Jonathan Q. Berryman

Grades K-8 Music Teacher, New Haven Public Schools

Jonathan Q. Berryman discovered his love for music while in the pews of his home church in Richmond, Virginia. A cadre of highly-skilled and notable musicians served on the church music staff.

“I knew exactly who they were. They had been a part of my life since I was born,” Berryman said. “My general music teacher in elementary school was also the director of music at my church and one of the church’s organists. The other organists were also teachers and excellent musicians. I fell in love with the pipe organ watching them play. Their playing was pivotal in my wanting to play.”

Berryman was also surrounded by music professionals throughout his K-12 education. They quickly became his role models, not only because they were talented, but also because most of them looked like him.

“The cultural cohesion made a difference. They were old school teachers, and they were definitely not afraid of us,” Berryman said. “Their version of empathy was ‘I know who you are. I know where you came from. I know your struggles. You, however, are not the only one who has struggled, and you will produce work in this place.’”

After racially segregated public school systems were outlawed in the 1950s, African-American students were finally allowed to seek equal educational opportunities. However, there were some unintentional consequences, including the forced resignation of many highly credentialed African-American teachers.

But for Jonathan Berryman, who grew up in the heart of the American South, that reality wasn’t readily apparent. Most of his teachers – and especially his music teachers – were Black, highly educated with multiple degrees, and not afraid to push him toward excellence. “To be clear, my White, Hawaiian, and Asian teachers were equally as talented, credentialed, and old-school serious about education as my Black teachers. Richmond didn’t have much of a Latino population at the time, so I didn't have the opportunity to have any Hispanic teachers."

But the classroom wasn’t the only place Berryman developed an appreciation for dedicated and hard work. His parents, his peers at church, and his neighbors, which included some of his teachers, encouraged him to excel. He went on to attend Princeton for undergraduate studies and then moved on to Yale for a graduate degree in music. He then earned a Sixth Year Certificate in Educational Leadership from Sacred Heart University. Currently he is completing his doctoral studies in Educational Leadership and Policy at Southern Connecticut State University. “When I think about it, certainly my family, my music teachers, my school teachers, and my school administrators, some of whom were also musicians, served as a huge inspiration for me in furthering my education.”  

I grew up in a musical household. The whole family sings, both the paternal and maternal sides, and I just fell in love with music. There were about five music teachers on the staff in my church. So, I grew up in a culture of literate, educated musicians, and that's what we did, you know. Music was a big part of what we did.

Jonathan Q. Berryman

“We were instilled with a certain level of stewardship of our gifts and talents. So that's what prompted me to really go into teaching in the first place,” Berryman said.

Today, Berryman is a music teacher in the New Haven public school system.  This year marks his 25th year of certified music teaching. When he moved to Connecticut, Berryman noted the lack of Black teachers like himself – an issue he hadn’t seen growing up in Richmond. The other issue he saw in the urban schools he’s worked in was that a “culture of rigorous education was missing.”

“Students were used to going to music, showing up, and getting passing grades just for showing up,” Berryman said. “So I’m here to make this cultural shift and show that music is a class and you're expected to do stuff and you're expected to do it right. It’s called curriculum, instruction and assessment.”

Berryman has focused his career on bringing meaningful content and engagement to arts education.

“It’s all in the planning. You tell students the content that they have to learn, how they are going to be assessed, give them a chance to reflect on what they need to do the work, and then give them an opportunity to choose some aspect of how they are going to learn the material and present their learning,” Berryman said. 

He remembers being taught this teaching strategy by a group of middle schoolers over two decades ago. He saw that his students weren’t responding successfully to his teacher-directed instruction, so he sat down and told the students, “Ya’ll figure it out.” That’s exactly what they did.

“One of the students got everyone else organized, and they started to rehearse and refine the song that they had been charged with learning. They fixed it. That was a pivotal moment in helping me to understand the value of releasing the learning to the students. Teachers have to let stuff go and allow students to own what they are doing,” Berryman said.

“Even this many years later, I find that releasing the learning and having students direct their own learning are new concepts to students and to some teachers. I want to make the classroom a cooperative space rather than a teacher-directed event. I continually find that this whole idea of being invited to bring all of who you are to the academic table and taking an active role in shaping the learning is totally new to students.”

And, as a Black man and educator, he says it’s his responsibility to be a role model for his students, particularly for his students of color, and to show that being able to come to the classroom and learn is not only a privilege, but also a significant personal responsibility.   

I know that not only what I do matters, my presence also matters. So it has become very clear to me that I'm not only helping students to understand what music is, but also what it means to see a Black teacher in a position of academic authority.

Jonathan Q. Berryman

“I grew up surrounded by Black teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, and professionals. But what I'm finding, however, is my colleagues and my students didn't grow up with that," Berryman said. "So I understand that by default, my very presence has meaning in shaping their understanding of Black academic and professional attainment. So it’s also about my not taking myself and my perspective for granted.”

Next in his career, Berryman has his sights set on school administration because he believes it’s important to have more people of color in positions of leadership within education. He also believes that as an administrator, he can positively influence all classrooms in helping students reach their highest academic and social potential.

 Interview with Ann Nyberg on WTNH News Channel 8