It’s Teacher Appreciation Week! Today’s highlight spotlights Dan Black, an orchestra and popular music educator for Council Bluffs Community School District’s Kirn Middle School. Black has 16 years of experience as an educator and was one of six finalists for the 2024 Iowa Teacher of the Year award.

Black has been celebrated for his work to grow the music program in Council Bluffs. His music classes have seen a 267 percent increase in enrollment and have offered opportunities to add a second instructor for the classes. He is also known for having creative and respectful classrooms for his students.

Recently, the Iowa Department of Education connected with Black to hear more about his teaching approach and how his music classes are gaining popularity at Kirn Middle School.

Who was your favorite teacher and why?
My favorite teacher was Mr. Heckman, my physics and chemistry teacher at Lewis Central High School.  Not only did he spark a lifelong interest in physical science for me, but he taught me valuable lessons in what it means to truly work hard in academics. With music and activities, I kept a busy schedule in high school and keeping up in his course often meant working late into the night only to show up the following morning an hour before school in his classroom to check my work with other students. Even better, the homework wasn’t even graded!

Why are you passionate about teaching? What things do you love about working with students? 
Teaching is a creative field, and I love the creative challenge of bringing relevant, engaging and authentic learning experiences to students in ways that empower them to lead their own learning long-term. It’s not enough to just produce a product or enable students to earn a grade. What’s far more interesting and important to me is challenging myself to innovate and generate new ideas and approaches that serve today’s students for their present and future needs. The only way to know how to do that is to learn from the students themselves, and my favorite moments as an educator are the times the students and I are working collaboratively and learning from each other.  

What do you think are the keys to a student’s success and how do you help foster that? 
For students to achieve in the classroom, it’s essential they know they can be successful. Feeling good, believing in themselves, being interested in what they’re learning and having fun are all essential ingredients to a successful learning experience, and my job as an educator is to notice what students need and make the interventions necessary to ensure that all those ingredients are there for every student. If it sounds like creating that type of environment for students is tough work, that’s because it is, but parents are trusting that when they send their children to school they’re in good hands and will have a great day. I’ll never be perfect, but I’d like to come close.

Over the years, how have you grown as an educator? What opportunities do you see in the next few years in education? 
I believe much of the growth I’ve seen has been a shift in my focus and attention on the mission. Early in my career as a secondary music teacher, it was easy to work toward simply producing great performances and building more opportunities for my students. However, if I truly believe that music is for everyone and that through music education I can inspire students to live to their full potential, I’m obligated to discover and provide ways I can engage more students in my school. My work in developing courses in popular music like Guitar and Modern Band have allowed me to reach more students and better work toward that mission, and I believe we’re better for it.

There’s always a struggle in education between the forces pushing students through the learning objectives deemed essential for citizens in our society and the forces pulling them into potential easy wins and instant job opportunities. Growing up is happening faster all the time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. What everyone can agree on is that education is essential for long-term success. As we adapt in an ever-changing world, it’s vital we remember that we aren’t preparing students for our moment but their future.

What advice would you give to a new teacher starting out in the field? 
Your success in the field and effectiveness as an educator stems from the strength of your character. Be honest, always act with integrity and be ready to learn every single day. While it is important to know your stuff, disposition matters far more than your qualifications. If you already believe that all students can learn and you understand your responsibility in the work, it’s easy to talk assessment, instructional strategies or positive behavior supports and engage in the work to provide the best education for students. The people in our field are among the best of the best professionals. While challenging, it’s a tremendously rewarding career path.

We understand that you have seen tremendous growth in both course offerings and enrollment in your school’s music program. What are some details of your success and how were you able to achieve them?While many initiatives to boost music enrollment concentrate on improving access through instrument investments, scheduling priorities and advocacy, the key factors for increasing enrollment and student achievement are quality teaching and engaging, relevant learning experiences. But despite achieving an 80 percent or higher retention rate across all grade levels and record enrollment in beginner classes over multiple years, I recognized that my impact would be limited if I taught a subject that didn't interest the majority of students in my school.

With a goal to increase access to the music classroom and involve more students in arts education, I collaborated with our curriculum specialist, Miki Hill, to introduce a guitar course for 7-8 grade students featuring popular music. The course quickly gained popularity, with demand consistently exceeding available seats. Building on this success, I worked with secondary building principals to propose a long-term vision for popular music course programming beyond our guitar class. This vision aimed to provide additional entry points to the music classroom at all grade levels, create flexible scheduling options for students and counselors and increase the relevance and appeal of music education for all students.

With guidance from Dr. Kevin Droe, music education professor at the University of Northern Iowa, we launched our first-ever modern band course. Modern Band is an emerging type of school music program that teaches students to perform the music they know and love. By tapping into students' interests and backgrounds through popular music, it enables them not only to learn how to play music but also to compose and improvise in genres like rock, hip hop, reggae, and other contemporary styles. Modern band class features a range of instruments, including guitar, bass, keyboard, drum set, vocals, and technology, but it is not limited to these instruments. In districts nationwide, modern band acts as an expansion of existing music programs like band, choir, and orchestra, attracting students who may not have been interested in enrolling in a traditional music class.

Year after year, through each iteration and with valuable student input, I have been able to design courses that leverage the cultural capital of the students and the community and are taught in ways authentic to the rich, diverse world of popular music. As a result, my classroom increasingly reflects the cultural contributions of my students and community. By reaching more students, I’ve learned more about the needs and interests of the student body. This has better enabled me to not only teach these courses, but calibrate the orchestra program for increased participation and engagement. Simply put, teaching guitar and modern band has made me a better traditional ensemble teacher.

The remarkable impact and relevance to our school community cannot be overstated. The success of this thriving music program extends beyond the classroom, positively influencing the school community and culture. Students regularly comment on how these courses bring life to their school day, foster self-confidence and growth, and make lasting friendships. As we move forward, we will undoubtedly encounter significant challenges in education due to the rapid pace of change in society and technology. However, I couldn't be more optimistic about the future, not only for music education in my community but also for the futures and contributions of an ever-increasing number of students entering the world with the creative and collaborative mindsets that I strive to foster each day.