Golden Apple teaching award finalist impacts Willard Elementary School students


Molly Lubbers/The Daily Northwestern

Arturo Fuerte, Willard Elementary School music teacher, is one of 30 finalists for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching this year. He said he loves the mess in the music room because it shows how much he and the students work. In his free time, Fuerte coaches 23 student bands.

Max Lubbers, Assistant City Editor

Now a finalist for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, Arturo Fuerte has been recognized for his work in music instruction. But if not for an educator in his life, he may never have picked up the instrument he dedicated decades to playing.

It was Roger Rickson, a then-music director at Riverside City College, that offered him a spot in a music group, gave him a bass trombone for free, and paid for his first lesson. When Rickson found out Fuerte lived with a roommate and couldn’t practice in the mornings, he offered to come in early to the college — so early that the janitor hadn’t even opened the building’s doors.

“He used to live 45 minutes away, and he would drive in so that there was an instructor around,” Fuerte said. “He’d sacrifice for someone who just wanted to practice and develop their musicianship. I’ve had so many people go out of their way to make me a successful musician, I feel like I owe it to pay it forward.”

Fuerte said that year, he went from being the worst bass trombone player at RCC to winning a music department award. He would go on to study music and play professionally for years, but Fuerte said it was people like Rickson who motivated him to ultimately become a music teacher.

On Feb. 22, the Golden Apple Foundation will recognize Fuerte and other finalists in a celebration. Alan Mather, president of the Golden Apple Foundation, emphasized the importance of honoring teachers, calling them unsung heroes.

“There is a fairly dramatic teacher shortage across the country and in Illinois,” Mather said. “Part of what we need to do is really elevate the profession and show the value of teaching and the impact you can have.”

Fuerte is one of 30 finalists selected from a record-breaking 732 nominations, according to the news release. From that group, winners will be selected and surprised in the spring with the award, which includes a cash prize and tuition-free quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern.

Fuerte was shocked to hear he is a finalist.

“I know my name is out there, but it’s the enthusiasm of all the students and their hard work and their love of just music class that made this possible,” he said. “It’s really exciting and I’m honored, but I’m also super humbled that I could get 506 students to love music that much that someone would consider me a good teacher.”

His wife Shelly Fuerte said in the 25 years she’s been with him, she has never seen someone else with Fuerte’s lack of ego.

Beyond class, Fuerte spends most of his time still teaching students music. Three years ago, some students wanted to form a band called Divisible by 6, or DB6. They approached him, asking to be coached, and he said yes.

DB6 performed at Beat Kitchen, a music venue in Chicago, as part of the 2017 Little Kids Rock Jamfest. Fuerte said the next year, he had 11 bands knocking on his door.

To create a space for students to play, Fuerte decided to create the Hootenanny Music Festival. The first year, they held it at Willard. Now, the festival runs for two days at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, and the number of student bands has more than doubled.

“We have 23 different bands, anywhere from rock, to hip hop, to country music,” Fuerte said.
“It’s something they need, it’s something they want. I’m just using the skills that I have in the professional music world to create a music festival.”

Listen below to hear more about his impact on his students and the Hootenanny Music Festival.

His colleague Chris Skoglund, who wrote him a recommendation letter for the award, said Fuerte has a significant presence at Willard.

“He’s one of the people that I see kids gravitating towards and trusting outside of their classroom teachers,” Skoglund said. “There’s always kids kind of wandering around his space and wanting to connect with him that way. So he is definitely one of the go-to people for a lot of kids in the school.”

Skoglund added that his fluency in Spanish has helped students, especially since Willard has a dual-language program. She said he’s responsive to feedback and wants to make sure all students are included in his programs.

Fuerte said his teaching style is student-centered and student-led. Rebekka Green, a Chicago Public Schools music teacher, uses some of his methods. She said she has attended about 50 professional development sessions, but learned more from Fuerte in one session.

“(Fuerte) is so knowledgeable and I attribute a lot of what I teach to him, seeing his approach and seeing different units he does,” she said. “And honestly I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I never knew (Fuerte).”

Outside of his schedule of coaching and teaching, Fuerte said he tries not to do too much.

The exception is playing in two Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles — the Latin Band, and the Symphonic Band — which he said is just for fun.

“It’s important to refresh your battery when you teach this hard,” Fuerte said. “I’m at school at 7:30 in the morning and sometimes I don’t leave until 7:30 at night. But I started a Latin band with the LGBTQ organization, and we’re trying to be the best ally we can and give them the opportunity to perform and give them an education about Latin music.”

He founded the Latin Band a few years ago with his wife and a mutual friend. He said it gave him the opportunity to learn percussion parts of Latin music and play music outside of teaching, even though he no longer professionally performs.

For him, playing is a different kind of feeling than teaching. He said he can express himself and let his personality come out.

Fuerte added that playing gives him a chance to connect with others. He said that there is something about it that he can’t even explain, but that the people he’s played with have felt like his family. Now, Fuerte said he wants his students to have the same experience.

“You’re in a classroom, you’re making music man, let’s have fun, let’s just make music,” he said. “You’re going to remember this time when you leave. What you do when you’re making music creates a bond, and that’s something special that I want my kids to have.”

Looking back at Fuerte’s own life, music has been a constant thread. It’s a love that started in childhood, and one that hasn’t left.

Growing up, he said he would get up early and stay up late working on music. It was all that he wanted to do, all day long. That hasn’t changed — he still is spending his time playing and practicing — but now, he gets to teach too.

“I’ve kind of lived my life in music,” Fuerte said. “I’m just glad that I had such a great playing career that I can just pass it down. I love being in the music industry; it is who I am.”

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