Music teacher Jewel Casselman is ending her illustrious 34-year career on an ultimate high note. Casselman was recently awarded the prestigious 2023 Juno MusiCounts award for Best Music Teacher in the country –a testament to her unwavering commitment to music education.
Jewel Casselman, who teaches music at Lakewood School in Winnipeg, says the experience of winning the award has been surreal. ‘When they said “And the winner is…’ I was floored. I was not expecting it at all,” says Casselman, who plans on retiring after this school year. “What a way to wind up a career. I still wake up in the morning and go “I won a Juno. It’s kind of crazy, to be recognized nationally that way.”
In the past the music teacher award has been handed out to high school and middle school teachers, …”because they can just do things that elementary kids can’t do–like go on trips and compete in Jazz festivals. But it doesn’t mean that the elementary students are doing anything less important,” says Casselman.
Finding their Voice
Casselman has long been passionate about the importance of music education for elementary kids. “It’s better now, but when I first started teaching a lot of kindergarten classes didn’t get music, and I really fought for it and said ‘No, this is when they need it!’. If you get them in Kindergarten you have them for all those elementary years.”
“For a lot of these kids, I’m their first exposure to any kind of formal music education,” says Casselman. “I teach them how to find the beat and how to find their singing voice, the difference between high and low notes, composing, the sounds and silences in music… I try to plant these little seeds and for those six years I get to watch their world grow.”
Casselman has seen a few students become professional musicians when they’re older, but more important to her is seeing them appreciate the importance of music, arts and culture. “Which in turn influences how they will live their lives.”
The genre of music that kids listen to is not that important. “Music is everywhere, it’s all around them. I ask them if they’ve listened to how much music there is in their video games? Someone composed that,” she says. “I’ve had kids bring me rap songs they want me to listen to, and I personally think good rap is an art form.”
“Sometimes it’s really funny because a student will come to me and say “I just found this new band, it’s called AC/DC. And I’m like ‘Wow I’ll have to try them’,” she laughs. “Because to them it’s brand new and exciting.”
The Orff Philosophy
This excitement is what has carried Casselman through her long career. She’s based her teaching on the Orff philosophy–a child centered way of learning that involves singing, playing, movement and percussion instruments. Since 2009, she’s also been teaching university level courses in Orff during the summer months.
Her ‘whole child’ teaching extends to her special education students. Casselman says she tries to find time in her schedule every week when she can bring kids into her room and just let them explore sounds in a low pressure environment. “Sometimes we just turn down all the lights and just have really quiet music playing and they can just play without distraction. Music is a great form of communication.”
Casselman says some of her favorite messages come from parents of neurodivergent kids. “I had one little boy who at the start of school couldn’t even have music on in the house, he would go and turn it off. He really struggled in kindergarten and Grade 1, but then he started staying in the music room longer and longer. He became more involved. And we came to the end of the year where we had an assembly and I brought his mom into the school and she watched her son, who hated music, stand in front of the entire school and perform. That’s the power of music.”
COVID Years Especially Challenging
Casselman has long been involved with the MMEA SAGE group and says that while music education is fairly strong in Manitoba, the COVID years were especially challenging. “Teaching online was quite hard. And then when we came back to school, I taught for a whole year off of a cart, because my room was not large enough to have everybody two meters apart. So I loaded everything onto a cart and walked from classroom to classroom.”
She estimates that during 2021 she walked all the way to Vancouver. “I was averaging 20-25 thousand steps a day,” she recalls. “It was really a couple of years of chaos. Music teachers really had to think outside the box–we couldn’t sing or play most instruments.” Popsicle friends became Casselman’s best friend that year, and that’s what the kids used to make rhythms, along with a couple of other things they kept in a little bag in their desks, because they couldn’t share anything. “I know one teacher who taught outside all year long – winter included. You had to get creative.”
Music Education Vital
Casselman believes that music should be one of the “R’s” taught in every school. “Because it’s vital. It’s one of the core subjects because music is math, music is language arts, music is social studies, music is science–it covers all those things. There’s been many studies done about music and memory and retention. Gross motor skills, fine motor skills, it’s all there.”
While backstage at the Junos, Casselman says she was approached by artists who congratulated her and told her that this is the most important award of the evening, because they wouldn’t be here today without teachers like her. And when she returned to school she was met with a stack of congratulations cards, flowers, and lots of kids excited to hear about her adventure. “The kids just stormed me saying they missed me so much. That was better than the Juno.”
Wisdom for Future Music Teachers
With retirement looming, Casselman says the most important bit of wisdom
she can impart to the next generation of music teachers is to “Have a thick skin, and a good sense of humour. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially in the beginning. We have a small but wonderful community of music educators in this province–reach out to your colleagues.”
“This is not a job you can leave when you walk out of the room. It really has to be a passion, you have to really want to do it. And I am really going to miss it. I love the school, and I love those kids. That’s why I get up every morning to go to work–to go see those kids. They just inspire me to be a better person every day.”
To learn more about the MusiCounts award visit musicounts.ca.
– Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of the MB Teacher
Matea Tuhtar is a writer/photographer for the MB Teacher magazine and the Media Communications Specialist for The Manitoba Teachers’ Society.