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'Kindness first': Music education graduate wants to teach with compassion, empathy

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Isabel Verdugo

Isabel Verdugo, who graduates this May from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre with a Bachelor of Music in music learning and teaching, said she will foster a community of compassion and empathy in her future classrooms.

Verdugo’s passion for music and playing the cello began with a high school chamber ensemble class that led her to pursue a music teaching career in hopes of providing students with the same opportunities she had been given. When she arrived at ASU as a freshman, she began her career in music teaching with private lessons and Saturday morning classes for the ASU String Project.

“I am proud of being a part of the ASU String Project, a program that provides interested students with low-cost instruction,” Verdugo said. “I enjoyed getting teaching experience before being in a classroom.”

While teaching for the ASU String Project, she worked closely with Margaret Schmidt, professor of music learning and teaching in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and director of the ASU String Project

“I worked for this program for every single year while at ASU and that meant working closely with the one and only Dr. Schmidt,” she said.

Verdugo said one of the most important lessons she learned while at ASU was from Schmidt.

“She taught me how to teach and educate with kindness first,” she said. “Walking into the scary school of music halls, she was the beacon of comfort for I think many of the music learning and teaching students. She was one of the few that constantly believed in us and only wanted to see us grow and succeed. I have witnessed how far her passion for music education and kind spirit has sent many students down roads of success.

“My only hope is to be able to embody her compassionate heart into my own future classroom.”

Verdugo’s experience with the String Project during the COVID-19 pandemic also shaped her ideas about the kind of teacher she wants to be.

“I was in the unique situation of being a teacher to young students and being a student myself at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “Oftentimes, I was in the same boat as students, we were upset about missing school activities and the changing life around us. Sharing and understanding each other proved to be a lesson in empathy. I realized the importance of empathy in a classroom. It created a space for students to be comfortable and want to learn. This allows for lasting impressions and genuine interest in each other’s lives.”

Through her teaching experiences in college, Verdugo said she has also gained a better understanding about music’s ability to connect across cultures and experiences and is committed to inclusion as a musician-teacher.

Verdugo performed with La Raza Chamber Musicians, a student-led project designed to share chamber music by Latino composers with audiences who seldom have access to live performances and seldom see Latino musicians. She also worked with La Raza to adapt their performances for online audiences during the pandemic and participated in a virtual orchestra for a student-led musical production

“Isabel has an eagerness to learn and in turn, to help others learn,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she knows Verdugo is always looking for new ideas to improve her teaching and is very willing to take suggestions.

“Isabel demonstrates a commitment to excellence as an educator, always seeking and incorporating feedback from the mentor teachers she has worked with in the String Project, in her internships and in student teaching,” Schmidt said. “She always keeps a positive attitude, both for her own ability to master something, and for her students — she truly believes they can learn anything and patiently encourages them to keep trying. I know that Isabel will be an outstanding music educator.

Jill Sullivan, professor of music learning and teaching in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, also praised Verdugo.

“Isabel is an exceptional student, also in Barrett Honor’s College, who conducted an outstanding honors project with me in my instrumental methods class,” Sullivan said. “She investigated and wrote classroom-management case studies, some of which we used to foster discussion in my class.”

While at ASU, Verdugo received the Obama Scholarship, a university grant and the New American University Scholar – Dean’s Award.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: During my student teaching residency I have shared stories with my mentor teachers that have made me think, “I do not know why I did not realize this sooner.” It has been a wonderful time reflecting and finding small defining moments that I never considered to be a part of the reason I went into education. I cannot precisely describe a singular moment; it has always been a series of events that accumulated into pursuing music education. I just knew I loved my musical experience in school, and that I loved music. I just wanted to let that passion grow.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Attending ASU meant I could be in a music program that was full of unique musical experiences. It also meant I would be able to work with the ASU String Project. This program offered private and group musical instruction at low cost for interested students. I remember finding out about this program and wishing I had an opportunity for private lessons while I was in school. Which only made me want to be a part of it for as long as I could.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Be forgiving to yourself. Show yourself kindness and compassion as you would for someone else. This means prioritize taking care of yourself, whether it is eating a full meal or taking a nap. This may look different for everyone, but it is important for your health, nonetheless.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I survived off of the Music Building. Those round walls gave me comfort and were my familiar constant in my entire time at ASU. However, nothing beats the Music Building courtyard. It provided a space for musical friendships to flourish and grow.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have accepted a job with Mesa Public Schools to teach full-time orchestra and general music at Whittier Elementary.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would try to tackle the education system. There is so much room for improvement and growth, I know future generations would be appreciative.

lamacdon@asu.edu