Norm Sands is getting ready to retire after 30 years of teaching music to elementary students, but on his way out, he’s making sure to hit all the right notes.
Sunday, Sands was honored with the H-E-B Excellence in Education Lifetime Achievement Award in elementary education. It was his third run at the award, having been a finalist in 2012 and reaching the semifinals in 2014. The award comes with a $25,000 prize for Sands and another $25,000 for his campus, Tabasco Elementary in La Joya Independent School District.
“My knees almost buckled when they called my name,” Sands said in an interview with H-E-B representatives after the ceremony. “This is my second time as a state finalist, and I know what it feels like to not have your name called, and I was so worried that was going to happen once again, so when they called my name it just was incredible.”
He already started speculating on what the money could be used for at Tabasco Elementary, suggesting technology upgrades in the cafeteria, a second playground for the school’s 800 students and a robotics lab using Legos.
In March when the finalists for the award were named, Tabasco Principal Alfonso Valdez had no doubt Sands would win the honor.
Valdez said Sands is the only music teacher he’s seen go out of his way to build relationships with students in the halls and in the school cafeteria.
“He talks to them as human beings and tries to learn about their home life, their personal life, and builds those bonds,” Valdez said. “He’s an amazing person. You’ll probably meet one person like him in your lifetime.”
Teaching, Sands said, has given him a great deal of satisfaction, but he’s ready for retirement, and he’ll be eligible in March 2016. Valdez said he’s trying to convince Sands to stay on a few years, but Sands said whether it’s in March or at the end of the next school year, he will retire.
Sands plans to look for other things to keep his mind stimulated, and he’s already planning to publish a book on curriculum for music courses.
He equated teaching to building a house. If the foundation isn’t solid, the structure will soon fall apart. That’s why he’s continued to teach at the elementary level. Academics – reading, writing and mathematics – are paramount in education, but Sands believes students’ knowledge of the arts is important to the human experience.
“If they do not have a deeper knowledge of any of the arts, I feel like they’re missing half of their personhood,” Sands said. “Not only does music enhance the knowledge of reading and math and science and so forth, but it enhances their humanity.”
Over the years, Sands said, his teaching techniques have changed. For example, students are able to learn music concepts through GarageBand on iPads. Still, he has guitars, keyboards, recorders and even harmonicas in the classroom.
Sands said the biggest reason he became a teacher was his love for music and learning. His own teachers also inspired him as a young student. Drawing from personal experience, he aims to make his classroom a safe place for all students.
“When I was starting out as a music student, as a young student, obviously everyone else wanted to play baseball and kickball, but I needed to go practice the piano, so yes, I did have to stand up to some tough criticism, some bullying if you will, especially through high school, but I knew what I wanted to do,” Sands said.
A recent video featuring Sands along with students and staff at Tabasco Elementary performing a parody of “Uptown Funk” recently went viral. Featured on TeacherTube’s Facebook page, the video received more than 162,000 views. In it, Sands sang and danced wearing a fedora, bandanna and gold chain with a dollar sign pendant to motivate students to pass the STAAR.
The video has received comments from all over the world, Sands said, adding that he had friends of friends on Facebook sending it to people he knew.
“I don’t like when I hear adults say, ‘I can’t play an instrument. I don’t know how to sing.’ Everyone can do something with music, even if it’s just enjoy it at a richer level,” Sands said. “I’m not a big fan of the audition. If you want to be in my groups, you can be in my groups.”