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Kathy Fiedler to retire, leaving a 47-year legacy of teaching music to thousands of Grand Forks students

While inspiring a love of music, the acclaimed teacher is noted for being 'firm, fair and fun'

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Kathy Fiedler has plenty to smile about after 47 years of teaching music at Kelly Elementary School in Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – At the end of a recent class, when her second-grade students sang “Over the Rainbow,” Kathy Fiedler said Joey McFarlane, 8, left the room declaring, “That. Was. The. Best. Song. Ever!”

“He said it was fun to hear the song, but it’s so much better to sing it,” she recalled.

Seeing the joy that lights her students’ faces as they learn to sing, play an instrument and love music has created a satisfying career spanning nearly five decades.

Fiedler is retiring this spring, concluding 47 years of teaching music at Kelly Elementary School.

“I know kids love to sing, and I love to have them sing,” she said.

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She expects a lot from them.

Throughout her career, on the first day of school, Fiedler always urged her students to be “triple-A students,” she said. She told them they “have to put their academics first, but their artistics and athletics have to be balanced so that they are training their body, mind and soul.”

As she closes this chapter of her life, what she will miss most, she said with no hesitation, “Oh, the kids. The kids, by far. They’ve kept me young.

“They are inspiring – their energy, their willingness to listen, their willingness to make music with me – they’re not doing it for me. We’re a team, we work together – and that has been so much fun.”

It’s been fun to see her students grow, she said, “and to see them believe in themselves.”

“I think what I like more even than the concerts, is the day-to-day making music with students and knowing I can share some information with them to touch their heart,” she said. “I enjoy the process as much as the product – it’s the process of learning and growing into that product.”

Early influences

Fiedler, who grew up in Edinburg, N.D., and graduated from high school there in 1970, followed her mother and grandmother into the teaching profession. She attended Concordia College in Moorhead, where she earned two bachelor’s degrees – music education, K-12, and elementary education.

Over time, she’s found that students are becoming “more world-wise, because of the opportunities they have,” she said. “Kids have the inquisitiveness, they have a desire to do their best, and I always try to bring that out in them.”

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Because technology provides instant access to information, “they know what’s happening all the time. There’s a different mindset” compared to decades ago, she said.

“I think it’s more incumbent on me to make sure that I can give them more background … the historical situations that the songs evolved from – and I think they are always hungry for that.”

She taught songs that inspired the Civil Right Movement and patriotic music, she said. “I’m passionate about those songs and freedom.”

“Many of the parents will say after a concert, ‘Oh, it’s always so fun to hear what you have to say,’ and I think that’s because a lot of the parents are my former students. I’ve got so many parents who used to be my students – and how fun is that.”

She has emphasized to students that “you have to do your best; you don’t have to be the best,” she said, and fostered “a belief in themselves to know that they can do their very best. And if they’re not satisfied with that, work a little harder. We’re going to make it better, and to always encourage them.

“But I do believe in setting the bar high, whether it’s a performance or a day in class or whatever we’re doing. We want to have fun.”

On one wall of her large classroom hangs a large wooden “F,” for Fiedler – made by one of her former students. It reminds students that she is “firm, fair and fun,” she said.

Fiedler’s goal is to nurture students’ interest in music for life.

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“When you think about it, not every student is going to be a super-star or a performer, but they will always go to their child’s concert or listen to music that they like for a reason,” she said. “I want them to be intelligent consumers."

Praise from colleagues

Fiedler was hired by Ken Sherwood as the first full-time music specialist for Grand Forks Public Schools – and the first one in the state, said Sherwood’s son, Brad Sherwood.

Her post at Kelly Elementary was her first professional teaching position after her graduation from Concordia College in Moorhead.

Ken Sherwood, who was the first choir director at Red River High School, where he taught for 25 years, said, “She was so successful, after one year, every school in Grand Forks wanted a full-time music specialist.”

Brad Sherwood, who also taught choral music at Red River High School for decades and coordinated music education for the school district, also has high regard for Fiedler.

“Kathy is an incredible educator. Her energy, positive attitude and musicianship are amongst the best I have ever seen,” he said. “She has provided the gift of music to thousands and thousands of children. She has trained hundreds of student teachers in her career. She is one in a million.”

Dean Opp, retired director of the district’s Summer Performing Arts program, praised Fiedler’s ability to make every student feel special.

“She was all about including everybody, and made sure that everyone was a star” in the SPA theatrical productions,” Opp said. “Early on, in SPA, she took an all-girls revue and she made sure that every single one was a star. And that was the philosophy of SPA – everyone can be a star and involving everyone – and Kathy is part of that reason.

“For me, as an early educator, that impacted me, her philosophy rubbed off on me,” he said. “I know she lasted this long, because she made everybody feel special – and of course that’s a good feeling, as a teacher, when you’re surrounded by special people, special students.”

Watching students grow

It’s unusual for a teacher to remain at one school for nearly five decades.

Looking back, Fiedler said, after one year at Kelly, she was offered a position at Schroeder Middle School, which she declined. “I said, ‘Oh, no, I’ve invested all this time here.’ And I’m awfully glad I didn’t (make that move).”

She has enjoyed watching “the little ones from the time they’re tiny” and seeing them grow, she said. “That’s a benefit of doing what I do, that you get to see them mature and you help them use appropriate, fun ways to feel the maturity.”

Fiedler taught grades K-6 until the ‘90s, when grades 6-8 shifted to middle schools.

Kathy Fiedler
This photo was taken when Kathy Fiedler marked 35 years of teaching music at Kelly Elementary School in Grand Forks. Herald photo Jackie Lorentz

Children need music as an outlet of sorts, a means of expression even for the “tough kid,” she said. It can bring students to tears. She teaches that “it’s OK to have emotions. It’s OK to let music touch your soul. … If we don’t come at music with emotion, we’re just producing notes.”

She hopes students leave Kelly with “a song in their heart, a love of music, an appreciation for music."

She has also influenced teachers entering the profession.

“I tell them you’ll never make a lot of money, but you’ll always make a difference,” she said.

For her, teaching has been a “passion,” she said. She is grateful for the support she’s received from her school principals; the current principal, Kelli Tannahill, is one of her former students.

Fiedler considered retiring earlier but did not want her final year tarnished by COVID.

“That just seemed like a real downer,” she said. “I didn’t want to stop with COVID. I’m not a big fan of the virtual stuff.”

She wanted kids to make “real music” in person, in her classroom, and to sing without masks, with their hands on the music and instruments. “I wanted them to make beautiful music in here.”

So she stayed on.

“I could go on teaching forever. I love the kids,” she said. “But it’s time.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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