One of CPS’ very own teachers was recently recognized by PEOPLE magazine for his outstanding work as band director at Rauner College Prep. The magazine recently named Robert J. Vega one of five “Teachers of the Year” and featured him in its October 22 issue, which hit newsstands on October 12. Vega was honored at a luncheon in New York on October 10, 2012, and received a prize of $4,000 for his school and $1,000 for himself from PEOPLE.
PEOPLE magazine’s readers sent in nominations for their favorite teachers, and then the magazine editors, in collaboration with an advisory board of education specialists, selected five teachers demonstrating an exceptionally positive impact in children’s lives. Several administrators at Rauner College Prep nominated Vega for his outstanding commitment to the music students at Rauner. On being selected for PEOPLE magazine Vega said, “I’m so happy that [they] chose a music teacher that wants music to be on the forefront of education. Music is such an important asset to a child’s education, and it’s such an important way important to give our students the well-rounded education that they really deserve.”
A Chicago native, Vega is a product of the Chicago Public Schools system. He grew up in Humboldt Park and attended Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Palmer Elementary Schools. Upon graduating from high school in 1999, Vega joined the Navy. He was the Command Bugler on the U.S.S. Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat. During his service on the U.S.S. Constitution, he was a part of many special events, and got to meet senators, such as John McCain (R- Arizona), John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), and the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
There also was an educational component to his work there, a program called “Ironsides Across the Nation.” “Ironsides Across the Nation is the reason I wanted to get in to teaching. It was so rewarding to see kids get excited about learning,” said Vega of his experience working with kids on the U.S.S. Constitution.
After leaving the Navy, Vega attended Berklee College of Music in Boston from 2002-2006 and received a degree in Music Education. When he finished college, he began his teaching career in the Boston area. After a couple of years teaching in Massachusetts, he decided he wanted to come back to his hometown and try to make a difference in kids’ lives in the city, specifically in the neighborhood that he grew up in.
Vega joined the staff as a music teacher at Rauner College Prep in 2008. This is his third year teaching, and he says it has been going great. In 2010, the only other music teacher at Rauner decided to leave so Vega volunteered to take on all of those students, rather than reduce music instruction at the school. There are a total of 352 students in the music program at Rauner this year—most of whom have never played an instrument before—and an average class size is around 60 kids.
Vega—who also is a single father of two children ages three and six—admitted that while it has certainly been challenging, teaching at Rauner is one of the most rewarding jobs he can imagine. He tries to find ways to make music class fun for his students. “Berklee College of Music gave me a good background in contemporary music, which has helped me connect with my students. I use popular music (within reason!) to make sure my students find the subject accessible, and teach them difficult musical concepts in a way they find interesting,” he said.
Vega leads a jazz band as an afterschool enrichment activity on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Each year they go to Boston to compete in the Berklee High School Jazz Festival, where they go up against some of the top-ranked jazz bands in the country. Just last year, Rauner’s jazz band placed fifth in the competition. “I’m proud of all my students but I’m particularly proud of all of them. They worked incredibly hard,” said Vega.
Vega is quick to add, “None of this would be possible without the support and encouragement of my colleagues. I work with some of the greatest people ever. We collaborate so well together as a group. It’s such a great school to work at. We all believe in the same cause, and we want to see these kids succeed. The most important thing to me is to watch my students walk across that stage, and see them get ready for college. It’s a wonderful feeling to sit there and watch them succeed through hard work. I stay in touch with my students and can see that I’ve had an impact on their lives.”