Melissa Salguero: 2018 Grammy Music Educator of the Year

Sandra Kowalski • Features • April 6, 2018

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What better way for one to have their work validated than by being nominated by one’s community for an award that is judged by their peers and industry professionals and, subsequently winning it?

That’s exactly what happened to Melissa Salguero, teacher at P.S. 48 Joseph R. Drake Elementary in the Bronx area of New York. Salguero is the 2018 winner of the Grammy Music Educator Award. This award was established in 2013 to recognize current educators who have made a significant and lasting contributions to the field of music education.

Since 2010, Salguero has been teaching in one of the poorest districts in New York City, where 85 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, and many are homeless. Facing challenge after challenge, she created, out of nothing—no music program, no instruments, no budget—a thriving music, band and chorus program for a student body of almost 900. After five years of nominations, Salguero was not only the first woman to win, but also the first elementary school teacher to take home this prestigious award. SBO is excited to bring you an interview with your deserving peer for April’s UpClose.

I was surprised to learn that an elementary school teacher won this award. A lot of primary school music programs consist of triangles, recorders, shakers, bongo drums, and tambourines. It seems that you’ve not only transformed the entire elementary music experience, but you’ve transformed lives in the process. So, big congratulations to you!

Well, thank you so much! I’m trying to reach my students in all avenues. The most important thing to me is giving them experiences that really stick with them. I incorporate a lot of science, history, math and, English. But, really, I’m like a mad scientist in my classroom, doing experiments. I’ll give you examples. There’s a song called “Risseldy, Rosseldy,” and one of the lines is, “She churned the butter in Dad’s old boot.” So, I used the “butter” line as an opportunity to show the kids how to make butter. As we’re singing the song in music class, they’re shaking Tupperware of heavy whipping cream. I don’t tell them what’s gonna happen.

Well, it turns to whipped cream first. Eventually the whipped cream separates to buttermilk, then butter. We are singing this song, and they’re shaking, shaking, shaking, and then all of a sudden in their hands, they just had an experience… They’re looking at it, they’re asking me questions, “How did that happen? What is this liquid?” They’re so engaged, they just wanna know more. They’re hungry for so much more knowledge. I’ve always had a passion for science, and I’ve always had a passion for music and history, and the stories that people tell through music—those messages during the civil rights movement and American history back to slave times.

One day we’ll be singing, “We Shall Overcome,” and the next day, we’re playing it on a piano made of bananas because I’m showing them about circuitry and how that can connect bananas to make a keyboard. Imagine them coming in and I have a carrot in my hand. I pull out a drill, start boring out the center. And I’m telling them facts about carrots. Then, I cut it, put in a baby carrot, and play it like a recorder. At that moment, they’re like, “What??“ Their mouths are open, their eyes are…it’s just disbelief. Then we talk about how it works. That experience, of them seeing this carrot transformed from a vegetable into a musical instrument, is so valuable because it’s an experience that sticks with them over time.

They’ll be telling that story the rest of their lives. What compelled you to teach at a school without a music program, that serves children from one of the poorest districts of New York and, has a staggering amount of homeless children?

I didn’t know much about the school. I just knew that after six months of not having a job, I needed to find a teaching job. I had an opportunity to move to New York. I had to take that opportunity. I eventually found a job with an organization called Education Through Music. They’re a non-profit that puts music teachers in schools with low funding, that can’t afford to build a program on their own. They really helped me set the foundation.

I didn’t know where I was teaching. I just knew that I had a job. The next day they’re like, “Here’s your assignment, P.S. 48. Go ahead.” It was scary going the first day, not knowing what the kids were like, what resources I had. But, all that went away when I started singing. There were no instruments, just me singing, “Don’t Stop Believin’” on my guitar. I saw them [the kids] all moving around to it. I said, “Okay. All right, I’m gonna be okay here.” That’s how I got to P.S. 48. It really has been a great fit for me. My teaching style and who I am as an educator fits really well with the kids and community. 75 percent of the students are Hispanic, so when I have kids that come straight from the Dominican Republic, I can speak Spanish to them because I’m Cuban myself. I can totally relate to the kids and I can help them. Being able to speak Spanish to them connects them to what I’m doing so much.

Has the school seen an improvement in student behavior or attendance since you began teaching music?

Yeah, definitely. This year, my chorus got cut. That chorus program was so integral. We looked for boys that were getting disengaged from school. We targeted them and included them in this boys’ chorus called Song Corps. It was amazing. The improvement in attendance alone… One student in particular, two years ago, his attendance in fourth grade was 75 absences. His following year, when he joined the chorus, was nine absences. I have plenty of students that have that same story. The attendance rates go up. They are coming to school, even if they’re not in my band. They’re making sure they come to school on the days that they have my music class because they don’t wanna miss it. That kind of engagement, that kind of love for music, can change the whole school culture if utilized properly.

What have been some your biggest challenges as a teacher?

When I came to the school and we didn’t have any instruments. I said, “Okay, I’ve gotta find instruments.” Well, there’s no money for instruments. So, I wrote grants upon grants upon grants. VH1 Save The Music Foundation actually gave us our very first grant so we could start a band. We started the band in 2012. The grant is a huge thing. I have raised over $160,000 for my music program in order to build a foundation of instruments and resources. Our budget is zero every year. We don’t get an allocated budget for supplies or reeds or valve oil for the instruments. We get $0. Everything I’ve done has been to build a sustainable music program. We have backup supply, we have instruments, we have donors. I’ve gone through so many different ways to raise funds and get donations. I feel such a sense of responsibility to my students to give them these opportunities. They deserve it. They deserve it all. Just because they’re in a poverty-stricken area doesn’t mean that it’s okay that they don’t have music.

What has been one of your most rewarding moments as a teacher?

After the break-in that we had in 2013, I walk in and I see my desk is upside down and the drawers are empty, instruments all over the place, broken and cases missing, with the drum head just completely demolished. The most rewarding thing was seeing how my students responded to that. My chorus kids got together during lunch and they wrote lyrics for a song. The message was, “You’re not gonna tear us down because we’re strong. We will rise from the ashes because we’re strong.” I didn’t expect them to come up with such an uplifting message after somebody just came in and violated us, our space. I set up a camera during chorus rehearsal. The kids were singing it and people shared it all over the place. Then they sent it to “Ellen.” After Ellen [Degeneres] found out about it, she flew me up there and next thing I know, I’m walking down the stairs and opens up the whole backstage and all the instruments come out on this platform. Then she goes, “Okay. Well, Shutterfly wants to…” And she donated $50,000 to us!

Band practice is an hour before school begins. How do you get the kids, many of whom have bigger concerns, like where they’re gonna get their next meal, to show up an hour early for school?

There’s no magic answer for this one. It’s developing who they are inside that’s gonna change that. Making sure they feel connected to the group and the sense of responsibility. You know, my drummers, they’re always on time because they’re like, “We’ve gotta bring down the drum set. We have such an important job. We’ve gotta bring it down, set everything up.” They really take pride in that. I have section leaders and it’s kind of like a legit marching band. I have all these little jobs for them to do. So that’s one way that I bring them in; having them take ownership of the music program.

Do you have advice for other teachers?

If I had to offer one piece of advice to any teacher, it’s that, you have to weigh the options about what you’re doing. If you find yourself dreading going to work, dreading rehearsals, dreading a certain class, you have to change something that you’re doing.

The first thing I ask myself when I have a really terrible class or day, “What can I do differently next time and, what haven’t I tried yet?” I think that level of analyzing what you’re doing and being reflective upon your teaching, that’s such a valuable skill that is not taught in college. And I think even sometimes older teachers forget to go back to basics. “What can I do differently? I’ve tried everything.” I bet you haven’t. There’s always something else. Find that inspiration and keep trying new things.

There were over 2,300 initial nominees and applicants. What do you think set you apart from your peers?

Well, I think that one of the things was my video that I made. I took a song from the musical Hamilton and changed the lyrics to be about what makes me unique. Here I am, rapping with my kids behind me. I said, “I’ve been making these videos for a few years, and each one is just me talking. I wanna show them who I am as a person.” That was a risk. Little did I know that that would actually be the thing that set me apart; my personality and my love for science and music.

How do you think this award has impacted you as a teacher?

Before this Grammy happened, I was in a place in my teaching where I was like, “Am I really making a difference?” I was not happy with so many things, and I was doubting me as a teacher. It’s definitely a validation of everything I’m doing. Sometimes you’re getting so much criticism, and all you’re hearing are negative comments. Or just people not respecting what you’re doing, and not taking you seriously. That really hurt my confidence as a teacher.

This brought me right back up and said, “No, I am doing something really important here and I can’t give up on anything. I gotta keep moving and keep inspiring my kids.” It felt great to be lifted up again.

Sandra Kowalski is a freelance writer, specializing in travel, lifestyle, research, general commentary, and copywriting. She can be contacted at

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