“Teaching music is the most important thing I do,” says Ben Pollack (BME ’14). “It has to matter every day.”
This month, Pollack—a 26-year-old music teacher with the Huerfano School District RE-1 in Walsenburg, Colorado—will be honored as Young Teacher of the Year at the Colorado Music Educators’ Association (CMEA) Conference. Pollack’s palpable enthusiasm and dedication to his students make him a deserving recipient of the award, which—according to the CMEA website—“recognizes notable commitment to the art of teaching as well as a demonstrated ability to achieve excellence” among music educators who are in their first five years of teaching, and who have shown “significant proficiency in the classroom and respect in their school community.”
“Teaching is a service industry and I know I’m making a difference every day,” continues the euphonium player of his first teaching post in Walsenburg. “It’s not just about music, either—it’s about teaching these students that there’s more to life than the three exits of freeway where they live.”
Indeed, he’s planning a California tour for his band kids during spring break. Drawing on his San Diego connections—“that’s where I’m from”—, he’s arranging a performance opportunity, among others, at the San Diego Zoo; and the chance for his students to experience the San Diego Symphony’s presentation of Giacomo Puccini’s Messa di Gloria. “It’ll be an opportunity to share our music and experience what else is out there,” says Pollack, also noting his students’ participation in statewide performance events, like the district’s Spanish Peaks Jazz Band traveling to Greeley for the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival. “I’m trying to get my students to consider the world beyond Walsenburg, which is 40 miles from anywhere else in any direction.”
Despite the small size of the Huerfano School District RE-1, its music programming is ever expanding under Pollack’s leadership, offering a remarkable range of musical options for students from elementary through high school. But he’s the first to admit that his success in Walsenburg didn’t happen overnight.
“In my first year of teaching, it was Murphy’s Law,” he laughs, recalling that his biggest first-year challenge was classroom management. “Everything that could go wrong, did. And I wasn’t mature enough, yet … I had to get out of my college-student mindset.
“I also needed to learn the history of the community—Walsenburg’s boom and bust as a coal-mining town—and I discovered how desperately they needed and wanted someone to galvanize the music scene. I gained greater understanding and more leverage to help students progress by making them feel like they’re the ones calling the shots.”
Today, Pollack’s vision is ambitious: “To get half the school involved in music,” thereby making music more prevalent in more lives and inspiring students to see beyond where they grew up. “For many kids, music will get them the discipline they need to create the lives they want,” he says. “They're also learning that, as a team, we always win. And that, as a family, we may fight … but at the end of the day, we love each other. They're learning respect and tolerance, and that everyone has a voice in music.”
That said, there are challenges to overcome as Walsenburg aims to revive the glory days of its music scene, before the last coal mine closed in the 50s, forcing families to leave the natural beauty of Huerfano County in droves. Pollack points out that Huerfano School District Re-1 participates in the National School Lunch Program, which makes it possible for all its students to receive a free meal for both breakfast and lunch. Many of them are being raised by their grandparents and opioid addiction is a present threat.
Not to mention, Pollack has his hands full with everything from corralling instruments to managing relationships with parents, donors, the press and others. “A few sports parents think music takes too much time, but the majority of everyone in town loves what we’re doing,” he says, adding how gratified he felt when one of his students landed a percussion scholarship at Adams State College.
“Some days you give a lot and some days you take a lot. You have to feel your way through.”