James Young

James Young, sixth-grade musical theatre teacher at Johnson-Wabash Sixth Grade Center, was named Ferguson-Florissant School District’s 2021-2022 Teacher of the Year. Young, a graduate of the UMSL College of Education, was nominated by his peers and selected from others who were named building-level Teachers of the Year. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It was a mostly normal spring school day at Johnson-Wabash Sixth Grade Center in Ferguson, Missouri.

James Young, sixth-grade musical theatre teacher, had noticed some Ferguson-Florissant School District administrators in the building, which was a little bit odd but not unheard of. Young continued with his normal routine, heating up some food and heading back to his room to take his lunch break.

He was mid bite when Superintendent Joseph S. Davis and several other district administrators barged into the room with balloons, an Edible Arrangement and a novelty-sized check. They let a shocked Young know he had been named Ferguson-Florissant School District’s 2021-2022 Teacher of the Year.

“It was kind of surreal,” Young said. “It was surreal because I know so many great teachers in our district and other places. There are so many great teachers who are just high-level. I work hard and do my best, but it really was an honor to be recognized for the work.”

Young, a graduate of the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, was nominated by his peers and selected from others who were named building-level Teachers of the Year. In addition to the award, Young received $1,000 to go toward professional development.

His teaching career has spanned 14 years – most of which has been in FFSD. However, before becoming an educator, Young served three years in the United States Army and was then a guitarist in several local bands. He characterized teaching as “a plan B that turned into a plan A.”

Young’s grandmother, Elizabeth Hutcherson-Rucks, who taught music in FFSD for 40 years, was instrumental in fostering his initial interest in music and also helping him find his passion for education.

“I got nominated for the award, and I had to do some essays,” Young explained. “My grandmother passed a year ago, and for me to go through that process, it was like a tribute to her. A large part of me, a large part of the inspiration to even feel like it’s something maybe I should try for, was due to her.”

Hutcherson-Rucks wasn’t the only musician in the family, either. Young’s father was a drummer and singer, and as a boy, he was always surrounded by music. Some of his earliest memories are choir practices at church with his brother.

After graduating high school, Young opted to join the Army rather than pursue his interest in music. He returned home after completing his service and started writing music and playing in bands.

Despite the creative outlet, there was something wrong. Young was drifting through life with no plan, no direction. At the behest of his father, he went to live with his grandmother who gave him guidance and support.

The G.I. Bill provided Young funds to go to college, and he began to consider music education – an idea that thrilled Hutcherson-Rucks. Through her years as an educator and community connections, she happened to know the late Fred Willman, professor emeritus of music education at UMSL.

Young had a conversation with Willman and decided UMSL will be an excellent fit for him. Hutcherson-Rucks mentored Young and helped him through the program.

“The bond we made there was, she sat down with me at a piano and basically taught me music theory,” he said. “I’m a guitarist, and I learned how to play by ear. She sat down and explained the whole steps and the half steps, how to think about things and the basics of rhythm.”

Faculty members such as Willman, Robert Nordman, Bill Richardson and Doug Turpin also mentored Young, who enjoyed the tight-knit music education community.

“I feel like it’s really unique experience,” Young said. “It was very small. I had some good friends there that I was connected to, and we had our own culture.”

After graduating with a bachelor of music education, he taught general music for a year at Pine Lawn Elementary School before moving to Ferguson Middle School to serve as band director. In his sixth year at Ferguson, tragedy struck.

Young’s biological mother passed, which had a profound impact on him. So much so that he took a year off teaching. As the next school year approached, a friend told Young that it was time to get back in the classroom.

Eventually, he made his way to Johnson-Wabash Sixth Grade Center, where he now leads musical theater collaboratively with a drama teacher. Students learn breathing exercises, vocal warm-ups and techniques and some basic music theory concepts.

Because the class focuses on musical theater, students typically learn some sort of choral arrangement. Young said the goal is for the music to serve the final production the class chooses, which changes each year.

During the 2019-20 school year, his class put on a production of “The Lion King” ­– complete with costumes reminiscent of the Broadway production. This past school year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, students produced their own music videos and made a website collage to present their projects.

Young is teaching more than music concepts, though. He’s teaching his students how to project self-confidence and be their best selves.

“I think it’s the arts that make us human,” he said. “It’s the arts that distinguish us from the technology that we use as tools. We’re more than just numbers and figures. We’re more than just flesh and blood. There’s more than that. It’s the arts that help us to remember to be compassionate, to be creative, to give grace, to show love. Those are human characteristics that are critical.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe