IMEA Student Teacher of the Year, Monmouth Grad Kaitlyn McCullough ’23, in Charge of Choirs at Orion


For quite some time, 2023 graduate Kaitlyn McCullough knew she wanted to go to Monmouth College. She just didn’t know what she was going to do when she got there.

“As a freshman, I was undecided, technically,” said McCullough. “I remember telling my admission counselor, ‘I don’t really know what I want to do.’ I knew I wanted to do music in some capacity, so I joined the Chorale.”

Being part of the vocal ensemble at the College included singing in Austria and the Czech Republic on the group’s spring break trip to Europe in 2020.

Also during that freshman year, the Presbyterian Scholarship recipient found herself firmly on the academic fence as she took a pair of introductory courses – one on the Hebrew Bible with former faculty member Dan Ott, and the other on music theory with professor Tim Pahel.

“By the end of my freshman year, music won out, and I declared it as my major,” said McCullough.

Her first teaching award

Three years later, McCullough was in the final stages of earning her music education degree, completing her student teaching in the Monmouth-Roseville district. The experience went so well that she was named the Student Teacher of the Year by the Illinois Music Education Association.

“As part of my teacher licensure track, I observed the practicum at the local schools – what they were doing in elementary school, in middle school and at the high school,” said McCullough. “While I was at the high school, their music director, Kevin Ferry, asked, ‘Do you know where you’re going to student-teach yet?’ I told him I didn’t, and he said, ‘You should student-teach with me.'”

“Kaitlyn was given the freedom for a lot of hands-on experience, including working with the choirs and serving as a musical director,” said Pahel.

“I really loved his kids, and I got to help out with their musical, which was Footloose,” said McCullough. “I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”

Her first job

Ferry also told McCullough of an open position at Orion, a school district in M-R’s conference, and McCullough, who graduated from Monmouth with department honors, got the job. She directs the grade 6-12 choirs and is in charge of the music side of Orion’s spring theatre production. She also directs Syncopation, Orion High School’s vocal jazz ensemble.

“I’m making wonderful connections with the kids,” she said. “I loved the recognition that came from the IMEA, but there have been so many other little moments with students affirming that I’m in the right career. A lot of it is seeing the same person in my students that I was at their age.”

Teachers have long delighted in “light bulb” or “a-ha” moments, when a student finally grasps a key concept. That’s something that McCullough has experienced, too.

“Maybe we had a rough rehearsal, and there’s some tension in the room,” she said. “It’s that student coming up and saying they want to go above and beyond. ‘I want to work harder. I want to take on a bigger role.'”

As she works with students trying to figure out their next step in education, McCullough said she’ll be an advocate for Monmouth College. One way she’s done that is to have Pahel and some of his students visit Orion to talk about how music can work in college.

“Dr. Pahel explained what Monmouth College is all about, and how Chorale is made up of students from all majors – that it’s not only a group for music majors,” said McCullough. “One of the biggest things he told them was, ‘You don’t have to major in music, but you should always be involved in music.'”

Music professor Justin Swearinger, who serves as the College’s director for instrumental activities, will soon be making the 40-minute drive to Orion for a similar session.

Her first time on campus

McCullough said her first exposure to Monmouth came as a seventh-grade student when she attended the LUX Summer Institute for Theological Leadership directed by Ott’s wife, the Rev. Teri Ott, who was Monmouth’s chaplain for more than a decade.

“I fell in love with the campus and I knew I wanted to go there,” said McCullough, who was still too young to be a student at Greenview High School, located north of Springfield and west of Lincoln.

Eventually, she landed on a major at the school that was at the top of her list for a solid five years.

“I love it. I love it,” said McCullough of her career choice. “It’s super rewarding. Good music is being made here.”

***Courtesy of Barry McNamara, Monmouth College***

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