Sarah Guterman always wanted to teach.
She wanted to teach in an elementary school classroom. She wanted to teach music. She wanted to give children the same love for rhythms, melodies, songs and stories that she’d enjoyed growing up.
For 39 years, she’s done just that.
As a kid in Mamaroneck, her family — including her Episcopalian minister father — gathered around the piano. Sarah’s mother — a 2nd grade teacher — played.
Sarah graduated from Skidmore in 1975, when there was a glut of teachers. She received 3 offers, though, and chose Westport because — located right on the Sound — it felt like home.
“Of course, I couldn’t afford to live here!” she laughs.
Her 1st job was at Hillspoint Elementary School. Then it closed.
She moved on to Burr Farms El. It closed too.
Her 3rd position was Green’s Farms. Unbelievably, it closed. “Whenever I got to a new school, people panicked!” she says.
She transferred to Long Lots, when it was K-8. She taught music in the hallway, then had a 3rd grade class.
When a job opened up at Kings Highway 25 years ago, Sarah had a choice: music or classroom. She chose music, and never regretted it.
“This school has a warmth to it,” she says. “It’s very supportive — the parents and the staff.”
The building is “challenging” — there have been ceiling issues, and a room was closed — but “the people are amazing. I’d take people over the physical plant any day of the week.”
Her passion is bringing children’s literature into the music room. She does it in many ways, including Readers Theater. Sarah explains, “I look for things in books like quatrains that can be sung.”
A strong advocate of the Orff Schulwerk music philosophy — she’s been past president of Connecticut’s OS association, and presents nationally on the curriculum — she appreciates that it “empowers children. They learn to work as a team, be flexible and make adjustments.” They do this by using many instruments, and utilizing rhythm and patterns via speech and movement.
In recent years, though, music education — much of education, in fact — has run headlong into standardized testing.
“The new state initiatives this year hit me hard,” Sarah admits. “I had to test kids on stuff I hadn’t taught, like note-reading, to prove later that I actually did teach it. For the first time ever, I had kids crying.”
The result, she says, is that “the whimsy” has been taken out of music education.
“Music is an art,” Sarah insists. “To use paper and pen to show data …” She shakes her head in disbelief.
“We’re treating children like a product from a factory,” she continues.
“Well, they’re not. They’re living, breathing organisms.”
State initiatives — and a national push toward testing — are a major reason Sarah is retiring this month. “After 39 years, if I can’t teach my best — it’s time,” she says.
Throughout her career, she has loved the freedom Westport gave her and her colleagues. “We’ve been able to develop our own school cultures and passions,” she says.
For example, Sarah’s choruses have produced plays. She’s done recorder ensembles, and dance. She’s given up plenty of free time to do it. But she does it because it’s what she’s always wanted to do.
“I love seeing a child skip out of my room saying, ‘That was fun!'” Sarah says. “It feels good to deliver a good lesson, but have them feel like they were playing. We need playfulness at the elementary level.”
In retirement, Sarah is not leaving children behind. She’ll head to Italy, but when she returns she looks forward to bringing picture books to life through “guest artist gigs.”
Sarah smiles. She sums up 4 decades of teaching — all of it in Westport’s elementary schools — very simply.
“What a dream!” she says. “I’ve been able to come to work, sing and tell stories!”
And thousands of boys and girls — some of them now men and women — are better human beings for Sarah Guterman’s passionate, creative and loving “work.”