Ottawa High School music teacher, Lori Underwood, thought Tuesday would just be a normal morning at school. There was an assembly planned which was not out of the ordinary. What she did not know is that the assembly was in her honor. Underwood was named the Kansas Music Educators Association’s (KMEA) music educator of the year.
“It was extremely exciting and pretty shocking,” Underwood said. “I had no idea. They had an assembly planned as a ruse and I completely fell for it. The second I knew something was up was when I saw Gretchen Bixler, who is our KMEA president I thought ‘oh no, there is only one reason she could be here.’ I started trembling and was just a loss for words.”
Underwood has been teaching for 23 years, the last eight have been in Ottawa as the high school vocal music teacher. Bixler told the crowd at the assembly about the selection process.
“Each year, each district nominates three outstanding music teachers in the category of elementary, middle school and high school music teachers,” she said. “Each district then nominates one of their outstanding music educators for the state award. The state selection committee thoroughly studies these seven nominations and they select the most deserving candidate for the KMEA Music Educator of the Year.
“This year’s honoree is Lori Underwood... The number of letters supporting Mrs. Underwood for this award are amazing.”
Bixler read from some of those letters at the assembly.
Dr. Ryan Cobbs, USD 290 superintendent, wrote one of the letters expressing how impressed he was at Underwood’s dedication to the students and the district.
“I have lived in a constant state of awe witnessing Lori’s extreme pride in her profession and for her students. Her vision is as a teacher and a performer and possibly the most impressive is her ability to engage students in such a way they yearn to be apart of her programs.”
Dr. James Dougherty, Associate Professor, Choral/Vocal Pedagogy Director, Graduate Studies in Music Education & Music Therapy at University of Kansas wrote about Underwood’s dedication to her craft.
“As unassuming as she may be, Mrs. Underwood is a savvy, fiercely dedicated, roll-up her sleeves outstanding music educator. The way she has changed lives through music as her students can testify is why Lori Underwood is most deserving of the most outstanding music educator award.”
Former OHS student, Tony Martin, wrote about Underwood’s impact on his life.
“I decided to add choir to my schedule and it was not even two weeks later that I knew I wanted to be a music educator. Mrs. Underwood had such a profound impact on my life through her compassion, musicality and her passion for music, people and bringing those things together to form something greater.”
With the assembly taking place in the morning, Underwood had the rest of the day to ponder the significance of the award. She said those thoughts kept coming around to her students.
“Yesterday after this all happened I had my five choirs in a row,” she said. “I thanked each one of my choirs because a teacher is nothing without their students. Every day my students teach me what I need to teach. They are like your children. When you set boundaries they test those boundaries and that teaches you how to parent. And so I am a reflection of what my students teach me. Wherever they need help I go out and research. I never stop learning. This award is a direct reflection of my students, across the board, every year that I have taught.”