Blooming in Fertile Soil

Blooming in Fertile Soil First-year teacher on starting her career in South Milwaukee
Music teacher Sarah Goldner

“Today we’re going to learn a new song,” Elementary Music Teacher Sarah Goldner said as she passed out colorful mesh scarves to a class of kindergartners.  

Goldner is in the first year of her career, but you’d never know it with how she’s keeping the attention of the roughly 15 students sitting in a neat circle in her room. 

Like many first-year teachers, Goldner’s biggest adjustment to life in the classroom was managing student behavior.

“They teach you a lot about how to structure class, but not much about what a group of students is like. It’s almost like jumping off a cliff,” she said. “I really had to learn the de-escalation strategies and the behavior strategies.”

But she wasn’t on her own. South Milwaukee has instituted Professional Learning Communities, where teachers are given time to work together and build curriculum and relationships.

“South Milwaukee is a little different. There’s a really big community aspect I haven't seen in other districts,” Goldner said. “We’re working on putting our curriculum together for music. … So we’re doing the same things at each elementary school so when they get to the middle school they have the same basic concepts down.” 

South Milwaukee will hire a number of new teachers over the summer. Whether veterans or beginners, those teachers will get the same support Goldner found when she started. What’s also special about South Milwaukee is the warm, welcoming community teachers and staff become a part of. 

Even outside her PLC and the music department, Goldner said she’s made connections. 

“My people right down the hall that teach 3rd and 4th grade…” she said, gesturing at the door. 

“I didn’t realize how quickly we were going to become friends.” 

Back on the carpet, Goldner joins the students on the floor and starts singing, balling up her scarf in her hand. The students follow her lead, squishing the scarves into little balls in their tightly clenched fists. The song is about planting a seed, with verses about the sun shining and rain falling until, at last, the students open their hands and the scarves bloom out into spring flowers.

Goldner said she had a magic teaching moment recently when a third-grader composed her own two-part melody on a whiteboard. She glows when she holds up her phone with a picture of the work.

“(Usually) third-graders just learned to read notes on a staff,” she said, the basics.

“This,” she said, gesturing to the chords written on the phone with a smile, “is an example of a third-grader’s work. .. they catch on really fast.”

Goldner, who has a degree in Instrumental Music Education, has played the flute since she was nine, but the seed that grew into her career was planted by teacher Kristi Wicihowski, the band director at Nathan Hale High School in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District. 

“She said can you imagine not being in a music class each day? I realized then that I never want to leave music.”