Buckhead’s North Atlanta High School orchestra will perform at the world-renowned Carnegie Hall next month under the leadership of director Stephen Lawrence, the Atlanta Public Schools’ high school Teacher of the Year.
“It was surreal! Having the chance to be recognized is beyond believable,” Lawrence said of the award. “There are so many inspiring educators out there. The fact that I was chosen is both humbling and exciting.”
Lawrence, the director of orchestral activities and the chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department, has been an educator for 11 years and has taught at North Atlanta High, his alma mater, for seven years. He is also involved in the orchestra program at Buckhead’s Sutton Middle School, which he typically visits once a week during his planning periods to help provide extra instruction.
Q: What are you most proud of in your career?
A: Receiving this recognition has got to be the biggest moment thus far. The amount of support that has come from this is amazing. Being a part of this process has also made me reevaluate my own teaching for the better.
Q: Why do you think music is important for students to learn?
A: Music is a skill that can go with you for a lifetime. When you think of some of the most important events of your life, music is there. It is a skill that teaches discipline and dedication. It involves elements of math, science, history and reading that all have to be utilized at the same time. While music may not be the career choice for many, having the opportunity to explore music will always have lasting effects.
Q: How common is it for public high schools to have orchestras?
A: As budgets fall, the number of high school orchestras falls with them. Luckily in Georgia we have some of the strongest orchestra programs in the nation. The North Atlanta High School Symphony Orchestra will travel to New York in February 2019 to perform at the world-renowned Carnegie Hall. This is an exciting opportunity that most musicians do not get to see in their lifetimes.
Q: What do you hope students learn from you?
A: Follow your dreams! At a young age, I did not think it was possible to have a career in music that I, as a black man, could be successful in. Today, I stand proud to be a violinist with a thriving career in music. I get to wake up every morning and share a skill that at one point was only a hobby. I believe my dreams came true and have the ability to grow into opportunities that I never imagined I would have.
Q: Why did you decide to become an educator?
A: In the sixth grade, I started playing the violin and immediately took an extreme interest in it. It became my passion and the one thing I dedicated more time to than anything. Combining the love for education in my blood and the love for music that was in my heart made choosing a career easy.
Q: What keeps you going year after year?
A: I meet my students while they are at Sutton Middle and get the opportunity to see them grow into young adults. Having this opportunity also comes with the commitment to help each student grow musically as well. Each school year brings a group of students that I make it my personal goal to see them through to the next phase of their lives. I have a special interest for the students here and use myself as an example of where dedication can take you if you work hard.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face as a teacher?
A: Every student has the ability to learn no matter their socioeconomic background or skill level. While this is true, a big challenge currently being faced in education is the ability to reach low-income and minority students.
Q: What is your favorite memory at your school?
A: Each year the spring concert is conceived and produced by the senior class. Last year’s theme was a music battle between an orchestra and a DJ. The battle was on old-school versus new-school music. The orchestra played some of their favorite pop songs, and the DJ responded with some of his own. There was a flash mob, skits and surprise performances. This is the first orchestra concert where I’ve witnessed parents dancing in the aisles and students laughing uncontrollably. It was amazing!