Meet Jimmy Day, Colorado’s 2023 Teacher of the Year

How do teachers engage their students? Here, in a feature we’re calling How I Teach, we ask great educators how they go about their work.

Long before he became an award-winning middle school principal in Colorado, Jimmy Lee Day II was a Detroit middle school student who rarely came to band practice after school because he couldn’t get a ride home.

His teacher, Mrs. Knox, noticed this and offered to drive him home after practice. She quickly became one in a long line of educators who helped Day fulfill his potential. Now Day, who teaches at East Middle School in Aurora, is working to create the same effect on his own students.

A headshot of a man with glasses standing in front of a bookshelf.  He wears a white shirt and a red and green tie.

The reward is the performance.

“This is my heaven. All my problems and pain are non-existent,” he said. “It’s just me and my students doing magic.”

Day, who was recently named Colorado’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, spoke to Chalkbeat about his musical influences, his approach to rebuilding band programs, and the touching compliment he received from a student’s older sister.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

When I was studying music as an undergraduate at Tennessee State University, I took some courses that required internships – we went to a school and watched a teacher teach his class. These really sparked my passion for teaching instrumental music to middle and high school students.

There were two incidents that made it clear that I was destined to teach. Once upon a time there was a middle school trombone student who was struggling with his music. The band director drew my attention to this and I asked if I could help the student since I was a low brass player. I worked with the student one on one. It was clear that he was not identifying the correct positions on the instrument to play the notes correctly. When I pointed this out to him, he immediately succeeded and was grateful for it.

Another time I was allowed to lead the course. I rehearsed with the students to prepare them for their winter concert. The director mentioned to a colleague that the band sounded better after my time with them.

How has your own school experience influenced your approach to teaching?

I put the same energy into my students that I got from my band teachers in middle school through college. I’m originally from Detroit. My middle school band leader, Mrs. Knox, saw my potential to be a great instrumentalist. She helped me go to workout after school twice a week. My parents didn’t have a car and the school was far from where I lived. As a result, I was unable to attend training most of the time. She offered to take me home if I couldn’t go with her. At the time I thought she was just being nice but when I think about it as an older person I see that she viewed me as an investment in her program and she made sure to invest in me too.

I went to Cass Technical High School. Cass Tech had one of the most respected music departments in Detroit. Two band directors I studied under there contributed to the foundation laid for me in middle school. Their names were Ms. Sharon Allen and Mr. Benjamin Pruitt. They not only taught me how to be a good musician, they taught me how to be a good person. They made sure I always did my best and when I wasn’t, they let me know without hesitation.

In my sophomore year, Ms. Allen put me on the podium to lead the band through the warm-up. I was very nervous and rough around the edges. Ms. Allen gave me great feedback and before you know it, I volunteered to lead the warm-up. During my tenure in the Music Department of Cass Tech, I served as Section Leader in the Symphonic Band and Marching Band, Student Arranger in the Marching Band, and Drum Major in the Marching Band.

As an educator, I make sure I always invest in my students as my teachers have invested in me. My teachers taught me instrumental and leadership skills that gave me the opportunity to get a scholarship to Tennessee State University so my parents didn’t have to pay anything. I can’t say what my life would be like if these people weren’t in my life.

The Colorado Department of Education has noted your skills in rebuilding band programs. Can you describe what that looks like?

My plan when rebuilding programs is to teach discipline. This is the basis of any program. A band program with no discipline means little to no learning takes place.

I teach discipline to students by having non-negotiable rules, procedures and expectations. When they are in the classroom or in public, they are taught to look and act a certain way. When they’re practicing or performing, there’s a specific way they’re supposed to sound.

I build student morale by building them for success. I give them achievable goals. In addition, I give them independent practice time to fight productively. Their appreciation grows once they can figure it out.

Who are some of your favorite musicians? How do you integrate them into your lessons?

My favorite musicians are Earth, Wind & Fire. Her energy and demeanor is what I enjoy and appreciate the most. As a result, I teach my students stage etiquette and the importance of engaging the audience through both actions and sound. The audience should feel every note and every rhythm.

When we prepare for a performance. I teach students to move as a unit. When I step onto the podium, the students automatically sit up in their seats. Once I make eye contact with them, I raise my baton and the students respond by bringing the instruments to their mouths to play. When the performance is over, the students stand and bow as one.

Tell us about a favorite lesson.

My favorite lesson is when my students have learned their parts and we focus on the small details of the music. The students are very engaged and the atmosphere is intense. You can see the pride on their faces and hear it in their playing.

I’m always studying other ensembles on YouTube that have played the same songs that I teach my students. I study their interpretation and compare it with mine. Sometimes it gives me good ideas on how to make the composition or arrangement more appealing.

What is happening in the community that affects your students?

Force. There are times when we are suspended due to community events. There was once a shooting near us that led to a full lockdown and caused students to worry about their older siblings. We as educators can only be there for them, even make them shed a tear and assure them that everything will be fine.

Tell us about a memorable time—good or bad—when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

During a recent parent-teacher conference, after greeting the student, the parents, and a much older sister, the sister said, “I heard you’re really good at teaching kids to play instruments!” That has warms my heart. Although I’ve always had a passion for what I do, it has made me a little more passionate and determined when teaching my students. That’s a great reputation!

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat covering early childhood and early literacy issues. Contact Ann at [email protected]