'Band nerd for life': How Batavia teacher's lessons use 'Old Town Road,' basketball

  • Unique teaching methods and a "wild energy and passion" for her job have made Lisa Hatfield a top educator in Batavia Unit District 101, colleagues say. She is in her eighth year teaching fifth-grade band. Before that, she taught at Rotolo Middle School.

      Unique teaching methods and a "wild energy and passion" for her job have made Lisa Hatfield a top educator in Batavia Unit District 101, colleagues say. She is in her eighth year teaching fifth-grade band. Before that, she taught at Rotolo Middle School. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/10/2020 7:56 AM

On a Wednesday morning before school, Lisa Hatfield stands in front of her fifth-grade band ensemble and leads the roughly 90 students in rehearsing the song "Old Town Road."

But instead of a conducting baton, she's holding a basketball.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Batavia Unit District 101 teacher Lisa Hatfield says her energy and positivity help her connect with the roughly 170 fifth-grade students in her band ensemble.
  Batavia Unit District 101 teacher Lisa Hatfield says her energy and positivity help her connect with the roughly 170 fifth-grade students in her band ensemble. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

No, Hatfield isn't practicing free throws in the Alice Gustafson Elementary School gym -- not until the end of the lesson, anyway. She's bouncing the ball to demonstrate syncopation and keep students on beat during one particularly tricky section.

"That's how my brain breaks things down," says Hatfield, who has been teaching band in Batavia Unit District 101 for 14 years. "That's why I'm such a perfect match for fifth grade."

Props, games and friendly competitions have become common components of Hatfield's teaching style. As students advance, she awards them with karate belts of different colors. If they're struggling to learn the notes, she uses Chromebook apps to help them practice.

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When they reach the last song in the curriculum, she assigns a musical note and duration to each letter in the alphabet and challenges students to compose a song using only the letters in their name.

But it's not just her unique teaching methods that make Hatfield a favorite among elementary musicians, parents and colleagues say. It's her spirit, patience, positivity and a sense of humor that hits the mark, whether she's talking to an adult or a 10-year-old.

"She has a wild energy and passion for what she does. You can just tell she loves kids, but she also loves music," said Kelley Karnick, the Rotolo Middle School principal who also conducts Hatfield's teacher evaluations. "She really is something special."

'Band nerd for life'

Music has been central to Hatfield's life since she started playing piano at 5 years old.

When it came time to pick an instrument for band class, the Oswego native chose the saxophone and went on to join every musical group she could -- marching band, pep band, jazz band.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I just became obsessed with it," said Hatfield, who now lives in Aurora. "You meet those band nerds for life, and I'm definitely one of those."

As she began contemplating her future, Hatfield first thought she might enjoy teaching. Then, she toyed with the idea of becoming a musical performer.

Lisa Hatfield leads an early morning band rehearsal with about 90 fifth-graders in Batavia Unit District 101.
  Lisa Hatfield leads an early morning band rehearsal with about 90 fifth-graders in Batavia Unit District 101. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

She ultimately decided on a career that combined the two.

"Music was just every aspect of my life. It wasn't a hobby, it was what I did," she said. "Passing that love on is more important, personally, than me performing for people."

Hatfield attended VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, which specializes solely in the training of music educators. She also earned her master's degree in educational and instructional technology from Northern Illinois University.

While student teaching at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Hatfield filled in for a teacher who went on maternity leave. She ended up staying on as the seventh-grade band instructor for six years.

Teaching middle schoolers was an invaluable experience for Hatfield, who enjoyed the continuity of working with the same students daily. But taking over the fifth-grade band program in 2012 ended up being a perfect fit.

She liked the variety of visiting all six elementary schools within one week. She connected well with the age group. And she found it especially rewarding to go back to the basics with kids who have never played an instrument before.

"Teaching fifth grade is so fulfilling educationally and personally," she said. "My heart just swells every day from doing it."

Lighting the fire

Batavia District 101 teacher Lisa Hatfield uses a basketball to keep students on the beat as she leads a fifth-grade band rehearsal at Alice Gustafson Elementary School.
  Batavia District 101 teacher Lisa Hatfield uses a basketball to keep students on the beat as she leads a fifth-grade band rehearsal at Alice Gustafson Elementary School. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

To Hatfield, it never gets old watching the looks on students' faces as they open their instrument cases for the first time.

As fourth-graders, they're given the opportunity to try out and choose their instruments in the spring before going into a summer program where they learn the foundations of music. Once school starts the next fall, the students begin with small-group band lessons, and eventually start attending morning rehearsals as a larger ensemble.

"Reading music is literally like another language that you have to decipher and learn and memorize," Hatfield said. "That's amazing to see when it happens."

As a mother of four children who went through Batavia's band program, Kathy Lillig can attest to the "squeaking and squawking" that takes place in those early lessons. But, by the end of the year, they're playing full, recognizable songs during the district's all-city band concert.

Getting to that point takes a lot of patience on Hatfield's part, Lillig said, yet her smile never falters and her encouragement never dwindles. She knows how to correct students without embarrassing them, and her positivity makes them want to improve.

"She's so charismatic, so full of energy and joy, that the kids just adore her," Lillig said, noting all four of her children went on to play music in high school, some even beyond that level.

"Lighting that fire at such a young age and having them want to keep it going is something you can't do just yourself."

Hatfield knows each of her 170 students learns at his or her own pace. The feeling of the ensemble varies each year, too, based on instrumentation and talent, among other factors.

Some groups, for example, are stronger individually, where others find instant cohesion among their peers. This year, Hatfield has a strong French horn section and a lot of students playing clarinet. But a different combination of instruments could make for an entirely different sound.

"You do have to gauge the overall ability and skill of the group, and that changes year by year," Hatfield said. "You just kind of have to be flexible. That's always a trick."

Life lessons

Hatfield loves hearing from former students who went on to play band in middle school and high school. Even more rare are those who kept it up in college, or decided to pursue careers as professional musicians or band directors.

But some of her favorite notes are from the students who left the band program -- maybe they chose another hobby or moved away -- but still found her lessons valuable.

The last year Hatfield was teaching seventh grade, she had a student with whom she butted heads almost every day. They grew frustrated with each other and, by the end of the year, she could sense he was ready to move on from her class.

Years later, however, the student sent Hatfield an email saying he was sorry they didn't get along. It had been a rough year for him, he explained, and though he didn't always show it, band was his saving grace.

"That's why you treat every kid (equally)." Hatfield says. "Years later, they might thank you. Years later, they might not even remember your name, but that does not matter."

Building respect, trust and teamwork can make a huge difference in a student's musical journey and in the chemistry of an ensemble, she said. Kids in her class cheer for each other when they succeed and help one another when they're struggling.

Still, Hatfield's overall goal is to instill a love of music in every student.

She encourages them to actively listen to the sounds of their everyday lives. She tells them about her personal involvement in musicals and community concerts. She teaches them that music is a universal language.

"It's great if you can play the end of the book by the end of the year, but that's not my goal," Hatfield says. "As long as every kid walks out of my classroom just adoring music, I've done my job."

• • •

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Lisa Hatfield

Occupation: Elementary band teacher

Residence: Aurora

Age: 35

Education: Bachelor's degree in music education, magna cum laude, from VanderCook College of Music; master's degree in educational and instructional technology from Northern Illinois University

Work experience: Seventh-grade band teacher at Rotolo Middle School, 2006-2012; fifth-grade band teacher at all Batavia elementary schools, 2012-present

Other vocational experience/training: Batavia Public Schools University, 2019-present; adjunct instructor at VanderCook College of Music, 2012-present; Encore! Summer Music Camp co-founder and instructor, 2009-present; music adjudicator and clinician, 2006-present; private instrument instructor, 1997-present; Magical Starlight Orchestra pit member, 2016-present; Chicagoland Pops Orchestra member, 2010-present; Limelight Theater pit orchestra conductor, 2003-2009; Google Level 1 and 2, certified educator.

Awards and honors: Kane County Women of Distinction award, 2015; Grammy music educator nominee, 2015; recognition for "best community for music education" through the National Association of Music Merchants, 2014 and 2016-2019.

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