Winning Awards & Changing Student's Lives:Mar 08, 2023 04:39PM ● By Tamsen Butler
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Choir members at Central High School have been enthusiastic in their praise of choral director Sara Cowan. Many of her glowing descriptors have included influential, passionate, sensitive, and caring.
The educator has earned those accolades over more than a decade during her tenure at Central, where she directs the school’s A Cappella Choir and the Central High School Singers, co-directs the Junior Chorus, teaches music theory, and serves as Central’s performing arts department head. She is also on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access Committee for the Nebraska Music Education Association and is the social justice chair for her synagogue.
Cowan herself is a former Eagle, that is, a Central alumna. She graduated from the high school in 2004 before going on to earn her BA from Grinnell College in 2008 and a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 2010. She joined Central’s faculty in 2012. “I really love the school, love teaching there, and can’t imagine teaching anywhere else.”
Given this background, it’s unsurprising that remaining sensitive to her students’ needs and making sure they feel safe and protected are Cowan’s guiding priorities.
“It’s important when you’re in choir and you’re doing something vulnerable like sharing your voice, that you feel safe and that you feel validated and comfortable,” she reflected. “I try really hard to make my classroom a space for that, and I guess that comes across as being a good listener.”
Her respect for each student’s individual experience is evident in how she speaks about them.
“A lot of my students right now have diverse gender experiences, like trans or non-binary,” Cowan explained. “Choir is traditionally gendered, so early in my career instead of saying, ‘tenors and basses,’ I’d say ‘gentlemen or men, let’s sing this.’ I worked to change those things and change our dress code for concerts and asking students to share their pronouns, that kind of thing.”
This caring approach resonates deeply with her students.
“Ms. Cowan has been one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever had,” said Central High School senior Ella Novak. “Her ability to share her love and passion for music has influenced me to pursue a career in music myself.”
Cowan’s impact on her students’ lives hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2016, she earned the esteemed designation of Young Conductor of the Year from the Nebraska Choral Directors Association.
“Yes,” she laughed, “At one point I was a ‘young’ conductor.”
The awards kept coming. The choral director was named Central High School’s Teacher of the Year in 2021. One year later, she garnered her most prestigious accolade yet when she received a Country Music Association Foundation’s Music Teachers Award. The prize recognizes professional excellence and includes a $5,000 grant: half for the classroom and half for the teacher to spend as they wish. Demonstrating her commitment to diversity and inclusivity, Cowan is commissioning new music by Black, brown, and women composers for her students to sing.
“CMA does an awesome job recognizing teachers,” she observed. “They’re passionate about music education, so I got to go to the awards ceremony in October in Nashville. That was a lot of fun.”
The ceremony included 10 teachers from Nashville, 10 from greater Tennessee, and another 10 from the rest of the nation. Cowan’s win was a significant achievement because so few teachers were selected from outside Tennessee, and only one hailed from Nebraska.
“I’m not a super fan of country or anything,” Cowan admitted. Instead, she listens to an eclectic mix of music, with classical being her most frequent selection.
She feels that as a music teacher, she’s at a distinct advantage in watching students grow into their talents.
“We get to see kids all four years sometimes, and the growth we get to see from the beginning of freshman year to the end of senior year is incredible,” she explained. “In my ninth grade class, I always do a solo unit, and I always tell them, ‘you don’t have to sing a solo. I’m never going to make you sing one,’ but I offer everyone the opportunity to try. It’s amazing how many kids in the beginning are like, ‘No way. Not me. I would never do that.’ Four weeks later, they’re doing it. Years later, as juniors and seniors, they’re taking that solo to a district music contest. Seeing that growth inspires me.”
Cowan is also moved by how her students learn to work together.
“Ensemble music takes collaboration at a really high level,” she said. “About three months into performing, the students all realize that they needed to include everyone.”
That inclusion and inclusivity is what keeps Cowan teaching Eagles.
“I love my job,” she said. “I really enjoy it, and there is nothing else I would rather do.”
For more information about Sara Cowan’s choral program, visit ops.org/central.
This article originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Family Guide.