Dyan Branstetter | May 2016

How Do You Know When You’ve Made an Impact?

I love Teacher Appreciation Week. Certainly, it is nice to feel appreciated, but I find it to be a great opportunity to reflect upon teachers who have made a difference our lives. While it is worthy to feel grateful for the teachers who influenced me, as an educator, I find that it has been insightful to look back at how they influenced me. Through this reflection, I try to pinpoint the specific details that made these teachers influential, and emulate those characteristics. It is my hope that this is a way to honor those teachers as I pay it forward with my students through Teacher Appreciation Week.

This year I focused on one teacher in particular: my exceptional choir director. I’m pretty sure all music teachers are great, but the experiences this particular teacher afforded me were really second to none. Interestingly, he was my teacher for just a year and a half because my family had moved into the district the year before I graduated. At the time, he was a relatively new teacher, yet he took learning beyond the classroom walls and impacted countless students. Not only am i still inspired, but i’m also influenced by his teaching.

Out of all the teachers I remember, I recently realized that I identify with his philosophies the most. As I thought about my time in his classroom, the reasons why he stands out can be broken down into three main categories.


It has been proven that teachers who actively build relationships with their students have a strong effect on the lives of those students. In addition to simply teaching, this Teacher Appreciation Week created a great amount of buy-in for his choral program. I think he would have recruited every student to sing if possible.

Every clique was represented, and came together for a common goal. Since then, the choir has become one of the most well-respected choral programs in the nation. It is clear to me why it has become so successful, and it is not just musical ability.

High Expectations, Expertise, & Authentic Experiences

This teacher had exceptionally high expectations in combination with a great rapport with the students. Challenging music was chosen, and we were going to master it; no questions asked. Not only was the content rigorous, but he also brought in well-known composers to work with us, many times commissioning new choral works for us to sing. It was pretty incredible to sing someone’s work for the first time, and have that composer revise your specific part as part of his songwriting process. It felt like I had a responsibility to perform at a high level because the project was real and it was bigger than me.

In addition to having these composers visit, we had amazing performance opportunities. During the time I was a part of the choir, we sang for President Vaclav Havel and F. Murray Abraham at the presentation of the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, PA. The year prior, they sang at the same ceremony for Nelson Mandela. Sometimes, well-respected musicians were invited to perform with us during a spring concert.

Instead of following a traditional concert formula, we performed a mass that highlighted the visiting musician. As educators, the idea of constant networking, and looking to find opportunities for our students to have authentic experiences is one of the most powerful things we can do. We strive to allow students to work with purpose, and to give them a voice.

Collaboration & Integration Through Teacher Appreciation

Another wonderful, yet very accessible talent, of this teacher was his ability to collaborate with the ELA/theater teacher to integrate subject areas. Their collaboration was evident to me as a student, and I realize now how its effectiveness was what made some of their projects so memorable. One such project was the one-act play “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”.

Theater students worked with our ELA teacher to learn the play itself. A small ensemble from the choir learned beautiful choral works by Charles Davidson, which were based on the text of poems written by children during the holocaust in the ghetto Terezin. (The artwork and poems of the children were gathered and published in a book of the same title- what an incredible primary document– powerful beyond words.) As the play is performed, it is suggested that artwork from the children be projected on a screen behind the actors.

The choral music was interspersed throughout the scenes. This collaboration between the two teachers was creative, out of the box, and memorable to me. I purchased the book and the music, and I went on to spend some time studying the holocaust in college.

As educators, when we plan lessons and units for our students, engagement, not compliance, is key. When the project becomes significant, when the students feel it is their responsibility to achieve because they believe in what they are doing, that’s when we know we are successful. I was so fortunate to experience that type of engagement. Let’s make it our responsibility to create learning experiences that do the same.

Related Resources To Help Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week: 

Find more information on this teacher and his choir here.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.