You could say that being recognized with a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence was music to the ears of Michael Kurpjuweit.
Kurpjuweit, a band and fine arts teacher at Brunskill School, was one of three Saskatchewan teachers who received certificates of achievement recognition as part of the annual awards that honour exceptional elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines from all across Canada.
"It's amazing. You feel day-to-day here that you are just doing your job and trying to inspire kids," he said. "Some days it's tough slugging; sometimes, especially as a band teacher, you imagine a quiet room with less noise and doing something calmer. Then something like this comes up and you say: 'I guess I'm doing good things.'
"It's humbling. It's nice motivation to have people say keep doing what you are doing, we value you here."
Principal Krista Ford nominated Kurpjuweit for the award, highlighting his work with students in music and arts education and gathering testimonials from parents of his students.
"A talented musician himself, Michael inspires students to continue making music long past their elementary and high school years. Through regular inquiry and reflection, he also seeks to improve his own practice, so he can be a better teacher," Ford said in the nomination.
"He goes the extra mile to differentiate his instruction, so all students can achieve their potential in music and life. He also clearly communicates the purpose behind all his lessons and the performances students take part in to give meaning to whatever students are learning."
For his elementary band students, Kurpjuweit believes in providing opportunities for students to go beyond the basics of their individual instruments and become engaged in the full experience of being part of a band.
"I think a mixture of choosing amazing music with great contrast and then giving them an opportunity to perform are the two things I do," he said. "I strongly believe that we need to take what we do and go put it somewhere. The emotions that come up from performing in front of hundreds of people and putting the music out there is a totally different leaning experience. That excitement in the performance is so important."
That belief means Brunskill students regularly participate in band festivals and perform at public events such as Music Monday on the University of Saskatchewan campus. The school's elementary jazz band is part of a community jazz night that features elementary bands along with a high school band, and a university and/or professional ensemble. Kurpjuweit also coordinates the Saskatoon Music Festival's band week, which this year saw more than 4,600 students in 108 bands perform and attend workshops with professionals.
Perhaps the greatest testament to his teaching ability is the response of students to the band program. Attendance in the optional Grade 6 band class is 100 per cent and more than 90 per cent of students continue in band for grades 7 and 8.
In the classroom, Kurpjuweit uses digital tools and composition software as ways to better engage students, reinforce content and skills and provide additional support for those who need it.
Music is also a bridge to connect to other areas of curriculum, whether it's students providing ukulele accompaniment to their own poems or handcrafting spirit flutes to learn about Cree culture and, in science class, about how they produce sound. His instruction reflects and values the school's diversity, so all students see themselves in the music they learn.
Kurpjuweit has taught band for 14 years, first in Lloydminster and later in Saskatoon Public Schools. He recognizes being a teacher is also a constant learning experience and he appreciates the opportunity to learn alongside his students.
"You learn through your mistakes. You need to be transparent enough to be in front of a group of kids and say, 'You know, that was an awesome idea, here's what I was hoping for and that totally fell apart.' As an individual you reflect on that and why did it go wrong and what could I have done differently," he said.
"Who I was a decade ago as a new teacher is almost a different person. I have gained tons of confidence over the years, I'm constantly growing as a person, getting inspiration from other people and finding out how to adapt it to my situation. I'm doing that all of the time."
Elementary band teachers often work with students at two or more schools, but Kurpjuweit appreciates the opportunity to be at Brunskill full time thanks to additional responsibilities for arts education through the instruction of music, drama and dance to students in grades two to five.
"I get stretched as a person to do more stuff I am uncomfortable with. Dance is my least comfortable (subject) — I was the kid who hid in the corner and said: No, you can't make me," he said with smile. "So that stretches me as an individual and it helps the kids in my class too because of my understanding of how stressful it can feel for some individuals."
Kurpjuweit appreciates the personal recognition of the Prime Minister's Award, but he also hopes it illustrates the unique and important contributions made by music and band teachers and the value of music and arts education to students and schools.
"A lot of our music content comes with impact. The Grade 7-8 senior band is performing, and we chose music to tell a story, like it was a movie. Trying to choose material and then execute a performance in time to get that emotion across is not something that comes up in most other classes," he said.
"Everyone has to be 100 per cent in the moment, play the right sound at the right time, and get everything 100 per cent correct for the band to succeed. That kind of level of concentration in the moment, performing together, is a really special experience."