Like a symphony conductor, teacher Justin Elks unifies and sets the tempo of his elementary school music classes.
Keeping his energy high, Elks switches between music instruction and keeping wayward students on the same page as if the entire classroom experience was a quick and lively allegro.
Elks was one of a handful of new teachers brought on this semester to teach in the Clear Creek School District. The relatively new teacher spends half his time at Carlson Elementary School and half at King-Murphy Elementary teaching K-6 music.
Elks said his day-to-day inspiration comes from seeing his students learn and progress musically.
“That’s probably the best part,” Elks said. “It’s tough to get started and get them rolling with your particular (teaching) style, but once it happens and you start seeing their little faces light up — ‘Oh, I just figured this out’ or ‘I did it right, and I got positive reinforcement for it’ — that’s like the best part about it.”
The job in Clear Creek is Elks’ second teaching position. He taught students in kindergarten through 12th grade at the Cripple Creek-Victor school district for a year.
Elks is a recent graduate from Colorado State University where he received his master’s degree in music performance in percussion. Before coming to Colorado, Elks attended Louisiana State University, where he received a degree in music education.
Elks’ inspiration to become a teacher came from his high school music teacher in Georgia.
“When I was in high school, my percussion instructor, he basically became a mentor for me — and so he pretty much inspired me to go into teaching,” Elks said.
Elks knows how to play roughly a dozen different instruments — a necessity when his eyes and ears carefully gauge the sounds coming from the musical conglomeration in a room full of novice musicians at Carlson.
He said his goal is to help grow the voluntary band class and music program into something larger. Currently, between the two elementary schools, he teaches about 400 students.
“I’m having a very hard time memorizing names,” Elks jokes. “Four hundred is a lot at the moment — but I know people who teach more than that at bigger elementary schools.”
While not impossible, it is unlikely that all of his students will become professional musicians or work in music-related fields, but Elks said their musical journeys won’t necessarily come to an end.
Elks said the importance of having a music education comes down to two aspects: enrichment and appreciation.
According to Elks, music gives his students a broader cultural sense of the world.
“You get to learn about different places in the world; we do a lot of studies of different countries,” Elks said. “I’m a percussionist, and my instrument is from all over the world; I have instruments (from) Asia, Africa … that right there enriches the students’ lives.”
Elks said his main goal for sixth-graders is to have them carry forward an understanding and appreciation for music through life.
“So they could go to a concert of the Colorado Symphony and they could say, ‘That’s a violin, that’s a viola, that’s the percussion, the snare drum, the bass drum; I’ve heard that piece before.’ They have that knowledge that furthers them as an adult,” Elks said.
Each day, when one of his students walks out the door of his classroom, he hopes they’re excited and that they’ve learned something that will carry them until the next class.
“If they come back not excited and it keeps happening over and over again, I’ve made a mistake — that’s something that I’m doing wrong because all these students can learn and appreciate music. It just depends on, ‘Am I doing it correctly?’ “ Elks said.
Which he said is a question that he asks himself on a regular basis.
“ ‘How did that class go? Well, I had three students talking the whole time, and I had four students doing their best. Well, we need to try and balance the equation a little bit.’ ”
Elks said that when he became a teacher, his high school mentor offered some advice: Each day, spend some time thinking about what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.
“… And continue on and just try to keep moving forward,” Elks said. “It is kind of some of the better advice you can get from your mentors.”