Knowing and loving your community
An interview with Sandy Baker

Sandy Baker is in her 40th year of teaching in the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg school district (KMS) and is a graduate of Kerkhoven-Sunburg herself. In our conversation she showed such love and deep respect for the people in her community and told moving stories about working there for her career. She’s hard to capture, but I hope you get a sense of her spirit in this interview.

Sandy Baker

EC: Tell us about your community and what you teach.

SB: I currently teach grades 4, 5, 6 general music, which totals about 165 students; I also teach 7th grade general music with 21 students; a 7th & 8th grade junior high choir which is 48 students; and 9th – 12th grade senior high choir which is 86 students. I have a pop group of twenty 9th – 12th grade students that meets outside of school, and I’m presently the musical director for The Sound of Music this fall, with a cast of 42. We’ve been rehearsing Sundays from 5-8:30 p.m. and also on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 6 – 8:30 p.m. We need to schedule our rehearsals like this because we have so many students who are also athletes and in other time-consuming activities. I’m full-time and I have about 350 students.

KMS stands for Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, and is located in west central Minnesota. The high school and preschool are in Kerkhoven and the Elementary (K-6) is in Murdock. There is also a preschool in Sunburg which incorporates Norwegian language and customs in their curriculum. I’m a graduate of Kerkoven-Sunburg high school and I was the last KSHS Eagle (KMS is now the Fighting Saints). When I was a senior, I was on the planning committee to prepare for consolidation, which combined the three rural communities of Kerkhoven, Murdock, and Sunburg. We made decisions about school colors, if the choir and band would stay on the same schedule, and we were also asked what we thought was important for college preparation and what activities we would like added. I think back to that time with a huge amount of respect and admiration for the administration, staff, and school board for giving students a voice in what we thought was important for combining the schools into one.

I have had several positions over the years. My first teaching position was in Sunburg teaching Music, Art, and Physical Education to grades K-4. After three years I was put on unrequested leave when they decided to close the Sunburg School. At that point I got a job in Brooten where I taught K-2 and 7-12 choirs for one year. In 1988 I was asked if I could come back to KMS and teach K-4 General music, in the elementary school in Murdock. In addition to being in the KMS elementary, I also directed several High School and community musicals, three long term substitute KMS Choir positions, and I accompanied for solos and ensembles. While teaching from 1984-2008 I worked with Sally Aronson Peterson who had been my music teacher from grades 2 – 12. We worked well together and complimented each other’s styles.  I guess we sort of read each other’s minds! In 2008, I began my present position teaching music to grades 4-12. I am happy to be starting my 40th year in teaching!

EC: Where did you go to college, and how did you get back to the KMS community?

SB: I went to the local Willmar Community College (now it’s Ridgewater) for two quarters, and then enrolled at University of Minnesota, Morris for a quarter. I liked U of M Morris, but I had made plans to go to Bemidji State University the next fall, so I headed north and finished my degree there. I knew they had a wonderful choral program with Dr. Paul Brandvik. I really liked my experience at BSU, and still feel it was a good fit for me. I feel fortunate to have done my student teaching in Brainerd with their outstanding choral program. In 2002 I received a master’s degree in education from Southwest State University, Marshall, Minnesota. I did my thesis on “How to teach without fear of intimidation,” which I thought was relevant for me, as a choral music director.

After I graduated (I finished college in 3 years) I started working at The Music Store in Willmar selling pianos and organs. I taught classes for adults to learn to play the “fun” organ, which was a popular instrument in the 80’s. In addition to group lessons, I also had about 30 voice, piano, and organ students, which included students from age 6 through adults. In 1982 I married David Baker, my high school sweetheart who was running the family business, Nolan Baker Ford, in Kerkhoven. Dave and his brother Tom took over the business so we were in our hometown. In June of 1984, the superintendent, Gary Shaw, called me, and asked if I would consider taking a position in Sunburg teaching Music, Art, and P.E to grades K-3. So, I started my teaching career in the fall of 1984 in Sunburg.

EC: What sustains you – how have you been able to do 40 years and keep the energy going?

SB: I love my job. I love the students. We are a small, rural community deeply rooted in agriculture. Most farms have been in the families for generations, and they are both grain farmers as well as livestock. We also have many small businesses that depend on local support to continue to thrive and grow. It’s important to understand and know the members of the community to be a more understanding educator. Knowing the lifestyles and work schedules of the students and families I teach has helped me be more empathetic, understanding, and compassionate. We have a diverse population, and many students come to KMS as open enrolled students from area communities. We also have churches, civic organizations, families, and community members that support the Arts in the KMS school. In addition to outstanding encouragement from the KMS community, we have an active KMS Music Parent group that helps and assists the choirs and bands in nearly everything we do. The KMS administration, staff, and school board are also very supportive of the choral program, along with the bands and theater programs. KMS is a good, good school in which to be a music teacher.

EC: Are you thinking about retiring soon?

SB: That’s a good question. I reached the rule of 90 in 2017, but I am just now finishing my 5th year of full-time teaching. I haven’t made any decisions about retirement. Presently I am enjoying an unbelievably talented and kind group of students. It is truly a great year!

EC: How has teaching at home influenced your effectiveness as an educator?

SB: Both my parents are from Kerkhoven and I have many relatives and lifelong friends in this area. There are many connections to students when you know their parents, grandparents, and extended families. I guess I see teaching in your hometown as an asset. Knowing the background of many of my students helps with understanding their desires, wishes, and goals as they get closer to adulthood. One story that exemplifies “teaching in your hometown” is from a meeting recently where several educators shared their concerns about a student’s academic work as well as their behavior. My response was: “Well, they’re doing so much better than their father and their uncles. So, there is improvement.”

EC: You’re able to really know their history and give context about the students.

SB: Yes, that is so true. One of the most unique experiences I ever had was a few years ago. One of my “new” 4th grade students was singing the scale for me. I stopped and asked her, “Do you, by any chance know ____ ? (I named a woman in her late 80’s). She said, “That is my great- grandma!” Well, I just recognized a unique and beautiful soprano voice that sounded familiar. Her great-grandmother went to school with my mother, and I graduated with her grandmother. When you can tell your student’s voice by their great-grandmother, you’ve been here a long time!

EC: What’s changed since you were a student there?

SB: This sounds so minor, but the biggest change for me is that when I was a student, and even when my daughters were in high school, we could often go down to the choir or band room during the day. My younger daughter would go down to the practice room and practice piano, voice, or saxophone daily. If her teacher was finished with the lecture and they’d have study time she was able to go to the music room, band room, or practice rooms and take time to practice. Now it is more monitored and restricted. For example, if I want to see students to work on solos, ensembles, or choir parts, they need a pre-signed pass. However, as I stated earlier, the KMS Staff is extremely supportive, and fortunately I do get the opportunity to see students throughout the day. It’s just a little bit more difficult.

Another big change is that we used to have choir and band every day. Now choir and band share an hour, and we are every other day. We make it work. The band director, Nathan Sikkink, is a joy to work with, and we work out the schedule as best as we can to keep our band and choir times equal. When you meet 2-3 times each week you have to make every minute count and hope you can squeeze in a few sectionals and lesson times outside of choir time.

EC: Any career highlights or moments you’re particularly proud of?

SB: I have a few. One of my former students sang in the Naval Academy Glee Club. A few years ago this well-known choir had a performance scheduled at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. We took a coach filled with KMS Band and Choir students and some KMS community members to support our KMS graduate. It was truly an amazing concert and a rewarding experience for the students who attended. It was a fantastic evening for me, seeing a former student performing with the Naval Academy Glee Club!

A highlight for me, too, is when students are selected in the ACDA Honor Choirs and/or the MMEA Honor Choirs.  This is always a thrilling and encouraging experience for me. An additional highlight is going to college choir concerts of former students. Seeing them perform at a higher level in the college attire is so rewarding for me.

I had another student who is now in law school. I said to this student, “You have done so well.” He said, “Well, Mrs. Baker, every great thing I did was mainly because of you.” It brought tears to my eyes.

Probably the greatest impactful moment was a few years ago. An elementary teacher called down to my room and said, “I have a student who wants to see you.” I was a little worried wondering if I’d done something wrong. I told her to send him down during my lunch time. When he came to my room, he put his hand on my arm and said, “Would you be able to get me a winter coat?” I said, “Well of course I can! Why did you ask me?” He said, “Because I knew you would say yes!” I asked for his size and his favorite colors. I don’t know when I’ve had more fun shopping. I got him a coat, a scarf, a hat, a face mask, and mittens. His reaction was priceless. He was so appreciative! All I could say was, “Thank you for asking.” Later, when I had time to think about how I had helped him, I realized he had helped me much more. He taught me how to be vulnerable, and how much we need each other. I could not possibly do my job without the support I get from those with whom I teach, and from the families of those I teach.

Another example of being rewarded as a teacher was last winter on one of the very cold days. A student who is very active on his family farm and dairy operation stopped by my room. He’s not in choir and I haven’t had him in class for 3-4 years. However, he came down to my room and said, “Hey, Mrs. Baker, can you drop me off on your way home? If you’re working late, I can wait for you. My parents are calving, and I don’t want to ask them to come and get me. Would you be able to drop me off at home?” I love that I’m not even his teacher right now, yet he feels comfortable enough to walk to my room and ask me to bring him home. I love the fact that my music room feels comfortable and welcoming.

Finally, other music teachers have been a highlight in my teaching career. I am thankful for the outstanding music staff I have been able to work with at KMS: Nathan Sikkink, Kristi Anderson, and Pam Diem. I am also grateful for the supportive administration, Martin Heidelberger, Superintendent, and High school principal Ted Brown and Elementary principal Jeff Keil. Outstanding colleagues and an administration that is always encouraging is rewarding, along with an awesome staff and community, which is evident at KMS.

EC: Do you have any advice for other teachers who find themselves teaching at their alma mater?

SB: Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t sacrifice your style for anyone. If you have a certain way of teaching, keep being YOU and stay true to yourself. We all need to make improvements in our teaching, but always remember to teach YOUR way and do what works for you! Be authentic, genuine, and make sure there’s relevance in everything you teach. Help students see why this is important and why it is so valuable for them to learn this from you now. If you are not exactly who you are, the students will see that on the very first day. Young people like when you’re real. Just. Be. YOU!

Elisabeth Cherland

Dr. Elisabeth Cherland is a fourth-generation choral conductor as well as professor, singer, song leader, violinist, and Lutheran church musician. As Director of Choral Activities at Minnesota State University, Mankato, she teaches courses in choral methods, conducting, private voice, and conducts the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. She lives with her partner Kent and their two children in St. Peter. She loves storytelling and story-hearing, doughnuts, bubble tea, running (when the temperature is perfect and the course is flat), and sunshine when it’s available.