Throughout the difficulties of the pandemic, Pamela Dawson considered quitting her music teaching job at DeSoto High School in Texas – until a student showed up in her office one day and told her she loved her class and her use of music to heal.
Dawson remembers thinking “I can’t leave you.”
“I felt like they needed somebody to believe in them,” she said.
TheGRAMMY Awards recognized “Mama Dawson” with the Music Educator Award in part for making her class a home for future professional musicians at an urban school where few students can afford private music lessons, and where many of the teens are navigating mental health challenges and other struggles.
The award, now in its 10th year, included a $10,000 stipend, which Dawson said she’ll use to help her students pay for individualized, private vocal training outside of school.
“Many people in those seats were impacted by a teacher like her,” said Rita George, the chief program officer of the GRAMMY Museum Foundation, about the attendees of the award show Sunday. “Many people were thinking about their own teacher who impacted them.”
An advocate for music education in public schools
Dawson wants to use her new fame to advocate for states to invest in music programs.
School music and arts education programs are already considered to be severely underfunded, creating inequitable access to those classes, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Dawson left her hometown of Detroit and a previous job at a private school when music programs across the city were being scaled back. She landed a job at DeSoto High School outside Dallas.
Many of her students have gone on to high-level music programs, and have performed on Broadway, according to the DeSoto Independent School District.Her award-winning school choir program has won state and national recognition during her 16 years there.
“She has touched the lives of countless students,” the school district said.
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Dawson said feelings of “excitement” overwhelmed her amid the attention that followed the award.
By Wednesday, she was back to teaching her students to sing.
What is the Music Educator Award?
The GRAMMY Museum and the Recording Academy established the Music Educator Award to “recognize and celebrate the affirming role that music teachers play in the lives of their students.”
A committee chooses a winner based on their impact on students’ lives. Dawson was selected from about 1,200 applicants and 10 finalists. Dawson recounted a story about saving a student’s life who had depression in her application, George said.
“Many students we talked to credit her with their well-being,” she said.
USA TODAY spoke with Dawson about the award, her students and her hopes for music programs nationwide.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity
Q. What does the Grammy award mean to you and your students?
“I didn’t expect to get the award. I wasn’t going to go through with the nomination, but my students said, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and apply?’ I did it before last year and didn’t win, and so I said, ‘Do I really want to go through this again?’
The students said, ‘just try.’ They’re the ones who encouraged me.
As educators, we’re the small people on the totem pole. We’re not recognized all the time. The students said when I got back, ‘Well Ms. Dawson, you inspire me to give all that I have.'”
Q. How did it feel to win?
“I was ecstatic because I knew some of the conductors and the people I was up against who are powerhouses. I was thinking ‘Maybe they were making a mistake.’
After the pandemic, the students just needed a space to release. Now they’re seeing the correlation between music and reading and math. … This wonderful world of music is helping them on what they’re learning in other classes.”
Q. What are the effects of cuts to spending on music programs?
“They’re cutting these programs thinking they’re saving money, and instead putting money into reading, writing, arithmetic and other programs. … Well, if you don’t give (fine arts students) the opportunity, you’re going to lose these students.”
Q. What does music mean to you?
“I came from a musical family, and all I knew was to always have song in your heart. … I never wanted to teach or be a performer; I just loved music.
My music teachers made me feel that music completes you. It’s a calming spirit. It’s my passion. It is just to me a great gift to have, and I love sharing that gift with other people, with other students, and to replicate it.”
Q. Who are your favorite musicians?
“My top musicians include Stevie Wonder … and Bobbie McFarren … To me, the Motown era is what I love.
And I loved being around all of those artists at the show. It was like heaven to me. I loved hearing Adele, and the winner of the Best New Artist Award Samara Joy … And I lost my mind when LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and others performed for the anniversary of hip-hop.”
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Q. What’s next for you and the music program at DeSoto High?
“I told them to get ready! Now that I won the Grammy, I said ‘You need to elevate and step up and act like a Grammy-winning school!'”
Contact Kayla Jimenez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.