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September 8, 2023

Spreading Joy with the Sunshine Ratio

In episode 74 of Teaching Channel Talks, we were joined by Katie Silcott, a Grammy-nominated music educator whose passion for spreading joy is reflected in her teaching philosophy with something she calls, “the Sunshine Ratio.” In this inspiring and delightful conversation, Wendy and Katie discuss the impact of teaching junior high as well as Katie’s experience being nominated for a Grammy.

If you weren’t able to listen in, now you can read through Wendy and Katie’s conversation and discover the impact of the Sunshine Ratio and instilling positivity in everyone around us.

Wendy: I’m grateful to have time with you because I feel like you have messages that teachers across the country really need to hear, and this is certainly messaging that is appreciated and celebrated in your school district. You’ve got an amazing website and an incredible reputation, talk to me about your students and why you love them so much. 

Katie: Oh my goodness! Teaching middle school is a treasure and I happen to work in a building full of teachers who love to teach 6th through 8th graders. I actually started teaching high school when I first graduated from Ohio State and it was fine. I loved it, but during that time I got to visit the middle school in my district and just got to know the kids and the magic of that age level. So, after five years, I switched to middle school because I felt like I could make such a big impact at that age.

I also think I love it because when I was in 6th grade, that was when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I had a phenomenal choir teacher and being in her class was my favorite part of the day. I remember talking to her and asking how I could do what she did for my career. I asked her to help me and she took me under her wing. I remember feeling so confident at that age. When you’re 11, 12, 13, you’re figuring a lot of things out and she just helped me feel so comfortable with myself and my strengths. So if I could do that for kids, I think that’s the precious part of teaching that age level. 

Wendy: You and I are both middle school educators and there is something magical about that age group. You are a vocal music teacher but you teach so much more than vocals! Talk to me about that. 

Katie: What I love so much about Shanahan, the school where I teach, is that the general culture of kids and teachers makes it such a great place to be. I am very lucky I get to teach choir and I have 240 students, which is a good amount of the school population. But it’s just so nice to be in a building where there is just such community and everybody belongs and has a way to contribute to their school and environment.

Wendy: There may be some people who think learning to sing is more of a hobby. How would you address somebody who says, “Oh, maybe you should take something else?”

Katie: That’s an amazing question because so often I hear adults say, “I was told I never could sing.” Now, I’m really lucky to be able to go to our fifth-grade schools and recruit the kids. I get to talk to them about the middle school choir and all of our music ensembles and ways they could get involved. And so when I’m talking to these kids, I always suggest that they try it in sixth grade. I tell them, “Don’t let anyone tell you can’t Sing.”

If you can talk, you can sing. This inclusiveness is something that I love to have every year, and it is really nice for kids because then they try it in 6th grade and see if it’s something that they can excel in or even just have fun with. Some kids will never want to sing a solo, they just want to be with their friends and sing together, and that’s amazing! That’s great! But usually, they stick with it. I retain a lot of kids from 6th all the way through 8th grade and I tell the kids, I’m really excited and very privileged that I get to be their teacher for more than just one year. 

Wendy: I would imagine that you speak very kindly when you talk to people about the benefits of vocal music, but you know, deep down vocal music is about community, connections, relationships, and listening to one another, which are all qualities that we, as adults, value so highly.

I love that in the video clips that I’ve seen of your students on your website, I can see real joy on their faces, and that’s an expression you don’t see in a lot of other classes. I don’t often walk by the math classroom and see the same facial expressions!

Katie: Yes! I think kids feel like throughout their day they have to be so serious, or they have to be concentrating, but to be able to let loose is super nice and it’s so wonderful to hear from people that see us that they do feel that genuine joy. 

Wendy: There are a lot of benefits to the individual students that are in your care in the classroom. Talk to me about some of the transformations that you’ve seen in the individual musicians who come into your class. 

Katie: Ohh, I love it! My favorite thing is to be able to meet my students at age 11 or 12, and and watch them grow. I have kids who have been singing forever and they were made for the stage, but then the coolest part is meeting those kids who don’t want to take a study hall and don’t want to play an instrument, but they decide they want to do music. Seeing those kids and how they have come out of their shells so much, that’s such a beauty. I’ve had kids who signed up in 6th grade and then maybe took a year off in 7th grade, and then they come back in 8th grade and say, “I don’t know why I stopped this!”

I’m so lucky, I teach a first-period, 8th-grade class and they come in at 7:20 in the morning. They’re always so tired since we start really early and it’s wonderful to just be able to wake up together. We dance a little bit, we sing, and it gets them to break down the shield of feeling self-conscious or that they have to hold themselves back. Starting the day with them in a way that they can just be themselves and feel comfortable is incredible. Then, I get to see them go on to prepare for high school and have that confidence that they gained in my classroom. I’m like a proud parent of hundreds and hundreds of kids each year!

Wendy: You’ve been teaching for 21 years, and with hundreds of students every year, you really have a ripple effect. With the thousands of students that have come through your program, what are some of the long-term benefits that you’ve seen? 

Katie: Well first and foremost, I love seeing the students I’ve had who have become teachers. That has been awesome, to be able to still keep in touch with so many former students who are now in their 5th, 6th, or even 10th year of teaching. I even got to work with some of my former students at my school! I love to see how they have realized the impact they could have on kids, just like I realized my impact when I was in 6th grade. So that’s the beauty, and it’s going to happen forever! We’re going to have that experience as long as we have kids in our classroom, we’ll be able to impact them and see that ripple effect. And then it’s wonderful to see kids, maybe not become teachers, but still be able to reference their most precious times, realize their new strength, and then apply that to their lives. It’s just so cool!

Wendy: You may be single-handedly taking care of the teacher shortage by inspiring people to come into the profession! 

Katie: I hope so because it’s the best! I have two kids, one in middle school and one in elementary, and I always tell them that teaching is the best job. You get to have a new year, every year, and you get to help people grow, and it’s really just the best. 

Wendy: One of the messages that you and I may enjoy sharing with educators right now is thinking about a life outlook of optimism. That’s part of your core being, can you tell me how to keep this optimistic outlook?

Katie: I feel like it’s hard. I mean, we’ve all been through hard times, and in my first few years of teaching, people really questioned me because I always had an outlook of optimism and positivity. Now that I’m in my twenty-first year of teaching I can say for sure that I’ve seen how positivity impacts people. I just feel life is too short to wake up every day and be worried about everything, or to be apprehensive or stressed.

I’ve done a lot of reading about how to flip the ratio, with what I call “The Sunshine Ratio.” For every one thing that might be stressing you out, try to find two things to counter that. This really shifts your mindset and it’s not easy to do all the time, but if a kid comes in worried that they bombed their algebra test, I try to talk them through it. I’ll ask them, “How did the rest of your day go?” or “What are you doing after school?” It doesn’t always take the stressful thing away, but it’s a good way to shift the mind frame. 

Wendy: The sunshine ratio sounds like a strategy that everybody, in all circumstances, at all ages, should keep up their sleeves!

Katie: Definitely! One of my favorite articles that I’ve read is by Jennifer Gonzalez, about “The Marigold Effect.” I don’t know if you’ve heard or talked about the Marigold effect, but it basically says, in your school, find the person on your staff that you know is going to build you up because a Marigold is a nurturing flower and you plant it next to things that you want to keep bugs away from. I remember when that article first came out and I just thought, how could I be a Marigold for someone else? When new teachers start in my building, how can I be that for them or show them where those Marigolds are? 

Wendy: Your character comes through in the way you describe the Marigold effect because you’ve done two things very clearly. You’ve said to make sure you find your Marigold so you have a place where you have some support and that someone who is going to be a strength for you, but at the same time you’re also saying remember that you may also be a Marigold to others. What else could we offer to teachers who have been in the field for a while that may help them prevent burnout? 

Katie: I know I mentioned the sunshine ratio and I mentioned finding the optimism, but I also think we need to be careful not to put too much pressure on ourselves. With social media, it’s easy to see what everyone else is doing in their classrooms and feel like you have to conquer the world or be the teacher of the year every year. I think we just need to make sure we’re realistic with our goals. Find things that bring you joy and then really open your eyes and see how you impact students, that can be so renewing. And again, not biting off so much that you are overwhelmed, but counting the small joys, adding them up, and keeping them close. I say that I love teaching in part because we are off in the summer. It’s fantastic to just unplug, reflect, and then spend time not thinking about school for a little bit. 

Wendy: I’m smiling as I hear you remind educators to maybe put less pressure on themselves and make sure that they renew, but you’re also an award-nominated instructor! So it’s just funny to think about. You encourage them to relax and alleviate pressure, but at the same time, you are so celebrated! So, Katie, tell me about your nomination. 

Katie: So ironically, that all came about during those crazy pandemic times when we were all learning from home. I remembered back a few months ago before everything happened, we were talking about the Grammys in class. We always do a little side lesson on pop music, just to keep things current, and during the lesson one of my kids asked if I had ever won a Grammy. And I laughed, I said, “Oh, there’s no there’s no Grammy for teaching. You know, I’m not Adele, I’m not Taylor Swift, I’m a teacher!”

The Grammy Museum, which is a part of the Recording Academy, focuses on outreach and education, and every year they award a music educator Grammy award. It was 2020, we were all at home, we didn’t know what was happening with getting back into school, and I got this e-mail that said one of my students nominated me for this teaching award. In order to move forward in the process, we were given the chance to submit a couple of videos and interview some coworkers, employers, or people who knew us well, so it was a great time to reflect upon my last 20 years of teaching. I pulled some old footage of my classes, and my choirs from the early 2000s, and I sent everything in and then found out a few months later that I had made the top 25 in the country.

Then, in December of 2021, because there was a little break during COVID times, I found out I was in the top ten in the nation and that was awesome. It was so cool to bring attention to Shanahan and the kids felt like rock stars, because we had the news come in, and it was really wonderful to shine a light on that group after we had been through such crazy years. I got to meet the nine other educators who were so fantastic in their own little parts of the United States and then I ended up not winning, but the gentleman who won was a middle school from Texas and he was phenomenal! I’m super happy for him and just happy I got to be a part of the process, it was awesome.

Wendy: A student nomination feels especially meaningful, that really took some initiative! It would have been easy for students to not take on that project of nominating you, but what a statement.

Katie: Especially a preteen, a middle schooler who’s still figuring out life, to have them do that was so special. That’s what I’ve learned again and again at my school, is how much beauty there is in taking time to tell someone that they’ve been special to you or to show them or to write them a letter. I think I would use that in my toolbox for sure, to keep yourself renewed in the field. 

Wendy: Let’s add a takeaway lesson from that story that we should never underestimate our students, even the middle schoolers, with all the things they have going on. They really have amazing potential and are acting on it. It’s not potential that’s going to be actualized or realized down the line—it’s right now! 

Katie: Absolutely, just cherish that and help that grow in kids. It’s so important for them to feel that way, to get to feel reflective. Even in the hardest times, they should know there’s still beauty in places and you can still reflect and think about good things in your life. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the full episode of Teaching Channel Talks and find accompanying learning resources here.

Our Guest

Katie Silcott is a Grammy-nominated music educator passionate about spreading joy to her students every day. This is her 22nd year teaching and she is currently at Olentangy Shanahan Middle School in Lewis Center, OH. Over the past 14 years, she has presented clinics at three Ohio Music Educators Association Professional Conferences and is the Treble Honor Choir Chair for the Ohio Choral Directors Association. Her music-teaching philosophy is centered around the idea that “music is for everyone!”

Our Host

Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Resources for Continued Learning

Connect with Katie Silcott through her website, or on her social media!

In this episode, Katie Silcott talks about the Sunshine Ratio and shares five ways parents and educators can support their middle schoolers. Now, you can put the information into practice with this free downloadable!


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