For Eric Combs, the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year, leadership began with a love of music.
Eric Combs, a middle school band teacher and 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow, is the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year. Eric has aspired to make a difference as a band teacher since he sat as a student in the same classroom where he now teaches. We spoke with Eric about the Teacher of the Year recognition, his passion for music and music education, and his focus on building a network of band directors.
Congratulations on being named the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year! What does this recognition mean to you?
I am both humbled and honored to have been given this recognition by the Illinois State Board of Education. I have met so many wonderful and deserving teachers throughout the state and in my own building. Through this recognition, I am able to be a spokesperson for all the fantastic teachers in the state of Illinois. That is a task that I am extremely excited to fulfill this year, and one that I am grateful to the State of Illinois for bestowing on me.
Let’s start with your own story. What led you to teaching?
I am a teacher today because I fell in love with the saxophone. I was a shy kid growing up, and I could go the entire day without saying a single word. People jokingly called me “stick boy” because I was so tense and rigid in public that I wouldn’t even move my arms when I walked. The first time I played a saxophone in a full-band setting, I discovered a new way to communicate with my classmates that didn’t involve talking. I loved it. I could be heard, and people were listening. The saxophone became my voice. As I grew older, music gave me more and more confidence. I became the high school drum major, and I stood in front of 140 students directing the band at college football stadiums. Over time, music helped give me confidence and shaped me into the leader that I am today. It broke me out of my shell. I love music. I love sharing music. I love the way I feel when I play music. I also love teaching beginners to play music and giving them the same chance to fall in love with band that I had. That is why I teach music.
As Teacher of the Year, you have a unique platform. What issues are you passionate about?
I am naturally passionate about the issues that are pressing in my own teaching and the ones I deal with on a daily basis. First and foremost for me is the need to provide equitable education to all students, particularly those in the lower socioeconomic class. This subgroup makes up nearly 70% of the students in my rural school. Second is the issue of the teacher shortage in Illinois. Teach Plus has been working in Illinois to curb this crisis. In particular in my work as a Teach Plus Fellow, I am interested in setting up a statewide mentorship program and finding ways to retain and provide recognition for veteran teachers.
You teach in Olney, Illinois, in a rural community. What makes this environment unique for students and teachers?
We are a small rural farming community, surrounded on all sides by hours of cornfields. We are the largest town, of roughly 8,000, in about a 60-mile radius. Our school district encompasses the entire county. We have three k-12 schools with 2,000 students and just over 100 teachers. We have “drive your tractor to school day.” I love teaching here; there is no other place I would rather be. I was born in Olney, and I have come back to Olney. I teach in the same classroom where I first made a noise on the saxophone. We are a very tight-knit, proud community, and we like to “grow our own” teachers. That being said, we are secluded and resources are scarce. With a 67% poverty rate, it is hard for students to be in programs like the band, and we don’t have the luxury of outside resources like professional ensembles or private instructors. We have to do a lot a fundraising and a lot of grant-funded free programming.
You’ve been focusing on building a network of band directors. Tell us more about this work.
Coming from such a remote area, I don’t have many band directors close by for collaboration. I am the only middle school band director in my county. The closest public school beginner level band director is 20 miles away. She is my fiancé. You have to find unique ways to observe and collaborate. I decided that I wanted to make mentorship more accessible to teachers in situations like mine, so I started several Facebook groups and blogs. Across these platforms, I share my insights and my free materials, including two curriculum books. In the last year alone, over 650 band directors contacted me from countries worldwide for mentorship advice. I subsequently started the site www.banddirectorsshare.com so that band directors globally can share their free materials and teaching tips. I hope to find more creative ways to make mentorship more accessible for all teachers, not just band directors, over the next few years.
You are a leader in your school and have taken on multiple leadership roles outside of the classroom. What advice do you have for teachers who want to take on leadership roles at the school, district, or state level?
Put your heart into it and lead by example. Leadership can be extremely rewarding, even though we don’t always see the effects of what we are doing right away. I am reminded of an 11-year-old trumpet player whom I once taught. He was often disruptive in class, but I poured my heart into teaching him just like I did with the rest of my students. He moved on to another teacher, and I didn’t see him again for several years. One day he popped back into my room to say thank you for instilling a love of trumpet in his life. He was pursuing a doctorate in trumpet performance. It was the clearest sign for me of why I do what I do. I encourage all teachers to just keep at it, whether that be teaching or leading outside the class, and continue giving it our best effort.
Eric Combs teaches 6th-8th grade band at the Richland County Middle School in Olney, Illinois. He is the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year and 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois ILSTOY Policy Fellow.