#MNPSVoices: Franklin J. Willis – Music Teacher, Andrew Jackson Elementary School

It all started with “Amazing Grace,” a traditional gospel song that Franklin J. Willis sung during an audition at the Nashville School of the Arts. His rendition not only landed him a spot at the performing arts school, but also led to a lifelong career in music education.

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After graduating from NSA in 2003, the Nashville native headed west to attend the University of Memphis. From there, he began his teaching career at Vollentine Elementary School organizing the school’s first choir which attracted over 60 students. After two years, he decided to make his way back to middle Tennessee, where he has spent the last eight years working in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“When parents see something being poured into their children, they will engage,” said Willis, who also holds a master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Belmont University. “And, as teachers, we have to do a better job of engaging parents.”

Willis was among only 30 teachers recognized nationally as a CMA Foundation “Music Teacher of Excellence” award recipient this year, along with 10 other music educators in the district. Award recipients are selected for their dedication to bringing a high-quality music program to their students and the impact they have had on their school community and students using music as a vehicle for change. He received $2,500 for the school’s music program and another $2,500 to use in whatever way he would like. 

“Each year, when we recognize the tremendous group of music educators through our Music Teachers of Excellence program, it allows us to give back to those who have dedicated their lives to serving our next generation,” said Tiffany Kerns, CMA Foundation Executive Director. “These educators, who spend countless hours in the classroom, are helping to shape creative, collaborative, future leaders through the power of music.”

Willis has established a notable track record in transforming elementary music school programs. Although he is ending his tenure this year with Andrew Jackson Elementary School and the Eagle Honors Choir he is not leaving the district. He will take on a new role as elementary music coach in the 2019-2020 school year.

“I am looking forward to providing support and resources to elementary music programs, observing classroom instruction and sharing best practices to help teachers and students,” Willis said. 

During his three years at Andrew Jackson, he successfully elevated the visibility of the music program there performing between 25-30 engagements each year. In the 2018-2019 school year, the group performed at The Temple Church, Dollywood and The Hermitage, to name a few. Their largest audience will come this summer with a live performance in front of more than 60,000 people at the CMA Fest June 9.

“I feel like this is one of our biggest accomplishments to have the choir to perform at the CMA Fest at Nissan Stadium,” Wills said, adding the students will sing Carrie Underwood’s song, “Champion.”

“Every kid is a champion and I try to help students identify their strengths and what their great at and let them know it’s okay to have flaws and make mistakes,” he said. “It’s not the mistakes that defines you, but how you bounce back from them. I want to make sure kids believe in themselves.”

The students also created their own music video for the song (https://youtu.be/v7DqmxITCzQ), “I am so proud of the hard work of these kids. This is something they will always remember.”

Willis said he will never forget either. While his father had dreams of him making plays on the gridiron and his mother wanted to nurture his gift of music, Willis said this effort kind of mixes the best of both worlds.

“I was at Nissan Stadium where football is played, but I’m actually playing music,” he laughed. “My Dad was in tears [of joy] because he knows I’m working in my calling. I’m imparting something special in the lives of kids and their families.”

In a profession where few African-American males are represented, Willis said he wants to dispel the myth of the Black male teacher. While the numbers nationally show only 2 percent of teachers are Black males, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, research shows that having just one black teacher in elementary school significantly increases a low-income black student’s likelihood of graduating from high school and considering college. Willis said he wants to be that positive image not only for black students – but all students he interacts with.

“I want to open up students’ eyes of what can take place when we open up opportunities for them. I give them [students] a voice and empower them to talk,” he said. “As educators, we are conditioned to want them to say the answers we want them to say. We have to give children time to process, to speak, and then we need to listen.”