Year after year, Rob Vega tells his students, hard work pays off.
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 says.
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 learning.
"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 find scholarships.
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 possible.
"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 says.
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.