Teacher Feature: Jennifer Theilacker
“I’ve seen music totally change students,” Jennifer Theilacker, music teacher at KIPP Infinity Middle School, explains from her classroom in Harlem. Covered in motivational posters and filled with instruments ranging from trumpets to guitars and keyboards, her classroom is one that is thoughtfully designed to embrace and inspire all students – something that is obviously reflected in Ms. Theilacker’s style of teaching.
Ms. Theilacker has been teaching music for 22 years, and it was initially her middle and high school band director, Mr. Skip Reddig, who inspired her to pursue a career in music. In her senior year of high school, she decided to audition for a school in music education, it was Mr. Reddig who believed in her and helped her get the private lessons and resources she needed to succeed. “I see in them what he must have seen in me,” reflects Ms. Theilacker about looking at her students and encouraging them when she knows they are better than they realize. It’s a beautiful cycle to witness and honor: the enduring influence of a past music teacher continuing to impact a new generation of students through his protégé whom he helped achieve her dream of becoming a music teacher herself.
It’s evident that Ms. Theilacker loves her students as if they were her own children, and she admittedly could talk about them all day. The relationship she has with them transcends the classroom, forming a bond that endures as these kids grow into young adults. Many students continue to come to her classroom to volunteer into their young adult years. “Having these kids still in my life has motivated me many times not to give up because what I do is important and transformative,” explains Ms. Theilacker. Parents of her students agree, with one mother even calling her “the angel of music” for how deeply she touched the life of her son, Francisco. “You embody what every teacher should aspire to be: generous, patient, and able to see in your students what is hidden for the rest of us,” Francisco’s mother writes in a Facebook post. “You are always in our prayers.”
Ms. Theilacker first heard about the Music Will organization in an email she had received around 10-11 years ago – and in true New Yorker fashion, she was skeptical. It seemed too good to be true. You only had to know two chords (which she learned the night before), and then you would receive a class set of guitars and curriculum. “I thought it was spam or something,” she laughs. She even told her friends where she was going prior to attending the Modern Band 101 workshop just in case she went missing. A decade later, she is grateful she took that leap of faith because her students were noticeably energized after she implemented the program in her classroom. “They were excited about music class, and so was I!”
Her work in education has not gone unnoticed in New York with the Brooklyn Nets awarding her with the 2015 All-Star Educator Grant. More recently, Ms. Theilacker’s passion for teaching was celebrated when she was presented with the Minority Band Directors National Association Meritorious Achievement Award recognizing outstanding contributions and service to local, regional, and national music communities in 2022. Her dedication spills over into her personal time which she devotes to providing private lessons, associate conducting for an adult community band, teaching at the Harlem School of the Arts, previously teaching for Lincoln Center’s middle school jazz band program, and starting a Saturday Music Academy for KIPP NYC – leaving almost no free time to herself. On the rare occasion that Ms. Theilacker does have a moment to herself, she listens to a wide range of music including hip-hop, the 90s, old-school Motown, classical, Diddy (and not because she taught at Sean Combs’s school!), Jazz at Lincoln Center, and considers herself a big fan of Wynton Marsalis.
You’ll be able to catch her in the upcoming 2023 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as she was selected to perform in the Band Directors Marching Band by the
Saluting America’s Band Directors! To learn more about Ms. Theilacker and her experience meeting Sean Combs while teaching at his school, The Capital Preparatory Harlem Charter School, watch the video below. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.