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Three RUSD music teachers named quarterfinalists for special teaching GRAMMY award | A+ | #teacher | #children | #kids

RACINE — Elizabeth Steege assumed it was spam when she received the news. An email informed Steege that she was a quarterfinalist for a national music teaching award, but she deleted it.
“I actually thought it was junk mail,” Steege said.

Elizabeth Steege, Case High School music educator, was one of three Racine instructors recently named a quarterfinalist for the 2023 Music Educator Award, a partnership between the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum. Steege said the best part of her job is connecting with students and seeing the crucial role music can play in their lives.

It was only when the Racine Unified School District posted on Facebook a couple weeks later that Steege realized the honor was real.

Steege, a Case High School music educator, was one of three RUSD instructors to be named a quarterfinalist for the 2023 Music Educator Award, a partnership between the GRAMMY Museum and Recording Academy — the group that puts on the GRAMMY Awards every year.

Steege was taken aback to be named a quarterfinalist, saying she prefers to recognize the accomplishments of students.

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“I’m really not good at celebrating me,” Steege said. “I love celebrating my students, but I don’t pay attention to those things (like the Music Educator Award). I think they’re so cool when they come up, but I’m not good at looking out for that … It’s just not something I concentrate on.”

Amberleigh Cellak, Starbuck Middle School music, theater and choir teacher, was one of three Racine instructors recently named a quarterfinalist for the 2023 Music Educator Award, a partnership between the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum. Cellak aims to connect with every student and open their eyes to a world of possibilities.

Amberleigh Cellak, the music, theater and choir teacher at Starbuck Middle School, was also selected as a quarterfinalist. Cellak downplayed her accomplishment as well, saying any RUSD instructor could have been named.

“All the music teachers are amazing in our school system,” Cellak said. “I am not more special than anybody just because of this award.”

Cellak said she felt “pretty Zen” about the recognition but was honored to be nominated by colleagues who “appreciate what I do.”


Laura Shapovalov, band and orchestra director at Walden III Middle and High School, agreed, saying it felt nice to be named a quarterfinalist and recognized by the teacher and students who nominated her.

Shapovalov has taught at Walden for eight years and appreciates providing a space for students to be their authentic selves.

“Music is always a place to belong,” Shapovalov said. “It’s very much a place to be a huge nerd … We are the home of the beautiful weirdo.”

Award process

The three quarterfinalists were nominated for the award by students or coworkers.

According to its website, the Music Educator Award began in 2014 and “was established to recognize current educators — kindergarten through college, public and private schools — who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.”

There are 207 quarterfinalists for the 2023 award from across the country, including eight from Wisconsin. They were chosen from about 1,500 nominations. In addition, 125 legacy applicants from 2022 will also be eligible to win the award.

Twenty-five award semifinalists will be announced in September, and 10 finalists will be named after that. The winner will receive $10,000 and travel to Los Angeles to attend the GRAMMY Awards in January 2023. The nine other finalists will receive $1,000, and their schools will receive matching grants. The 15 other semifinalists and their schools will receive $500.

The three RUSD teachers must submit additional information to be considered for a semifinalist position, including personal video interviews and videos of them teaching.

Steege asked some Case students to come in for a rehearsal later this month to capture video. Many congratulated her and said they would attend, a rewarding reaction for which Steege is grateful.

Steege was raised in a musical family in Racine. Both of her parents are musicians, and her father taught band at Case for many years.

She initially planned to be a professional pianist, but after college she taught in Milwaukee for two years, then at Starbuck Middle School for two years before Case.

Steege said the best part of her job is connecting with students and seeing the crucial role music can play in their lives.

“So many kids tell me if it wasn’t for choir, they wouldn’t be there, or they would never have graduated,” Steege said.

“Some children come to school specifically for the arts,” Cellak said. “It gives them a reason to be excited about life and excited about their future. It’s pretty powerful, and I think people don’t 100% understand that power … Music has the possibility to transform everything … Music is a tool for reaching the other parts of them to help them grow.”

Shapovalov enjoys playing a role in students’ development. It is especially meaningful to see the transformation of students at Walden, where she can teach them for up to seven years.

“It’s rewarding to see them work hard and achieve what they have worked hard on,” Shapovalov said. “It’s not what I’m doing. It’s what I showed them how to do, and they were able to do it themselves, and that’s really cool.”

Steege appreciates the chance to broaden students’ horizons and said band and choir trips outside the state help with that.

“They see there’s another world,” Steege said. “It makes them have a reason to do schoolwork and do the things that they don’t want to do. They want something more for themselves in life.”

Cellak also extolled the virtues of music education. She aims to connect with every student and open their eyes to a world of possibilities.

“Who are you, passionate children?” Cellak said. “Let me give you some opportunities. Let me give you an idea, maybe a vision of something bigger for yourself.”

Immeasurable impact

After about a year and a half without live shows because of the COVID-19 pandemic, middle-schoolers at Starbuck took part in a talent show in October and a few more performances since then.

Cellak said those in-person performances reignited some students’ passion for the arts.

“A light wasn’t there for a lot of them before having opportunities to shine and perform and work toward something and grow in that way,” Cellak said. “I think it was really healing for the children … It’s not quantifiable, music and the arts, but I can feel it, the difference between a year of no music and the difference when music was allowed to happen again.”

Shapovalov concurred, saying it angers her that not everyone understands the impact of arts education. She said art “makes life worth living. It’s the stuff that makes you realize you’re special. It gives you bonds with people you wouldn’t have had bonds with. It’s infuriating when people look at arts education as being expendable, because there’s so much that kids learn and glean that can’t be measured.”

Shapovalov grew up in Racine and has worked at RUSD for 15 years. Her mother and brother are pianists. She has professionally played the flute, clarinet and saxophone.

After college, Shapovalov taught in Milwaukee for one year and then worked as a musician and substitute teacher for a year before getting a job as an elementary school music instructor at RUSD. She taught at several elementary schools for seven years before Walden.

Shapovalov enjoys seeing students help one another using her instruction techniques.

“When my turns of phrase come out of their mouths when they’re rehearsing with each other, and then they have success from that, that makes me immensely proud,” Shapovalov said.

Similarly, she loves seeing moments of recognition for students when they grasp a concept.

“When it clicks, when they understand something, it is awesome,” Shapovalov said. “It’s like watching something fall into place in their brain.”

“If I get through the day and I know I’ve done good things for the children … and they’re proud of themselves, I sleep well,” Cellak said.

Cellak grew up in eastern Iowa, trained as a classical opera singer in Chicago and then moved to New York. There, she waited tables and sang professionally for nearly a decade before moving to Wisconsin.

Cellak has taught at RUSD for five years and found education to be a more fulfilling profession, in part because she can spend more time helping others.

Life in New York “didn’t feel as good as teaching does,” Cellak said. “Personally, I felt like my performing was ego-based, and anything that is ego-based is going to cause you a lot of pain.”

Cellak’s first year of teaching entailed many mistakes, but she stayed with it and geared lessons toward students’ passions.

“You’ve got to reach them in the ways that they’re interested in being reached,” Cellak said. “I’m not going to push them, but if they want to learn, I can teach them a lot.”

Shapovalov enjoys nurturing students’ enthusiasm, which she has as well.

“I am a very tall 10-year-old,” Shapovalov joked. “I really like the energy of young people when they’re learning instruments, because it is pure joy.”

For Steege, she had a realization after teaching at Case for a few years.

“I started to think, ‘Wow, I’m pretty good at this,’” Steege said.

For Steege, Cellak and Shapovalov, someone else thought so, too.

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