“Enjoy every single moment of it because it's earned and it's well deserved”: Jewel Casselman, One Year Later

March 19, 2024

The countdown to the 2024 JUNO Awards is on! In a little bit less than a week , the 2024 MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award winner will be unveiled.

To gear up for the festivities, we dialed up Jewel Casselman, 2023 MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award recipient (suitably donning her 2023 JUNOS hoodie!) to catch up on how things have been since her exciting win.

So Jewel, tell us what you’ve been up to in the year since you won the 2023 MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award.

I finished out my teaching career at Lakewood School. I retired from there in June and it was a very busy spring. I've been at that school for 17 years. That day I took a little video of me closing my door after I had taken everything out that was mine, I was very emotional about it. That's the last time I'm closing my door in my classroom, but the year went very well and the kids were amazing. They were so excited for my retirement but really sad to see me go, so I get to go back and visit every now and then to see them.

And I've taken on a new role as a director of a chorus for the River City Sound which is a barbershop chorus in the city. I've never sung barbershop, but my dad was a barbershopper for over 70 years. It's teaching adults, which is different from teaching kids and yet very similar - they all talk and they don't always listen and I have to repeat myself but it's been lots of fun!

I’m just attending conferences, doing some [substitute teaching], and then most recently I just became a grandma so that's very exciting. So I get to spend lots of time with my little granddaughter and my daughter, and just helping them get adjusted to this new crazy world of being a mom.

And what was it like to attend the 2023 JUNO Awards in Edmonton? What was that experience like for you?

We were sitting right behind Nickelback… When it came for the announcement of Teacher of the Year and [Simu Liu’s] reading everything about what MusiCounts is about, showing the little clips, and his funny little story from his former music teacher, your heart is kind of racing because you have no idea who's winning and they made the announcement and called my name. I was literally in shock. I was so surprised.

It took me time to think back as to what actually really happened and [while] taking me backstage, all the accolades and everything I received - it was really an amazing experience that I will remember forever. I've never done a press release before and that press conference was really intimidating. It's kind of exactly like it is in the movies: everybody's sitting there with their computers open and up. I had them all take a breath in and take a breath out, and then we could settle in to getting our interview underway.

Going to the red carpet and I felt very much like a movie star. It was very fun - going down the red carpet, and stopping, and hearing all the cameras clicking and “Look this way”, “look that way” and it's really pretty amazing.

That's a great answer - you mentioned getting to meet some interesting people during 2023 JUNO Week. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about who you got to meet and what that was like?

So before I went to the 2023 JUNOS, we had done a JUNO unit at school. So we picked a whole bunch of categories, listened to music and then the kids voted on who they thought was going to win the JUNO. So I got to meet The Reklaws, who are a brother and sister country duo, and we had a great conversation with them.

It was just fun to walk around and see these people that you’ve heard, but then you got to meet them and say “Hi, we did a JUNO unit with you and my kids really liked your music” and then meeting them again later after the JUNOS too was lots of fun.

I wouldn't be able to name them right now, [but people] come to me and say, “[MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award] is one of the most important awards of the evening because if it wasn't for the music teachers, we wouldn't be where we are right now. We wouldn't be on stage performing. We wouldn't be singing, or playing in a band, or anything like that.” So that was very interesting to hear them put that perspective on it because you think they're the big stars, but they're saying really [teachers] are the ones that are important.

[I] got to meet Jim Cuddy personally and he’s an amazing person, and very supportive of music education in the school system. "Forget about budget cutting, it needs to stay in the schools," which is what all music teachers believe but we know that governments are cutting them drastically. We're very lucky here in Manitoba, but who knows what the future holds so we advocate for it all the time that it's really important to keep in school.

You're talking about some of the artists explaining why they think this is such an important award. Why do you think that it's important that MusiCounts recognizes music educators in this way?

Because we're the groundwork for what [artists] do and music is such an important part in everybody's life. From the time you’re a baby (like my little granddaughter - we listened to music all day yesterday), right up to when you're a senior citizen like my dad was 97 and he was still singing his barbershop music, and he would sing every day because it was part of what his life was. So music educators just get [music] out to kids.

It's a place, particularly now with so much going on in the world, where kids can connect because music is universal. You can bring in your children from different nationalities, backgrounds, kids who are coming from war-torn countries, and you can put them in a classroom and put on some quiet music if they're having a rough day and get them to calm down.

They can share their music, their background, and it's just an important way to communicate with kids. It's good for their brains, mental well-being, it helps them with their math, language arts, social studies - it’s just an all-around great thing to be doing. All the kids do it in elementary - from kindergarten right up to whatever your classes go, then they choose to go into music. Personally, I think everybody should have to do at least one year of music when you hit middle school and then you decide, because it isn't for everybody. Some people really struggle with it, but I really think they need that experience of playing in a band even for half a year. If I have my way, that's how I would do it. [Music is] just so important to have for everybody.

When I go off to my concert hall, I have a former student who used to come to my room and she always tells me, “I just remember you always let me come in during recesses when I couldn't handle being outside, you let me come in and play on the instruments” because it was her safe place, where she could feel relaxed, do what she wants and just be able to explore that musical side of herself and not deal with all the frustrations of recess time. Often very rarely where my classroom didn't have one or two kids in it at recess time.

One of my former students - she's in Grade 6 now, autistic, nonverbal - the first time she spoke was in rhythm in music class. She'd never spoken before. She'd never said hello, or mom, or dad or anything. And the first thing out of her mouth was “elephant kitty cat” and she was doing it with wooden spoons and it made that breakthrough for her. It opened up an avenue of communication that just kept growing as she stayed at the school. There was her first sense of communication, in the music room, when she was five and a half years old. It was like April so she [has] been in kindergarten since September, and one day she spoke. Her EA and I sat there went, “...She just spoke!” and I recorded it. Her EA and I were in tears because it was the first time that we had heard her speak, and her classmates as well. We shared it with the family and it was this brilliant breakthrough for her, but it was because of the power of music.

How did it feel coming back to Lakewood after you won and what kind of celebrations happened?

There were flowers on my desk, there was a whole display in our front hallway. I go outside every day for recess so [the kids] just came and swarmed me. I had a pile of homemade cards, books and everything and a lot of them had money in it because I was in charge of doing the video Lakewood live announcements. And so they heard that I had won $10,000 so they gave me [handrawn] $10,000 bills - it was really cute.

The kids were so excited when I could bring the JUNO in. When [we] did [the MusiCounts Teacher of the Year] video and was presented the JUNO there, it was really amazing and then all the kids got to see it. We took class pictures with it. I sent it to their classroom teachers and they sent it out to the parents. Their parents were sending me congratulations through text, and emails and stuff like that as well.

I still have all those cards - they’re so cute because they're written by kids. But the 6-year-olds were really cute, they would draw me pictures of the JUNO [with] “I can't believe you won the JUNO!” “Way to go!” “Congratulations on your win!” and it was lots of fun.

When we did our JUNO review in Grade 4 and 5, they all did vote for me for winning MusiCounts Teacher of the Year. I thought that was funny. I said, “We reviewed all of the teachers, you don't have to vote for me. You can vote for who you think should win and they all voted for me”. So I thought that was pretty cute because that doesn't always happen, they might have connected with somebody else.

What was done at Lakewood with the grant money that you won as part of your prize?

We got a new base xylophone, and during COVID-19 we had purchased ukuleles, so I purchased a ukulele stand that holds all 30 of my ukuleles instead of storing them in the boxes. They got some new mallets for the instruments, along with some microphones and stands and a couple of tabanos. The microphones are going to be great for doing concerts and stuff like that. So that should be coming in the next little while, they're pretty excited.

Maybe this question is a little bit more fun. What did you do with your prize money?

We are planning a trip to Paris in 2025, so I put some money aside for that. Just did some stuff around the house. Some of it did go on to a bit of line of credit that I have [laughs], because you know you have to pay those things down. But I haven't spent it all yet. So I was really wanting to save some to go to Paris and just putting it away for future.

That's fabulous. And my last question is do you have any advice for this year's winner?

Just take it all in… you deserve it, you work hard. We really get overlooked a lot, even in our school systems, because they're always talking math, reading, writing, but music is so important. Just relish in the moment and just take in all of the accolades you're going to get, because you're going to get a lot of them. Just enjoy every single moment of it because it's earned and it's well deserved.

That is so wonderful, you just made [us] so excited for [The JUNOS]! Jewel, thank you so much for giving us your time and giving us your thoughts.

*Interview condensed for readability.