As we welcome 7500+ area children to Heinz Hall this week, the spotlight should be on the music educators who do so much for the region. To lead off, let’s meet 2015 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, Mairi Cooper.
Where do you teach?
Fox Chapel Area High School (although I have taught in the elementary and middle schools, also)
How long have you been teaching in Pittsburgh?
16 years at the high school level. Before that I taught at Seton Hill University
What is your educational background?
I have a Bachelor of Music and Master of Music in violin and performance from the Eastman School of Music and am ABD (all but dissertation) in a DMA program in violin performance and literature from West Virginia University.
How did you start in music?
I started playing the violin when I was a few weeks shy of turning 4. My older brother played and I always wanted to be just like him. My parents decided that it was easier to hand me a violin then to listen to me complain. Thank goodness my first violin teacher was named Patience (no joke). She needed it with me.
What inspired you to a career in music education?
I didn’t set out to have a career in music education. I kept trying to quit playing the violin but it never worked. I think that because I started so early, I equated playing music with expressing my feelings. Whenever I didn’t play, I would go into a funk. I always knew that I wanted to teach but I thought that I wanted to teach college…which I did right after I graduated from Eastman. When I went back to get my doctorate, a job opened up at Fox Chapel. They needed an orchestra director and I needed health insurance. Within two weeks, I knew that I would never leave. I fell in love…with sassy, dramatic, smart and passionate teenagers. I have never looked back.
What would you say to someone interested in a career in music education?
Don’t become a music teacher as a backup career. You need to love music and you need to love kids. There will be some really really long days and you will need that love what you do. I personally think that I have the best job in the world. I get up every morning and work with the people who will shape our future. Besides, I don’t know another job where you are guaranteed one good gut-wrenching laugh every day.
How do your students inspire you?
They do it in too many ways to count. First and most importantly, they are compassionate. They work to make the world a better place by running fundraisers for school supplies for kids who don’t have them, donating books to Children’s Hospital and raising money to cure pediatric cancer, playing music for the elderly, the sick, little kids…whoever will listen. They are creative problem-solvers. They are always willing to take on the next challenge and create solutions. They play with ideas as if they were in a sandbox full of toys. Finally, they respect and love each other. They are like a family…there are days when they don’t like each other but they love each other and will defend each other to the end.
What has been your favorite teaching moment?
There have been too many to count. My favorite time of the day is when the last student enters my room, we close the door to all of the outside noise, distractions and people and we begin to create. This is my sanctuary. This is my time to explore my students minds and ideas, to laugh with them, to push them and to create music. It is just us and any magic that we can create that day.
What has been your hardest teaching moment?
My hardest teaching moments have all been when I have not been able to save a student from the pain that comes with real life…being diagnosed with an incurable disease, losing a parent or other loved one. I can give hugs and create a safety net but that doesn’t mean that they don’t experience the fall.
What is your largest wish for your students?
My wish for my students is to find passion for what they do, joy in their relationships and peace at the end of the day.