abstract concepts. Performing experiments teaches my students resilience because if something doesn’t work out as planned, there’s always another way. For example, instead of my students becoming discouraged if something doesn’t work, they problem solve and think of new ideas.
What is the best compliment you’ve gotten from a student about your teaching?
I love when my students tell me how I helped them overcome a fear. Because of my core teaching values, I encourage my students to make mistakes and to keep trying, and this is where they gain the confidence to overcome their fears.
What does being nominated for a Grammy Educator Award mean to you? What would winning it mean?
Besides the accolades and the cool trophy, it means that music education and the work that music educators do is important and is being recognized on a national level. I’m just one music teacher in a world of many. There are so many music teachers that are changing so many lives. If I can help spread the message that music education is important and is worth supporting, I would love for that message to be a global one.
Why did you become a teacher?
The leadership skills I learned in high school and college music programs help shape the person I am today. I want to help my students discover who they are and I want to help shape them into tomorrow’s leaders.
What does your classroom look like?
If you were sitting in my room watching a lesson you would probably see lots of students asking questions and lots of cogs turning inside of their heads. I foster a curious culture in my classroom that encourages students to ask questions: What is that? How does this work? What is happening? How are you doing that? When the students drive the lesson the engagement is 100%. They are driving the bus I’m just the tour guide.
I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My humor and my patience get me through each day. If a teacher can learn to laugh and be patient, it is a recipe for a great classroom culture. Students want to feel respected, and sometimes they unaware how to achieve this.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I love teaching my “Science of Sound” unit; I get to see students be amazed with some of the experiments. For example, I have used nothing but a needle and a piece of paper to play a record and we have made pianos out of playdough.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Every student is different, and it is my job to ensure that every student has the unique tools they need in order to be successful. I teach concepts from many different angles and give my students different methods to demonstrate their understanding of the subject. If a student still doesn’t understand, I ask myself what I can do differently.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I often ask my students for “brutally honest” feedback on lessons. I’m not scared to admit to myself that my lesson ideas might not be as engaging as I thought. It’s important for teachers to reflect and adjust their future lessons accordingly.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Part of being a good teacher is knowing your students! I sincerely care about them whether that is in the form of: remembering birthdays, writing positive notes home, or maintaining communication with parents. Above all, it’s important to me to give the students 100% of my attention when they speak to me. It damages the relationship when the students feels that you are not present and their voices are not heard.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a student that had some really extreme behavior problems in school. Before getting to know her, because she was labeled as a “bad kid,” I had preconceived notions about her. I decided to take her under my wing and mentor her. We worked on positive ways to express her emotions. I helped her write songs and we even recorded a CD. She had somebody that was willing to invest time in her, and I noticed a drastic change in her behavior. I learned that every student, when given the opportunity, can do great things.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.” – Dr. Kevin Maxwel