‘Practice What I Teach’
Area Teacher Brings Knowledge Of Music To Classroom
SOUTH DAYTON — Twenty years into the teaching business, Shawn Huestis, local teacher and musician, relies heavily on his experiences to continue practicing what he teaches.
“Experience is the king,” Huestis said.
He can be found in a Pine Valley Central School classroom teaching music throughout the week, but on the weekend he may be out of town with his band, “Uncle Ben’s Remedy” or “UBR.” For example, two weeks ago he was performing in Rochester with “UBR” on a Saturday and on Monday he was back in the classroom.
Last year, a national tour allowed him to travel to Asheville, N.C., Pensacola, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn. He plays keyboard, accordion, washboard, fife and the harp for the country band.
The Pine Valley music teacher for the last 17 years is described by one of his fellow “UBR” bandmembers as being “the best piano player around” on their website.
Huestis acknowledged the uniqueness of his situation that allows him to teach students and perform with his friends. He said teachers in other disciplines like math or science, in a public school setting, are not typically able to practice their skill set “at a high level” outside the classroom.
“I’m indebted that I’m able to do that,” Huestis said.
Before Pine Valley, Huestis was employed at Friendship Central School in Allegany County from 1999 to 2002. While there, Huestis received his master’s degree in teaching from the State University of New York at Fredonia. Prior to that, he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education at SUNY Fredonia and received an associate’s degree from Jamestown Community College. Huestis graduated from Panama Central School.
As the general music teacher at Pine Valley, Huestis teaches pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, typically in two sections per grade level. Despite being primarily focused on music, he also teaches a podcasting group that created a Pine Valley internet radio station. The station uploads a weekly episode.
Huestis enjoys showing his students various career paths in music, separate from performing. But he also likes that the students know he’s in a band because they are able to see the practicality behind learning music.
“This gives what I do a little more credence to the kids that know I play (music) outside (of school),” he said.
“UBR” is comprised of Ben Westlund, who is a Pine Valley biology teacher, Harmony Griffin, Huestis, Brendan O’Connor and Jimmy Royce. Huestis said he and Westlund do not promote their music in the classroom, but believes practicing what he teaches benefits his instruction.
“There’s really no substitute for experience,” he said.
On any particular school day, his classroom may be filled with a handful of students after school hours taking in a lesson from their music teacher. On Monday, he returned to the classroom having performed for a live crowd just 48 hours prior.
“That’s a unique situation I’m in where I practice what I teach,” Huestis said.
In the classroom, Huestis likes to find ways to relate instruction to the interests of the students. For example, Huestis will let students pick their favorite song to learn how to play, within reason, he said. He will learn the song, if he doesn’t already know it, and show the students how to play the initial chord progression on the piano or a keyboard. Often, Huestis said, the students will be more interested in music, in general, once they know how to play a song they enjoy. He admits the plan isn’t full proof.
“They’re being bombarded with so much information. To start where they’re interested is a way to hook them and slough off everything else that might distract them,” he said.
Despite his 20-year career of teaching, Huestis never saw himself becoming a teacher. But Huestis was destined to like music. His father, Jeff Huestis, and grandfather, Walton Huestis, both played instruments, and his mother, Colleen, was always singing during his childhood. Walton Huesits was a music teacher at Falconer Central School and a part of the Chautauqua County Music Teacher’s Associate. Huestis now serves as the CCMTA’s public relations chair. The organization curates top talent around the county and put on two festivals each year. The festivals include a wide variety of ensembles.
Recently, Huestis took fifth grade students to the Youth Concert Series at Kleinhans Music hall to see the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra perform. Additionally, in spring Huestis and a colleague are hosting a creativity night where students are able to perform on stage.
“Music was always around,” he said. “My mom was always singing. She was an Irish woman so it was in her blood.”
It was at SUNY Fredonia, where Huestis was shaped into the musician he is today, when he saw himself becoming a teacher, but he wasn’t entirely convinced. More accurately, he had the revelation while student teaching at Gowanda Central School with teacher Larry Wilson.
There, Wilson told Huestis it was the teacher’s responsibility to create the atmosphere of the classroom. Huestis admitted he continues the ongoing art of “hunting” for that the balance of creating an atmosphere and giving the students what they need to learn.
“(Wilson) said, ‘you create the atmosphere you want,'” Huestis recalled.
The Pine Valley teacher admits he’s the closest to that balance as he’s ever been in his two decades of teaching. Huestis refers to music as being secondary to learning and as the “vehicle” to their understanding.
“To spark their learning is the ultimate goal, no matter what they’re interested in,” he said.
The music department at Pine Valley is comprised of vocal teacher Mary Kay Himes, instrumental music teacher Roger Chagnon III and Huestis. As a group, he said they work together to try lead their students to one cohesive ending before they graduate.
Huestis said the Pine Valley administration has always been supportive. He praised the positive support from Kelly Zimmerman, elementary principal. Superintendent Scott Payne in turn praised Huestis’ innovativeness he brings to the district.
“(Huestis is) one of the teachers in the building that always has different ideas and is a leader and is always coming up with ways to make things work,” Payne said.
Music is Huestis’ passion, so it’s only right that he teaches his students through what they enjoy.