Aaron T. Hill Sr. (’01) arrived in Hampton Roads from his hometown of York, Pennsylvania after being assigned to the Armed Forces School of Music in Norfolk. He concluded a 22-year Army career in 1997, and enrolled at CNU shortly thereafter on the GI Bill, where he was a music performance major specializing in saxophone.
Now serving at the front of his own class, Hill is music teacher and band director at Smithfield High School, just across the James River from his alma mater, and the winner of a Coastal Virginia Magazine Top Teacher award for 2014 (see video below). He teaches all levels of band, from beginning to honors, in several genres, as well as music theory classes.
“The most rewarding part about teaching for me is learning, I inspire my students to try to learn something new everyday and of course, myself, I do that as well. I want to learn something new from them every day to help me become a better teacher for them.
I got into teaching I guess by accident. I really wasn’t seeking a teaching position. I retired from the military a musician, so I had plenty of freelance work to do, just from judging some of the music companies. I found an ad in the newspaper from a local independent school looking for someone to run their musicals. So I did that for a couple of years and the headmaster at the time asked me to come in and speak with them and I did, and he said I have a job for you. And I was trying to figure out a way to say no, because I was really just happy playing my instrument and sharing my love for music.
He offered me a position as the dean of students and I was like, what is that, and he said don’t worry about, try it on, if you like it fine, no worries you’ll always lead our musicals. And I fell in love with it; the kids were fantastic and it started immediately, the joy of being able to sharing myself with them and them sharing themselves with me and watching them progress through the years was such a thrill.
The biggest challenges that I have personally and I think most teachers would share this concerns that of budget restraints and limitations. Our youth is our future and they deserve the very best, and to be under circumstances where we have to limit what we can provide them because of access to the dollars frankly I think is very challenging and that would be the biggest one, and of course we’re very innovative and we find ways to make up for those voids; however, wouldn’t we all like to have an open purse that we could all draw from, but for the kids I would do anything.
In his classroom, Hill relies on an often overlooked, but necessary component of successful learning and of leadership: that failure is acceptable. “I believe when one stops learning, one starts dying,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with failure, for it is from failure that we find our limitations.” He explains that failure is often the result of the chances successful people take in order to realize their goals. “Going from failure to failure with enthusiasm is a recipe for success that characterizes the lives of many great leaders,” Hill says. “How we characterize failure will determine in great part the degree of risk our students will take to pursue and achieve excellence.”
Teachers face a unique set of challenges, from limitations imposed by inadequate facilities and budget shortfalls to poorly prepared students, but many, like Hill, are nonetheless committed to giving students their best. And they often reap benefits few other professions can offer. “My greatest reward is watching my students think and explore beyond the classroom to discover greater knowledge and possibilities,” he says.
Hill is still active in the CNU community, bringing his students to campus to perform as well as hosting various CNU ensembles in Smithfield, and even performing with various CNU bands. He credits CNU not only for the rich academic experience he enjoyed, but also for broadening his horizons, completing a minor in jazz studies, as well as a professional communications certificate. “I gained a depth of knowledge beyond my military experiences that launched me toward ideas and opportunities I previously did not consider possible,” he says.
In September, the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation announced that Hill is one of 25 semifinalists for a 2015 Grammy Music Educator award. Drawn from 7,000 nominations nationwide, the candidates will have a chance to earn $6,000 for their music department. Ten finalists will be announced in December and a winner will be announced during the week of February 8, 2015, and will be awarded a $10,000 honorarium.
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