Ann Arbor Public Schools elementary music teacher Yael Rothfeld is one of 25 semifinalists for the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum’s 2022 Music Educator Award, with finalists expected to be announced next month. Photo provided | Danielle Gonzalez

By Martin Slagter

ANN ARBOR, MI – After a year of seeking out new and innovative ways to teach children music through their computer screens and conducting lessons via Zoom, Yael Rothfeld said it has been exciting to return to in-person instruction this fall.

Students can interact with Rothfeld, an elementary school music teacher at Thurston Elementary, doing two different tasks at once. Children can hear each other singing without delay.

The most noticeable difference of the in-person experience, Rothfeld said, has been the disposition of her students.

“I’ve also noticed my kids just seem so happy,” Rothfeld said. “They’re just really grateful to be back and so, I get a lot of thank yous and they’re just nice to each other. They treat each other with respect. I feel like I can do the lessons without having to redirect behavior or without having to stop because something happened that I wasn’t expecting. I can just teach and we can have fun doing it.”

Now in her 19th year of teaching in Ann Arbor Public Schools, Rothfeld is one of 25 semifinalists for the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum’s 2022 Music Educator Award, with finalists expected to be announced next month. She also was named the music educator of the year by Michigan Music Education Association in 2020.

Rothfeld spoke with The Ann Arbor News about teaching music during the pandemic, what it’s been like transitioning back to in-person classes and how her passions for teaching and yoga overlap.

What has this school year been like for you, returning to in-person instruction?

ROTHFELD: It’s been an interesting transition. I’m so glad to be back in-person with my students. Teaching music online, it was a big learning experience, and we got to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do in-person. It was just really difficult because of doing it on Zoom. You can only have one person unmute at once. That collaboration and just being together as a group and hearing each other sing and working together, we didn’t get that a lot when we were online.

So now that we’re in person, we can do that again. The kids can hear each other without a delay. We can sing and we can play instruments. I have noticed being back that I don’t know what my students are going to be able to do anymore. It’s almost like I’m starting over again. Where my second-graders were typically able to do XYZ, they had basically like a year-and-a-half of not doing that in-person, and so they may not be able to do that. So it’s a lot just being flexible. I’ll do an activity or lesson and I’ll see if they’re able to do it and if they are (able to) great, we’ll move on. And if they’re not, then I’ll try something else to get them to where they need to be again.

As a music teacher how did you try to connect with your students virtually when the district was in remote learning?

ROTHFELD: I had to change my lessons quite a bit while I was teaching. One thing that I really enjoy doing and the kids really enjoying doing, too, when we’re in-person is doing multiple parts. So whether that’s singing one part and playing an instrument or singing in harmony or singing chord roots and a melody – online, we could do that, but I couldn’t necessarily hear what they were doing at the same time as me, or vice versa.

So, I just looked into various online resources. One thing that I used a lot over the pandemic by going online is an app called Acapella. You can make multiple videos that play at the same time, and so I would record myself doing multiple parts, so that the students could hear all of the parts at once. Then, if we were doing that activity, I could say, ‘OK, you follow this video of me,’ so they could have that going at the same time while they were doing it. In the classroom, they’d be hearing all the multiple parts, but I couldn’t perform the multiple parts at the same time live.

Teaching first through fifth grade, do you see advantages in being able to teach students as they progress through elementary school?

ROTHFELD: Definitely. One of the things I love the most about teaching is that I can see them progress from the beginning all the way through fifth grade. If a student has been at the school for that entire time, it’s just amazing for me to look at them in fifth grade and remember where they started in preschool. Also, just to develop relationships with the kids and with the families. When I know the students and the students know me, we have this great student-teacher relationship. I know, in general, what will work with them or what they enjoy doing. So, I can kind of mold my classes to be things that I think they’ll be successful in, or that I can work with them to become successful.

You also teach a music education class for future teachers at Eastern Michigan University. Do you see value in helping educate the next generation of teachers?

ROTHFELD: Yeah, definitely. This last year, I’ve been teaching that class online, and so that’s another challenge because it’s teaching educators about music. These are people who are going into either early childhood or elementary education, but not music. So I’m teaching them a class about music – about like what’s done in the music room. I can use examples of my elementary school music students for that. It’s a great class. I feel like they get a little glimpse into what happens in the music room and I teach them how to use music in their general education classrooms, as well.

This isn’t the first time you’ve been recognized as an outstanding teacher. How do you think you’re able to stand out in this field as being exceptional?

ROTHFELD: I feel like I got a great education at Michigan State University. They just had a really great music education school and so I feel like I got a really, really great foundation there. Throughout my time teaching, I’ve been really thankful and it’s been great to have all these colleagues and other people that I can talk to and we can bounce back ideas back and forth.

Then, just being at my school for so many years. I feel like I can get a feeling of what will work with my specific population with my specific school. I try and teach in a way that they’re going to enjoy. I try to make my classes and my lessons game-like. They’re kids, they want to have fun. So I try and do activities and lessons that I know will be fun for them, but while still having them learn. We can go pretty far. I challenge my students. If they can do something, then let’s try it a step above, let’s see if we can go further. I think they really enjoy doing that and seeing their progress and just seeing how complicated we can make things, but in a fun way.

You also teach yoga. Do you see that as an extension of your desire to educate or is yoga just another outlet for you?

ROTHFELD: I do see a lot of similarities between the two. When I started teaching, the planning of the lessons is a similar process of making sure you fit it in the same amount of time that you have available. I find my job can sometimes be stressful, and so I find that the yoga kind of helps to calm me down and to make me able to teach better and not react with, let’s say, anger if something happens that I’m frustrated with. I try and teach my classes in a exciting way, but also, if the students need to calm down, I change my voice to match that and they they react to it as well. Sometimes if the students are having trouble concentrating I can give them do breathing exercises, or we can pause for a moment and regroup. So I can take what I’ve learned from yoga and bring it to the kids. Sometimes that helps quite a bit.