Year after year, Rob Vega tells his students, hard work pays
Now, the Chicago teacher can walk into his classroom with proof
that it's true. Vega is People
Magazine's Teacher of the Year.
The sole member of the music department at Rauner College
Prep in Chicago, Vega oversees six music classes, with an
average of 57 students each, every day. He works with students who
have never picked up an instrument before and helps them become
members in highly ranked ensembles. Last year his orchestra placed
fifth at the Berklee College of Music's High School Jazz Fest.
"Imagine it being a ninth-grade math class and nobody can count
to 10. They are starting bare bones with no experience whatsoever.
It's definitely challenging, but I find ways of overcoming it,"
Vega found out about his nomination in People Magazine's first
Teacher of the Year competition in June. The only arts teacher
chosen as one of People's five teachers of the year, Vega says his
award is a great way to show people how important it is to keep
arts education in schools.
"I am a music teacher and I do want to advocate for the arts.
It's a great opportunity to sit here as a music teacher and say the
arts programs are important. They do assist in helping core
subjects from kindergarten to 12thgrade… my
lessons can be cross circular."
Vega says he has been lucky at Rauner, a campus of the Noble
Street Charter School, to have a supportive administration behind
him that lets him lead the program in his own style. Part of that
is helping students connect their own culture to what they're
"It's very disappointing the more you heard about schools
closing down either because they are underperforming or the music
class is being underfunded. At Rauner they support me in the way I
think music programs should be supported and I definitely take full
advantage of it."
Vega spent time in the Navy before attending Berklee School of
Music, both of which influence his classroom presence and
teaching methods. Every year is intentionally different, he says,
and the program has been highly successful.
Brittany LaCour, a senior at Rauner who plays trumpet in one of
Vega's band classes, says his classroom style is why he won Teacher
of the Year.
"He relates to the students and makes class fun. He's always
cracking jokes but he's also very encouraging," she says.
She says the award is overdue. "He doesn't get as much
recognition as he should with everything he does."
As a freshman, LaCour's mother Luz wanted her to play the
clarinet, Vega urged the trumpet instead. Now she plays first or
second chair, along with solos. Luz says Vega's encouragement
extends beyond the students' high school courses to helping them
Vega actually volunteered to take on the music program alone
back in 2010 when the founding music department teacher left the
school. He had been working at Rauner as the second band teacher at
the time and knew the selection process for a new music director
would be difficult.
"Instead of putting that burden on my principal, I decided to
take on the role of both teaching positions and it was nonstop. The
first quarter was amazing. It was extremely difficult but one of my
mottos that I always tell the students is that with anything hard,
you have to continue with it. If you quit you won't reap the
benefits of what hard work is," Vega says.
He grew up in the Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, right
off Kedzie and North Avenue. He says the neighborhood was worse
than it is now, with gang activity in the community leading his mom
to bounce him from school to school. By the time Vega graduated
high school, he had been to seven schools.
Looking back, he doesn't remember ever participating in a music
class. Luckily he found a love for music outside of the classroom,
thanks to a family influence.
"I kind of took my hobby of enjoying music, enjoying my family
members playing it. I love teaching. I put my hobby and my passion
together and I ended up becoming a music teacher," Vega says.
The same family that fostered his love for music is still his
source of support at home as well. As a single father of a 3- and
6-year-old, Vega says his mother and grandmother still help him.
Without their support, Vega says none of this would have been
"Yesterday I sat next to John Legend to accept the award and the
reality hasn't totally set in… I'm a little overwhelmed," Vega
Although the recognition and celebrity banquets have been a
whirlwind, Vega says the most important part of this award is being
able to bring it back to the classroom.
"The award is more for them. I'm so happy I can come back and
say 'this is what hard work is'."
Alaina is the digital content editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Chicago.
See more of Alaina's stories here.
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