Top teacher: Mount Prospect elementary school music teacher is in tune with her young students
Claire Koehlinger's life has come full circle -- and for her it involves a circle of fifths.
The music teacher at Lions Park Elementary School in Mount Prospect has a special insight into the experience of her students. She was once a student in Mount Prospect School District 57 as well. In fact, some of her teachers are still in the district.
With each note of music, she is making them proud.
Koehlinger teaches second through fifth grade, as well as adaptive music to the special education population. She also teaches extracurricular choir to third through fifth graders and is involved with putting on the fifth grade musical. This is her sixth year teaching general music at Lions Park.
"There are so many aspects I enjoy about it. Obviously, working with students every day making music is such a joyful experience. So I have the unique position of getting to see children grow from 8-year-old to 11-year-old. And they grow, they morph, they change, and you get to see all these different stages of their development, which is really cool. And then I also love getting to do the big music experiences that can reach a kid that otherwise wouldn't find their special thing about them that they really love."
In particular with the fifth grade musical, she gets to watch them blossom.
"So it's the development of the kids that I think keeps me coming back every single day," she said.
"Music has such a powerful influence over the whole child. It helps the child develop confidence. It helps them develop their social skills. But it also exercises so many muscles in the brain at the same time. It's preparing them for all of the different academic experiences that they are going to have later on in their life."
It is a development she personally experienced as a student at Fairview Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School and Prospect High School.
"I cherish my upbringing with the district, and it was awesome being able to come back and be a part of something that I really loved as a kid," she said.
She also had the opportunity to work with colleagues who are former teachers.
"So it was fun to come back and sort of feel like you're home again," she said.
One of them was Leslie Thomas, the choir director and general music teacher at Lincoln. Thomas taught Koehlinger in seventh and eighth grade.
"She was wonderful," Thomas said. "Even as a kid, she was very musically intuitive."
She said her former student was played piano and flute and sang and also played Marion in the eighth grade production of "The Music Man."
"She was always looking to learn and be better," Thomas said.
Thomas said she could have predicted Koehlinger would follow a teaching path, and has heard wonderful feedback about her former student's work in the classroom.
"You have to teach kids how to learn, and she is really good at teaching kids how to learn," Thomas said.
"She was in her first couple of years of teaching at Lincoln when I was there. So it's been really fun coming back and working with her," Koehlinger said of Thomas.
However, Koehlinger said with former colleagues, "The first year or two it's really hard to call them by their first name."
In her current position, she also took over for Carolyn Story, who had taught her in middle school and some of elementary school.
"She cared so much to make sure that my first couple of years were a smooth transition," Koehlinger said.
Koehlinger grew up in a very musical family -- her mother involved her in the Kindermusik program, which empowers young children to express themselves creatively while encouraging them to reach specific milestones. It involves play, movement and improvisation.
"My mom firmly believes that music had a powerful impact on a child's development," she said.
She began learning the flute in second grade and piano when she was 5 years old. She gained experience in musicals, choir and orchestra as she developed.
Her room is filled with sheet music ranging from Duke Ellington to Mozart. The room is neatly arranged with instruments, including guitars and mallets, a warm and inviting laboratory for musical instruction.
For one of her classes, she has her students spread out on the floor with guitars and follow her as she leads them in "Skip to My Lou," going through a series of chords and demonstrating fingering techniques.
One of her students, 10-year-old Lucy Lauck, said her teacher is kind and goes above and beyond for her students.
"She teaches me all the instruments. She teaches me songs that I never knew before," she said.
Another student, 10-year-old Jack Imherr, said Koehlinger's class is fun. He said he especially enjoys the guitar and has learned about chords, songs and parts of the guitar in her class.
Koehlinger said her teaching philosophy aims at setting up a series of musical springboards.
"So I'm trying to help their big picture of musicianship, and I give them lots of tools, a lot of foundational skills, so that way they're able to pursue whatever interests them most."
The students delve not only into classical music, but also rock and hip-hop, and are encouraged to create their own songs in genres that interest them as well.
Koehlinger's husband is a music teacher as well. Matthew Koehlinger is the director of choirs at Palatine High School.
Both met in college, singing in the same choir as undergraduates at Illinois State University -- Claire holds a master's in music from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"He's an excellent jazz pianist. So it's really fun to sing with him."