With one hand, Todd Eckstein snaps to mimic a metronome. With the other, he holds up a finger like a conductor would a baton. He cues his sixth graders to begin.
“Here we are, everybody’s at play…”
The 10 Lincoln Middle School students all command their instruments on Jan. 21. Callow blares of the tuba, trumpets, flutes and saxophone all come together to create a children’s rendition of “Sawmill Creek.” The song still sounds like a cacophony, but it’s only the start of the school year for the beginning band class. Eckstein remains encouraging — even as the orchestra fades.
“Better or worse than the first time we tried it?”
The kids respond. One extends a thumbs-up over his brass tuba.
Then their lesson continues.
Eckstein, 46, takes seriously his role as director of instrumental music at Lincoln Middle School. He has for the past 15 years. In 2014, his students broke the county record for the number of school qualifiers sent to the Florida All-State music ensembles in a single year.
On Thursday, Eckstein was named Alachua County’s top teacher at the Robert W. Hughes Teacher of the Year program celebration.
“I really want the students to know that I’m interested in them as people,” Eckstein said. “And then once we can develop those relationships and build trust, that’s when we’re able to do the hard things, such as learning how to play an instrument, because that’s one skill that nobody has naturally at all. We all start from absolute zero for those of us that play.”
The annual Robert W. Hughes Teacher of the Year program honors one teacher from each of the 40 public schools in Alachua County. All 40 receive a $500 reward. One teacher is then selected out of the 40 and celebrated as the county’s teacher of the year. Last year, the event was held virtually due to COVID-19 concerns. This year guests were welcomed, though most still observed from behind masks.
“It’s a much more visceral feeling to be there with people and see everyone,” Eckstein said. “It feels more like a community.”
Three teachers were finalists for the 2022 Robert W. Hughes program: Nicole Duncan, a first-grade teacher at Rawlings Elementary School; Kendra Vincent, an English teacher at Buchholz High School and Eckstein. All were present and spoke at the event.
Eckstein will go on to represent Alachua County Public Schools in the Florida Teacher of the Year program. An Alachua County public school teacher has yet to win the statewide Teacher of the Year title, which has existed for over 50 years.
“I’m going to do the absolute best that I can to represent all the hard working teachers in Alachua County,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility. I’m really excited to showcase what we’ve got going on here in North Central Florida.”
The Jan. 27 event marked the 30th anniversary of the Robert W. Hughes program. Hughes — program founder and former superintendent of schools for Alachua County — was also present to congratulate the finalists.
Some students also attended. According to a press release, Miles Smith, one of Eckstein’s eighth grade students, spoke about his teacher at the ceremony.
“I always look forward to his class,” Smith said. “He’s made my middle school experience so much more enjoyable, even during the pandemic.”
Eckstein teaches drumline band, beginning band, intermediate band, advanced band and string orchestra at Lincoln Middle School.
Since he first caught sight of a saxophone as a fifth grader in Wisconsin, music became what kept him in school. Now he hopes music does the same for his students.
“When I was in school, I wasn’t necessarily the best student, but there were always music classes that kept me interested and kept me focused,” Eckstein said. “I wanted to share that experience with kids that were just getting started, to give them something to look forward to and a reason to enjoy going to school. We just gotta get through the starting process of it.”