Vicki Tam –
Middle School Band Teacher

February 3, 2021

“The intent was never to put me in a career with music. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer.”

Vicki grew up in a musical household. Her early memories involved listening to Chinese music on tapes or her father teaching her scales on a small piano. Her parents were immigrants from Vietnam and China. They kept their culture alive in the house with Karaoke songs in Vietnamese and Chinese and traditional children’s songs when they were young, so young Victoria was comfortable with music at an early age. Even more so when her parents started her in piano lessons at the age of 5. On top of that, she attended a school district that was renowned in the area for having a strong musical program. Her close friends in elementary school were in Orchestra, so she saw their performances in school each year.

So when the opportunity came about to sign up for band in 5th grade, she thought it would be a fun thing to do for herself. Her own parents were not fully aware of what the district offered. This was her own decision to be more like her friends and do something she thought looked fun. Picking her instrument involved the band instructors performing each instrument in front of the large group of new signups. She had the opportunity to pick three that she liked after trying them out. Her top choice had been flute, but failing to make a sound out of it, the teacher-directed her towards the clarinet.

On top of her musical education, Vicki also liked school. “It wasn’t so much the subjects I liked. I wasn’t that fantastic of a student. I remember arguing with the teachers that I should be in the advanced tracked classes because my friends were in those classes and I thought I should be too.” But she liked being there. School was the place with her friends, where she got to be silly, where she felt better. And she was a very good student. She may have had to study more than her friends, but through high school, she took all the advanced and AP classes her schedule would allow, with band always being the priority.

“There was this first practice in my sophomore year. We were given a very difficult piece of music and were told to just play. And we did. And it was really challenging. I left feeling like that was the most exciting thing I had ever done.”

But when it came time to apply to colleges, she was still not entirely sure what was right. Part of her still wanted to go in a medical direction, thanks to her parents’ encouragement and her own love of the X-Files, she thought a career as a forensic pathologist would be enjoyable. But ultimately she knew she did not like science enough, and the band-room was still her favorite place in the world. “I really didn’t know what else there was to do. I wasn’t too interested in private schools or elite schools because it just didn’t seem to be necessary with what I wanted to do. So with what I knew, I really just wanted to keep playing music.”

She got accepted into the University of Wisconsin at Madison and entered their musical education department right away. She may have been interested in music, but she was still a realist and knew that pursuing the Performance track would not lead to many jobs. The entire educational department at Madison is quite large, but a class within the musical education department had about 14 students at any given year (as opposed to about 100 performance majors).

While attending Madison, she also met her future husband Mike who was also a Music Ed major and they graduated at the same time. Upon graduation, he was able to get a job as a teacher in Winona Minnesota and Vicki did not. She did however work as a substitute teacher for several months in the metro area of Minneapolis, which she looks back on as a great time to build relationships with the music departments in many different school districts in Minnesota. One of the highlights was also bringing Vicki out of her comfort zone as a quiet and mild-mannered person. When she was teaching a class of unknown kids, she was forced to captivate their attention. Her student teacher advisor had mentioned to her that she needed to work harder to entertain the kids, which she had chased at initially. After all, she was an educator and not there for their personal enjoyment. However, she found that in order to help control the classroom, she actually did need to be more personable, loud, and fun to be with. She was in so many different situations, classrooms, and groups of people, she needed to come out of her shell. “I was doing things I never thought I’d be capable of doing, like singing and dancing for the kids. I’m not an entertainer, but I am entertaining.” This was a big change for Vicki and really helped her grow as a professional.

That year, Winona suffered through a large budget cut (as did most of Minnesota) and her boyfriend lost his job. While on a tour of Germany through a program called Blue Blake out of Michigan, he was offered a job at a Waldorf school and was able to help secure employment for Vicki as well who still was not able to find a steady teaching job. They would be band, choir, and English teachers in Germany for three years. When asked how she prepared to be a teacher, she reflected that she had 2 years of Choir in elementary school and that just part of teaching (especially as substitutes in small towns), you just have to adapt on the fly.

And it was at that point they got married since they thought it would help with any immigration issues they may have down the road. They moved to Germany. And it was very difficult for them. The children had discipline issues that were emotionally challenging for Vicki and her husband. And on top of that, the other English teachers in the school were not able to do their job successfully. So as the school year went on, Vicki’s English teacher load grew more and more until it was beyond stressful. She did not come to Germany to be an English teacher, and she really saw that she was not willing to put up with creating English curriculum and grading papers for it for the next three years. So they returned to Minnesota, without jobs in hand, hoping they could get something.

They moved back in with Vicki’s parents at that point, in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Both Vicki and Mike were trying to get jobs as band teachers and were basically applying for the same jobs. This was summer 2009, and the economy overall was in shambles in the United States. Mike applied for a job in rural Wisconsin that had over 100 applicants. He nearly made the cut but was picked over by someone who had 30 years of experience. Both Mike and Vicki were prepared to be substitute teachers again that year, but at the last minute Vicki got a job offer in Waconia (a rural town west of Minneapolis) and Mike got a job in Minnetonka (suburb West of Minneapolis), whose district he has been ever since.

Vicki continued to work and grow in her field. She has moved around different school districts in the Western suburbs. She returned to school at the University of St. Thomas where she received a Master’s Degree in education and has gotten to know so many people of the music education community of Minnesota. She had her first child in 2017 and is expecting another in a couple of months. “There is a really good sense of community in the music scene in Minnesota. You have to want to be involved, but there is a large community there to support you.” This includes being part of the state organizations that help support students in their musical aspirations. As well as helping out with music programs and their special events within districts throughout the entire school year.

I asked Vicki about her hopes for her future. She wants to continue teaching. She dreams of getting into larger school districts that have more resources to support musical development for the children. This career fits her, especially now that she is having young kids. There are days and times where it is becoming monotonous and easy, but then again that ease comes with a balance of being able to save energy for her young daughter. She could also see herself retiring thirty years down the line in the same school district because she really does enjoy what she does.