It was the last class period of the day for Caitlin Jennings, the vocal music teacher at Noe Middle School. Sixth-graders were walking into the choir room, backpacks slung over shoulders, energy high. They found their seats on risers facing the piano, and when the teacher said it was time to start their vocal warmups, they stood up and started singing.
It’s one thing to applaud for the soloist on the stage or the conductor in front of the orchestra; the middle school music teacher doesn’t get nearly the same attention.
Jennings was recognized this year as a top teacher in Jefferson County, and the reasons are clear when she stands in front of her class. She clipped on a small microphone — which she uses in the classroom to help preserve her voice — and started playing scales for the students to sing, instructing them in the particular pronunciation of each vowel. For an “eh” sound, it’s “serving it on a platter.” For “ah,” she told the students to “imagine a dome” inside their mouths.
There was a small pile of shoes on the floor in front of the piano — Jennings makes the students give her a shoe in exchange for borrowing a pencil for class.
It’s this combination of discipline and encouragement that marks her teaching. She is funny, she plays along when the kids are playful, but she also knows how to be firm. When she led the class through a rhythm exercise, she appeared shocked when nobody got it right, then restarted the exercise, saying, “We’ll pretend like that didn’t happen.”
Jennings has been teaching at Noe, as part of the Visual and Performing Arts magnet program, for four years. Her workday includes five class periods of teaching choir to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Some kids have previous experience with music; some kids are brand-new.
“That’s one of the most interesting things about teaching, is that I have to be someone different for every single class,” Jennings said. “And every class is a performance, and it’s a different kind of performance and it requires a different kind of energy.”
All that talking and singing means that her voice gets tired. The microphone helps her not to strain her voice. She makes sure to drink water all day long, and she said she tries not to talk during lunchtime to give her a voice a chance to rest.
“It’s more vocally tiring than anything else, because you can draw so much energy from the students,” she said. “When they get excited about something, when they finally figure something out or get something right, that’s the part that’s really easy to get the energy from. It’s just being able to have the voice to talk and sing all day, that part is the hard part.”
Jennings was a recipient of this year’s Excel Award, awarded by JCPS for outstanding teaching. The award comes with a $1,000 classroom grant, which she might use to keep the classroom piano in tune. It was donated to the school, and she keeps a sheet over most of it to hide the scratches. She said her school administration is very supportive, but she has to ask her students to fundraise for virtually every expense.
“I think the toughest thing about being a music teacher, not my job specifically but just in general, is I feel like we always have to fight for what we need, and we have to fight to have access to the tools to make our students successful,” Jennings said.
She might use some of the money to buy sheet music, or to provide buses to take her students to a choir competition. Jennings got frustrated when she talked about the lack of support for arts education.
“I love Louisville,” she said. “I love living here, I love being part of a city that is so passionate about its arts culture, and its arts community. But it’s kind of a mixed signal from — from the, you know, the state and the district, when there is no money to support any of the outstanding arts programs that we have in JCPS.”
Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for JCPS, said the district provides funding from its general fund for musical equipment and instructional materials each year, and it’s up to each school’s site-based decision council and principal to decide how to spend it.
Jennings said music is worthy of investment in itself, but it has additional benefits.
“Music, for me, is just the tool to helping these kids become thinking, feeling, helping, contributing members of society someday,” said Jennings. “And I really see it that way, but it is the best tool to accomplish that.”
But for today, there’s a new song to learn, there’s a spring concert coming up, and there are r’s to be properly enunciated — with a roll.