As he listens to students plunking out rhythmic sounds on their xylophones, Matthew Rooney, '08, knows he was meant to stand in this classroom in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.
The first music teacher for Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, Rooney also knew the huge responsibility he was accepting upon taking the job in August 2010.
"This is a demanding charter school where there are no excuses for the students or for the teachers," says Rooney, a graduate of Ball State's music education program. "I have to send my lessons to my supervisor each week and the principal pays a visit to my classroom every week, so this is an environment where you have to be prepared for scrutiny of your work."
Rooney's middle school is a part of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of no-excuses charter schools in Harlem. Even though more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, they have outscored peers at other high-performing New York City charter schools and suburban public schools on state tests in math and English.
A native of Albany, Indiana, Rooney said moving from a small Hoosier town to teach in New York City was a major culture shock. "There were so many personal changes I had to adapt to with the move," he says. "Like ditching my car. There were also the smells, the noise, the sights, the frenetic pace of life."
Not to mention the rigors of Rooney's job. His school day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m., after which he typically works on lesson plans, rehearses after-school ensembles, or responds to students' phone calls about assignments until 7 p.m.
"Working in the high-stakes, no-excuses charter school model in an urban setting is a teaching assignment like no other," he says.
He credits his Ball State experience for preparing him for his new role, one that, stressful though it is, he loves. "Had I not gone to Ball State, I would have buckled under this kind of pressure," he explains. "But everything I learned in college—from the extensive lesson plans I had to create to the way we were taught to understand teaching objectives—made me ready for what I do today."
Also pivotal was the confidence he gained as a teacher for two years in South Korea, an opportunity that arose after a Ball State professor encouraged him to apply for an English teaching assistantship through one of the Fulbright programs.
"The students in Korea were so encouraging, always thanking me for teaching them," he says. "It was a really rewarding experience."
While overseas, Rooney took advantage of his diverse settings to broaden his multicultural horizons. From working in a Buddhist orphanage to traveling to places such as Japan to learn about traditional opera and Bali to learn Indonesian percussion music, he didn't waste a minute of his international experience—or a chance to enrich his knowledge of the arts.
Rooney's initiative, drive, and maturity did not go unnoticed by professors in the School of Music. "Undergraduates should think more about the impact they want to have on the world and less about the pragmatics of a job," says Ryan Hourigan, the school's interim associate director. "This is what the Matthew Rooneys of the world do."
Adds Rooney's mentor, John Scheib, director of the School of Music: "Matt was the kind of student who forced me to be a better teacher due to the nature and depth of the questions he'd ask about our profession; he's one of the finest students I've had in my 20 years of teaching."
Now that he's had a few years of teaching experience, Rooney says he wants to branch out beyond the drums and xylophones that are ever-present in his classroom. He has goals of introducing sixth-graders to the recorder and eighth-graders to the guitar as he works to improve their knowledge of rhythm and melody.
"Music should be important to every kid, regardless of special needs or financial resources," he explains. "It shouldn't just be a privilege for the most talented, the cream of the crop kids who get to move on and learn more."
Hourigan says he looks forward to how Rooney's views on education and his teaching methods might one day shepherd change in the music world.
"He's a 21st-century thinker," he says. "Our profession may not look the same in the future. Music educators like Matt are going to be the ones leading us in the right direction."