Sarah Guterman: Celebrating 39 Years Of Musical Wonder

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.

Sarah Guterman, doing what she loves: teaching music.

Sarah Guterman, doing what she loves: teaching music.

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.

Sarah Guterman's Kings Highway classroom is packed with musical "stuff."

Sarah Guterman’s Kings Highway classroom is packed with musical “stuff.”

“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.

A sign in Sarah Guterman's classroom says it all.

A sign in Sarah Guterman’s classroom says it all.

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.

Sarah Guterman and fellow music teacher Carrie Kohlun plan upcoming lessons.

Sarah Guterman and fellow music teacher Carrie Kohlun plan upcoming lessons.

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.”

9 responses to “Sarah Guterman: Celebrating 39 Years Of Musical Wonder

  1. Gerry Kuroghlian

    Sarah has built a firm music foundation for hundreds of students and has also been a strong advocate for preserving music in light of proposed reductions over the years. I am proud to have knon an adired her as a teacher.

  2. Thank you, Mrs. Guterman, for your excellent music classes at Hillspoint circa 1977. I still remember you and the classroom, the recorders and xylophones, and the addictively singable tune that I’ve since taught my own children, “C-O-F-F-E-E, Coffee is no-ot fo-or me.” I loved that song — we sang it in rounds — and who knows, perhaps it’s why I’m not slave to a coffee cup today! And by the way, I hear you on the testing nonsense. It’s a major reason why I pulled my kids out of public school. Have you heard of Waldorf? Freedom, creativity, and tons of music. Congratulations on a career that has touched so many lives.

  3. Judy Luster

    Congratulations on your retirement Sarah. I’m sure it will an active, joyful, adventure filled time of life. I always felt we were on the same page. Reading Dan’s article confirmed it. Play and whimsy belong in every classroom and every life. They help us breathe, remember, connect, and grow through laughter and joy. Loved seeing readers theatre listed among the things you did with your students. And, children’s books belong on everyone’s shelves and not just to sit there and look pretty. All of the best to you.

  4. Catherine Davis

    Dan, in your great piece on Ms. Guterman, you mentioned in passing her plays. OMG!! Her plays were a major highlight of the KHS school year for children and parents. She found age and length appropriate plays and occasionally adjusted or added roles and songs as needed. Her students showed up at 7am for months to rehearse and we parents all had our jobs.What was unique about Ms. Guterman was that she was tough. She could be gruff and short with all of us and sometimes was driven to yell. When she assigned jobs to parents, we were too intimidated to say no. That’s how I learned to run a sound board! But when things went well, she would be genuinely thrilled and then the kids glowed for days. Everyone knew she did not have a “medals for everyone” philosophy, very rare in elementary school.
    Working hard at a team project, discovering new talents in yourself, learning to handle criticism, handling disappointment if you didn’t get the role you wanted, and discovering the joy of applause…and all before Middle School!!
    And did I mention that Ms Guterman did all this extra work on her own time, every year for years and years? Thank you, thank you Ms. Guterman from me and Gregory and Colin. You made a difference in all of us

  5. Jim Wheeler

    Congratulations Sarah! You were and are one of the “good guys” who made the Westport School System the great place it was during the “golden age.” I’m sure you will be missed but there is a wonderful life “out there” in retirement.
    And it is a shame that we have allowed politicians to decide what is best for our kids. All the testing is a travesty and has nothing to do with teaching or learning.
    All the best to you Sarah!

  6. Jennifer Thiemann

    Dan, thank you so much for writing this article. Sarah is not only a wonderful teacher, but an amazing person and she absolutely shines in the classroom. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to work alongside someone of such great talent at KHS and I learned so much from her. She absolutely deserves recognition for all of her hard work! Sarah, on behalf of your colleagues and students, past and present, thank you and congratulations on your retirement!

  7. Marina Evenstein

    We just moved to Westport last August and my kids have had a privilege of being her students this year. (well , still have two weeks left of it) When my seven year old learned she was retiring he cried, and my 10 y.o called it a tragedy. Even in this very short year they have been at KHS I could see how amazing she is. The musical she put on stage in a very short time, my kids constant singing and telling me about her lessons, the fourth grader recorders group…. Very sad that she is leaving and THANK YOU THANK YOU Mrs Gutterman for your hard work . Music is a transformation all of us need.

  8. David J Loffredo

    Ms. Guterman is a local treasure….I just missed having her at Burr Farms close to 35+ years ago but am glad my girls had a collective 17 years of her guidance.

    What many residents might not realize is that KHS is the last Westport elementary school to still put on an annual play – which is always an unbelievable hit that involves seemingly every 4th and 5th grader.

    I’m hopeful (although not optimistic) that we continue the tradition in her absence, so sad that a town that prides itself on its Arts has abandoned programs for our littlest residents.

  9. Suzanne Sherman Propp

    The day that Angela Wormser told me that Sarah Guterman would be my mentor was the luckiest day of my teaching career. Sarah is inspiring, creative, generous and passionate; she is also a loyal and loving friend and colleague. Thank you, Dan, for the wonderful recap on an amazing person. I will miss you, Sarah.