In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the last of three winners of this year's OTIP Teaching Award for Excellence sponsored by the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP) and the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF). Sandra Dubreuil, from the Halton District School Board, is the Beginning Teacher category winner.
Whether she’s setting up Skype jam sessions for her class with other students around the world, bringing professional musicians into the classroom or trying to captivate a reluctant student musician, teacher Sandra Dubreuil takes the job of music teacher very seriously.
Getting to know each student and what they need to succeed is a big part of what Dubreuil loves about being a teacher. “I like to figure out how they learn, how to inspire them, to help them be successful and most of all, to provide them with the opportunity to love music and make it a meaningful part of their lives,” says Dubreuil, who began teaching instrumental music for grades 5-8 at W. H. Morden Public School in Oakville last year. “That's why I love teaching. It goes so much further beyond the classroom walls. Music instills confidence, pride, determination, personal reflection, learning how to win, and how to lose. It creates community and pathways to future careers.”
Music is something that can make you feel safe, it can initiate connections with others, it can broaden your horizons, and open doors you never expected to be there, she explains.
Dubreuil came to teaching later in life than most. She started her working life in the aviation industry as a commercial pilot, delivering aircraft for an aircraft manufacturing company. Yet after three years, she returned to Ontario where she decided to ignite her love of music with something she always thought she’d love to do: teaching.
When Dubreuil sees the light go on in a child’s eyes, a child who hasn’t had much interest in music before, she says that’s her greatest reward. “There was one particular student who was able to play their instrument, but really struggled with the processing speed of reading the music,” she says. “Even though we tried many different ways to help, the student still wasn’t overly inspired to come to music." One day Dubreuil overheard the student's interest in playing another instrument in the class. "We were able to get the chords for the songs we play in class and this student is now learning the music and happily brings the instrument to class every day. It's really nice to see a smile on the student's face."
“Sandra is an incredible teacher,” adds vice principal Janice Bunn, who nominated Dubreuil for the award. “She’s a brand new teacher, yet she jumps into everything with enthusiasm and dedication. She spends many, many hours going above and beyond to create a great program for the kids in class and outside of class.”
A special insight into how kids think and operate is fundamental to her success, Bunn says. “Although we have some very talented kids here at Morden, she doesn’t just focus on the best musicians. She also helps the kids who don’t have a real interest in music and tries to help them find that love of music,” she explains. “I think that’s the key. She looks at every student individually and tries to find out ways that she can engage them.”
Dubreuil is widely loved at Morden, Bunn says, pointing to a conversation between students which Dubreuil overheard in the hallway one day. The kids were talking about their ‘dreaded’ Friday class schedules, then one boy said, 'But at least we have music today, so there’s one good thing.' “She’s so dedicated and one of the best teachers I’ve ever known,” reports W. H. Morden student Maya, 13. “She’s just so amazing. She goes above and beyond what you’d expect a teacher to do," adds Caitlin, also 13.
Dubreuil’s music class isn’t all about having a good time and connecting with the music. It's about creating respect within the environment, performance and audience etiquette in and outside the classroom, as well as challenging individual limits to be proud of their achievements, she says. The student concert band has been raking in some impressive laurels of late. The band won Gold at the Golden Horseshoe Music Festival regionals competition. That win landed them an invitation to the national competition at MusicFest, where they achieved a Bronze medal. At the end of the year, the band played for fun at Canada's Wonderland and the adjudicator said that had they played the way they did that day at the national competition, they would have easily nabbed Silver Plus or Gold, Dubreuil says. “The Gold at regionals blew our minds,” she says. “The kids worked so hard. The adjudicator congratulated them for their efforts and dedication, which was really nice to see coming from him. It meant a lot to the students in the band."
These achievements were particularly sweet for the band because they pushed themselves harder this year than ever, Dubreuil reports. “At the beginning of the year, they weren’t practicing and I just said to them, ‘do you want me to push you? If you want me to push you, I will, because I know you are capable of achieving excellence.’ They can accomplish anything if they put their minds to it, and they did. They should be so proud of themselves this year.”
Another highlight of the year was the school’s junior musical stage production of Shrek. “Every moment of Shrek was remarkable,” Dubreuil says. “Every recess we were in rehearsals and the kids really pulled it together.” Whether she’s teaching a difficult concept or trying to inspire the students to practice their instruments at home, Dubreuil says picking music students enjoy is critical. “For instance, we’re playing Uptown Funk, arranged by Ryan Meeboer,” she explains. “I use this song as a tool to have the students learn a difficult concept, which they can apply to other genres of music. Students who were really struggling are now playing that song. Its difficulty level was on the advanced side, and I was a little worried to give it to them. But I took the risk and they just ran with it. So it’s just finding things that they like to do and letting them see what they can accomplish.”
Paul VanderHelm, principal of W. H. Morden, says Dubreuil transformed the school’s music department when she arrived. “She identified areas of improvement in the room, the instruments, the program and the students,” he says. “She then set to work to make everything better. Her tireless efforts have given students a real sense of pride in what they can accomplish.” Dubreuil created a concert choir at the school, is setting up Skype and ePal connections between her students and students in Harbour Island, Bahamas and Kenya, and co-organized an event bringing a professional singer in to talk to the students about life as a musician, he says. Dubreuil has added new instruments to the school (including the Chinese harp, violins, tuba and oboe) and encourages the use of technology, such as the song composition using various programs, such as GarageBand, Finale, iWriteMusic and Audacity, in her students.
While others are clearly impressed by her work, Dubreuil insists it’s her students who should get the top marks. “I learn so much from them even though I am their teacher,” she says. “I feel like every day I am inspired and in awe of their ideas.”
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