UM Students, Alumni Bang the Drum for Music Education Program

UM music education student Marian Kale instructs a classroom at Big Sky High School as part of her student teaching experience. (UM Photo by Ryan Brennecke)

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service

MISSOULA – Few degrees allow students to graduate with the expectation that a job in their field is a 100% guarantee if they want one. The University of Montana’s music education program is one of those exceptions.  

Demand is high for music educators in Montana and other states, particularly in rural school districts that sometimes struggle to fill positions.

“There are jobs that are unfilled in Montana every year,” said UM School of Music Director Dr. James Smart, who also serves as director of bands and teaches music classes. “We need to produce more music teachers.”

The School of Music works to attract students who will go on to become gainfully employed in those vacant jobs. That means preparing budding educators for what to expect as a teacher in Montana – both the challenges and unique opportunities. 

“Much of the reality of teaching in this state is working in rural areas,” said Dr. Michael Ruybalid, coordinator of music education and a UM assistant professor. “Students need to interact with those teachers.”

That interaction starts early with a 100-level Introduction to Music Education class taught by Ruybalid. The course gets students into working classrooms early, allowing them to observe music teachers at work and ask them questions. Ruybalid said he plans to Zoom students into more music classrooms in further, rural parts of the state.

Music education students embed in classrooms throughout their degree, culminating in a semester of student teaching that ensures undergraduates skillfully transition from pupil to teacher upon graduation, just as UM alumna Hailey Gilboe did. At UM, Gilboe learned to play and teach just about every instrument found in a public school classroom. Nothing prepared her more for her career than the mentorship and hands-on experience she gained student teaching at Lolo School District and Big Sky High School.

“I feel very satisfied in my career, and I feel like I know what I’m doing,” said Gilboe, a K-12 music and band teacher at Lincoln Public Schools. “Most of that confidence came from my student teaching.” 

Now in her second year of teaching in Lincoln, an unincorporated area of about 1,000 people, Gilboe said she loves making music with the school’s 100-plus students each day. 

Music class also was Gilboe’s favorite part of the day as a young student growing up in western Washington and Anaconda, having played flute since fourth grade. When Gilboe chose to turn that passion into a career, a visit to UM where she met School of Music faculty sealed the deal for where to receive that education.

“The statistics for success in this degree looked good from this school,” Gilboe added. 

Come graduation, Gilboe said staying to teach in Montana just felt right, noting her hometown roots and the music education community she connected with as a UM student. 

“I’ve personally had a really positive experience,” Gilboe said of her teaching job. “I have great administration and coworkers who are very supportive.”

Teaching has shown Gilboe how crucial music education is to young students’ social and emotional development. She hopes her classroom is a place for kids to feel safe being themselves while they connect to peers and grow. 

“I don’t expect all my students to become professional musicians, but I want them to be well-balanced people who have healthy connections and feel good about themselves,” Gilboe said. “Music is a good pathway for that.”

Music education alum Paige Kerwin, who graduated last fall, aspires to have a similar impact. Teacher observation courses helped Kerwin hone their own teaching philosophy early before student teaching at Florence-Carlton School District. The one-building school hosts elementary through high school, allowing Kerwin to teach the entire semester there instead of splitting time between different elementary and high schools. 

In addition to becoming an effective educator, student teaching provided Kerwin insight into contracts, paperwork and other essentials that aren’t so easily taught in UM classrooms. 

“Student teaching is your opportunity to figure out what a classroom is really like and how it functions before you have to run your own,” Kerwin said. “It also provides a mentor to ask any questions you may not have learned through college.”

Spending all semester at the school allowed students to warm up to Kerwin. They noted how music educators often teach every grade at a school, uniquely positioning them to forge long-term relationships with students who otherwise get new teachers each year.

“It really allows a connection to be made,” Kerwin said, reflecting on their own experience as a young student who benefitted from music teacher mentors. “After you’re with the same teacher for three or four years, they know how you learn and how you grow.”

Kerwin is substitute teaching while finishing job applications that they hope will bring opportunities in Oregon or Washington, ideally at an elementary school.

Music education student Marian Kale of Billings is unsure about working in her home state or leaving to experience different parts of the country, but has time to decide. Kale is student teaching this semester and will take another year to finish a double major in performance and a history minor while applying to graduate schools.

Although she’s played violin since age 3 and has fully immersed herself in the professional music world, Kale nearly opted for a career in science – an idea that feels “completely ludicrous” to her now. But wariness of music teacher horror stories that are told to many prospective educators nearly kept her from following her passion.

Kale acknowledged that warnings about lack of teacher pay and appreciation stem from lived experiences of some music educators. But her time at UM showed her that while music education can be challenging, it’s not unachievable. Kale said warnings can be blown out of proportion and that the “teaching is only for the strong” narrative is true to the extent that educators must have strength, but not that every day in the classroom is a relentless battle.

“This has always been the thing that’s fulfilled me, and obviously lots of people have made a career out of it because that’s how I’m here, that’s why my colleagues are here, why all these students are here,” Kale said.

“I think some people that maybe would go into education aren’t because of all of these scary things they’re told,” she added. “I would say if music is something that students really enjoy, and they've found a passion for teaching, absolutely go for it. Everybody is going to have a unique experience.”

Student teaching five days a week at Big Sky High School and local elementary schools has reaffirmed Kale’s beliefs in her career path. Not only is she learning – she’s having fun.

“It feels like the zenith of the last three-and-a-half years in the music education program,” Kale said. “It’s really nice to just show up and do the thing that we’ve been training to do.”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,