Profile: Thurston Elementary Music Teacher Yael Rothfeld, 2018 DTE Energy Foundation Educator of the Year


Yael Rothfeld is in her fifteenth year of teaching music at Thurston Elementary School and she has a playlist full of reasons why she loves her job. But one of those many reasons is because every year she is handed a blank “tape” and she gets to hit play on a future of music.

“I love being a music teacher as I get to work with amazing students,” Rothfeld says. “They are eager to learn, and soak up information like sponges. And because I teach at the elementary school level, for many of these students, I am their first music teacher. I often get to work with a blank slate. It is similar to learning a language.”

 Rothfeld was recently named as a 2018 DTE Energy Foundation Educator of the Year by the University Musical Society (UMS) and the DTE Energy Foundation. The award recognizes and celebrates excellence in arts education, lifting up the importance of the arts as a way of teaching 21st-century knowledge and skills, including creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and familiarity with local and global cultures.

The recipients were nominated through a public nomination process. The DTE Energy Foundation is sponsoring the awards as part of its annual grant support for UMS Youth Education Programs.

“We believe that exposure to artistic experiences in education helps young people become innovative, collaborative, and creative thinkers, as well as compassionate and open-minded individuals,” said UMS President Matthew VanBesien. “We are so grateful for the DTE Energy Foundation for recognizing the value that the arts can bring to an educational setting and for continuing its longstanding support of UMS’s K-12 initiatives.”

Rothfeld works with students in preschool through fifth grade, developing her curriculum in a way that demonstrates to her students the importance of music throughout the world, in her students’ own communities, and in the life of their school. She organizes regular performances for her students, giving them an opportunity to set and work toward specific goals, and to use music as a powerful tool to communicate around ideas and issues that are relevant to their everyday lives.

“As adults we carry a lot of baggage based on how we were taught,” says Rothfeld. “I am always amazed at how quickly they learn. Some of the things that they are learning, I didn’t learn until I was a music major in college. For me, I had to translate information based on things I may have learned differently. For them, it is just second nature. I am constantly telling them (and I mean it!) that they are doing things that many adults cannot even do.”

Rothfeld, who grew up in Haslett and has Undergraduate and Masters of Music Education degrees from Michigan State University, also has taught at Allen and Carpenter elementary, but her home school has always been Thurston. She continuously develops new programs and ideas for her students so they can grow through hand-on experiences with different instruments and techniques.

In 2015, she launched a successful fundraiser to purchase ukuleles — an instrument that lends itself particularly well to teaching melody, harmony, singing, improvising, and storytelling — for Thurston to add another layer of music to the UMS Announces 2018 DTE Energy Foundation Educator of the Year Awards 3 of 3 school curriculum.

She also leverages resources offered by regional arts organizations to further her own professional development, bringing new ideas and techniques back to her classroom and taking students out of the school to experience live performances by professional artists.

Rothfeld says being named as a 2018 DTE Energy Foundation Educator of the Year was a great honor and something she is very proud of, but says it was a “team” award. “I feel as if the community at Thurston – students, parents, and teachers – helped to contribute to the award,” she says. “It is a wonderful community to work in and I always feel very supported and appreciated.”

Being at the same school for so many years, Rothfeld gets to have some students for seven years and teaches many siblings and getting to know the families.

“It is so exciting to be able to see the progress with my students from year to year,” she says. “Even though I have been teaching for 15 years, my students continue to surprise me with what they are able to do. I am constantly changing my lesson plans to challenge them more and more. If they are successful with the challenge, I will continue to raise the bar higher. And they always rise to the challenge.”

Rising to the challenge of being an effective teacher requires hard work and dedication. Rothfeld believes one of the keys to being a successful – even award-winning – educator is the desire to continue learning and growing.

“I love meeting with other teachers to get new ideas, to collaborate, and to bounce ideas back and forth,” she says. “I go to music conferences. I participate in other music ensembles, such as adult choirs. I also make sure to take time for myself.  Recently, I became a certified yoga instructor. Yoga helps to decrease any stress I may have.”

Rothfeld has not only found a home at the head of the class but also in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

“I am thankful to be in a place such as Ann Arbor that places a great deal of importance in the arts, beginning at the elementary school level,” she says. “All elementary students get music class at least twice a week and many get more than that. All students in fifth grade learn a band or orchestra instrument and many continue on with band, orchestra, choir, or other music related activities in middle school and high school.

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