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Jen Rafferty: “Remember your why”

Remember your why. It is crucial to remember why you started teaching in the first place. Teaching is tough stuff, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the demands of the job. In those moments when you might be feeling deflated, reconnect with your why. As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, […]

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Remember your why. It is crucial to remember why you started teaching in the first place. Teaching is tough stuff, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the demands of the job. In those moments when you might be feeling deflated, reconnect with your why.


As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jen Rafferty.

Jen is a music teacher in Central NY and teaches middle school choir, general music, and high school modern band. She has been recognized for her passion and excellence in teaching, receiving the regional Apple for the Teacher Award and the Cortland Peer Recognition Award. Her commitment to education has taken her to a national platform working with other teachers and music departments to share best practices in the classroom and department organization.

As a strong advocate for school music, she is very involved in the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA). Jen serves as the Co-chair of the Secondary Classroom Committee, President of Cortland County Music Teachers Association, and participates in the NYSSMA advocacy committee. She also contributes to the Alfred Music blog, writing about practical ideas for the classroom and rehearsal. Her book, A Place in the Staff: Finding Your Way as a Music Teacher, is now available on Amazon.

Jen is frequently invited to conduct elementary and middle school choirs throughout New York State. Additionally, she is the director of the Dryden Intergenerational Choir which is a chorus of singers ranging from age nine to ninety-one; An incredible example of musical lifelong learning.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I am originally from Long Island and lived close to New York City. My parents recognized my love for music early on and they let me be a part of a theater company when I was nine. It really affected the way I grew up. After school each day I would head to the theater for rehearsals, and the weekends were booked with either acting and singing lessons, or shows. Being involved in theater as a kid was a game-changer for me. It gave me a lot of confidence and allowed space for me to be myself. I always felt a strong sense of belonging which is extremely important for everyone, but absolutely necessary during your formative years.

I fell in love with Broadway musicals and being close to the city, I was able to see quite a few. While it seemed like every other fifth grader could name the top ten pop tunes on the radio, I knew every line to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserable by heart. I loved the stories, characters, and songs that gave the audience a beautiful palette of emotions that were portrayed through melodies and harmonies. Through musical theater, I learned about myself.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Teaching music always felt like a calling for me. It was not really a choice I made, instead just something I had to do. I knew early on that I was deeply connected with music, but more specifically, I was connected to the experience of sharing music with others. I wanted to inspire people to discover their voice and empower them to make music of their own. I jumped on every musical opportunity in grade school and worked hard to get into Ithaca College where I earned my Bachelor of Music in music education and vocal performance, and Master of Music in music education. I loved Ithaca, and Central New York and decided to stay in the area to start my career. I have found a beautiful community, and love the village of people both in my personal and professional life.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I first started teaching, in addition to directing the middle school choirs, I taught a few sections of 7th-grade general music. Historically, general music is a catch-all class most often for students who do not want to participate in the other music ensembles at school (band, chorus, and orchestra). I started to get curious about this class. Why were there so many students here and not participating in our ensembles? As I looked closely, I realized that our music offerings needed to be more inclusive of the diverse musical interests of the students.

As a part of the 7th-grade general music class, I developed a twelve-week guitar curriculum. During that first pilot year, I only had eleven classical acoustic guitars — half of what I needed for each student, so they shared guitars in pairs, and they started to play really well. They absolutely loved music class. Over the next few years, I expanded the program and accumulated enough equipment through donations, fundraisers, and Donorschoose.org so that every student was able to play on their own instrument.

What I discovered was that students were finding a talent and a passion for music that they didn’t realize they had before. Kids who were originally not interested in being a part of the traditional music classes were now demanding more music electives, particularly at the high school level after playing guitar in 7th grade. As a result, the Modern Band class was created. This class offers students a chance to play guitar, bass, drums, keyboard or sing in a band with their classmates.

Now in its sixth year, Modern Band students write, record, produce, and perform throughout the semester and they have become a big part of our local music scene. It has been incredible to watch the evolution of this program and I am super grateful for all of the Cortland music teachers, community members, and parents who have been an integral part of making Cortland Modern Band so special.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of my first years of teaching I took my music students out on a trip to dinner and a show at a local theater. It was a great group of kids and there were a few wonderful parent chaperones. Once we hopped on the bus and made sure everyone was there, we took off to the restaurant. It was a fun bus ride and the students were well behaved. After dinner, I handed out the tickets to the students, and for some reason, we were one ticket short. I counted them again and made sure we had all the tickets that we paid for, and that everyone was present. And at that moment we realized that a student, who wasn’t on the school trip list, just decided to join us and didn’t say anything on the bus because I didn’t call his name during the roll-call! Luckily, we were able to buy an extra ticket at the box office when we got there, but since then, every time I take my students on a field trip, after I take attendance I always ask, “Is there anyone here whose name I didn’t call?”

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am currently creating a Music Educator Professional Development series with a focus on virtual teaching. Many teachers are just trying to stay afloat with the safety parameters revolving around COVID-19, and music programs are on unsteady ground. The heart of school music offerings has historically been concert bands, choruses and orchestras; large group ensembles whose main objective is to make music together. Now, social distancing measures prevent students from working in this way. As teachers figure out alternatives to providing students with the high-quality music education they deserve, I am offering a platform to share tried and true teaching techniques, inspiration, and facilitate idea-sharing between teachers all across North America (I’ve had a few Canadian teachers join in the fun too!) As a result of these workshops, I am starting to see a network of teachers who are all learning from, and leaning on each other during this difficult time. As I always say, we are our own best resources, so the more we share, the better we will all be.

Additionally, I am working on Sing Together which is a virtual singing community. When COVID-19 took away all live group singing, it left many singers and choir directors in the dark. It was extremely difficult to navigate this new territory and essentially reinvent the way we do our work. This was not as simple as just putting rehearsals online because every virtual platform has a slight lag in sound. There is no option right now for live online group singing. Virtual choir videos became very popular at first, however the video is more about the production than actually singing in a group. The viewer, or audience, gets more out of the virtual choir “performance” than the singers do. Singing in a group is all about connection; vibrations. It’s about being in sync and in tune with the people around you in a way that is unlike any other.

Singing alone can be challenging, so my Sing Together program is a platform for people to sing and connect with other people, despite being in our own homes. While it can never replace live group singing, the class is extremely joyful. I use a lot of movement which is a great way to share the musical experience with the other singers, even if we can’t hear each other. I also make time throughout the class for people to talk to each other and share, either about the music or about other things going on in their lives. Participants have said that they loved having something scheduled weekly that was a specific time to enjoy the physical activity of singing and spending time with a group of people who shared that commonality. It’s been truly wonderful.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

It is essential to have diversity represented in film and television and for everyone to grow up having role models who look like them. It’s critical that children are able to see themselves represented so they have the inspiration and space to freedom-dream of a future in which they can thrive. It’s also super important to see BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) represented across the entertainment industry to normalize the idea that the astronauts, scientists, doctors, and politicians (for example) are roles for everybody. The entertainment industry has incredible power in shaping people’s thoughts and opinions. And, we know that with great power, comes great responsibility.

While the media can do a much better job in representing BIPOC in film and television, we need to take a step back and make sure that we are providing an anti-racist curriculum in our schools that include stories of BIPOC that go far beyond Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We need to celebrate and honor all of our children and their rich, complicated histories. Students need to be able to think critically about what they see on television and in the movies and understand how to “spot the stuff.” In other words, they must understand how to discern exaggerations and stereotypes from an honest reflection of our society. They need to learn this in school. Furthermore, when this generation of students grow up and start making movies and writing for new television shows, they will have had a more well-rounded education that spoke the truth of our reality. While representation in film and television can certainly affect our culture, it is my hope that our culture will shift and affect the films and television programs that we create in the future.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

There are so many things that I wish someone told me when I first started teaching. In fact, I wrote a book about it! A Place in the Staff: Finding Your Way as a Music Teacher is all about the first few years of teaching and filled with helpful advice, stories, and space for reflection, which can be a great tool for beginner teachers.

  1. Remember your why. It is crucial to remember why you started teaching in the first place. Teaching is tough stuff, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the demands of the job. In those moments when you might be feeling deflated, reconnect with your why.
  2. You are going to mess up! This is a big one, especially as a newer teacher. Sometimes your lessons will be a total flop and that’s okay! We need to take risks and try new things, and when you’re first starting out, things that might have worked in college will not work with real-life-actual students! If something doesn’t work, start fresh the next day. A bad lesson does not define you as a teacher. It’s what you do with that information that will make you a great teacher. Every failure is an opportunity for learning.
  3. Ask for help. You don’t know everything, and you can’t know everything. There is so much beauty in that. Take the time to ask for help from other teachers and mentors.
  4. Find your people. Especially as a new teacher, it is important to get to know the other teachers in your building. Not only will it be helpful if you share students, but everyone needs a support network at school. Seek out the teachers whose “why” aligns with yours because they will be the teachers to turn to when things get challenging. It takes a village; create your village.
  5. Take time for yourself! You need to be mindful of “filling your cup” often. You cannot give something you do not have. So, if you are feeling tired, run-down and uninspired, your students probably aren’t going to be feeling your lesson that day either! This might mean you need to take a day off to regroup, rest, recharge, and get your head back in the game. Use your weekends and evenings wisely and be sure to do things that make you feel good! Set boundaries for bringing work home with you, and maintain time throughout the week that is just for you!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It is essential to practice self-care. To be clear, self-care is not a singular event of getting an extra hour of sleep, treating yourself to a massage, or going out with your friends. While those things can be a part of self-care, teachers must understand that self-care should be happening all of the time. Particularly in our profession, “self-less” teachers are often praised and publicly revered. However, losing oneself is the complete opposite of what anybody should be doing, ever! Recently teachers are being asked to carry an especially enormous load. There must be boundaries that provide space for work, and space for everything else in your life.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to provide a space for creative music-making experiences in every school in the country. I want every music teacher to inspire their students to discover their own sound and show them how they can share it with others. In my vision, music-making would be as commonplace as family dinners. Music isn’t about the output; it’s about the input. It’s about putting your feelings, and your truth into a melody, without a care as to what it might sound like to someone else. Everyone would identify with being a musician, because that title would not be reserved for an elite few who make music for a living. Music would live on the street corners, on the playground, and at the workplace because it would be a part of our everyday culture. Music lives inside of all of us, and the more people who understand that, and feel empowered by it can elevate humanity in the most beautiful way. To me, this is the job of every music teacher.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am incredibly grateful to my sister Rachel. We have been extremely close since we were kids and she has remained my best friend, my cheerleader, and my sounding board for every step of the way. We speak on average at least two times a day and although we live far apart, she is the person I feel closest to. In all of my endeavors, both personal and professional, she is the first person to ask “how can I help?” She constantly encourages me to strive to be the best version of myself. Her energy, enthusiasm, and positivity are contagious.

In my Sing Together project, she has fully taken on all of my managerial responsibilities, making sure all of the logistics are taken care of. She makes an appearance in all of my classes and always offers invaluable feedback so I can continue to improve my class offerings. (She has a great voice too, by the way!) I don’t know what I would do without her.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite “Life Lesson Quote” is from the book The Alchemist by Paolo Cohelo. “When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.” I feel as if I am always on a path of discovery. Along the journey of learning more, and becoming better, it seems that everything else around me rises to the occasion. As my outlook changes, and my point of view shifts, my life, both personally and professionally, follows suit. If you are open to it, every day is an opportunity to learn and become better than you were yesterday.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would LOVE to have lunch with RuPaul! He embodies self-actualization, and encourages others to find and live their personal truths. As teachers, we have a tremendous platform to influence the lives of every student who walks through our doors. I would love to talk with him about his ideas on how teachers can help students discover themselves and encourage self-expression during their time in school, particularly through music and the arts.

How can our readers follow you online?

My website is jenrafferty.com and you can follow me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube at Jen Rafferty Music.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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