By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

Andrew Burk’s experience through Florida’s public school system is one that he truly enjoyed, with teachers that he counted as some of the best. It is an experience that he wishes for every student, and he isn’t certain that every child has this same experience. Burk is now a teacher who was recently named the St. Johns County Teacher of the Year, and he sees the award as the perfect platform to promote education equity statewide. “When you build a system of trust and you make the jobs attractive, what ultimately happens is the kids will be in good hands,” said Burk, who has been Valley’s Ridge’s band director for the past three years. “Public school is awesome when we invest in it as a group and as a community. Everyone has to be all in.” Burk, 28, grew up in Gainesville, attended Florida State University, and taught in South Florida for two years prior to teaching at Valley Ridge. He also has strong ties to Washington, D.C., both from having lived there briefly, but especially through his advocacy efforts that began while at FSU. He earned his degree in musical education but began with an interest in a social science degree — his political mind already in motion. “I am a very outspoken advocate for public education. I think that helped me stand out in the Teacher of the Year process,” Burk said.

Q: What was your reaction when your name was announced as Teacher of the Year? 
A: I was excited and then immediately felt badly for the other finalists. I was very impressed by all the finalists. It is such an honor and so humbling to be this young and new to the county and to be able to represent teachers and the field of teaching. 

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Q: What is your teaching philosophy? 
A: I like to concentrate on building a band family. It is important to build appropriate relationships with kids and to also help them build those relationships with each other. I like to break down barriers between social groups, and I set up an opportunity to rely on and trust each other. I use the words “family” and “team” a lot. I also make the students responsible for classroom tasks such as setting up the chairs in the room. I like to challenge my students, and I love to perform with them — a lot. 

Q: How did you first get involved in band? 
A: In the fifth grade, we had to choose an elective. My choices were PE, technology or band. I was too insecure to take PE and had no interest in technology. So, I chose band. I had no music background at that time. Everything I learned came from my school band experience. That is the best part of a beginning band class. It is designed knowing that you may have zero knowledge. You get to learn an instrument, learn to read music and try out different instruments. I made all my best friends through band. It was such a good group of people in a very positive environment. I had great music and band teachers. I have not stopped playing since the sixth grade. My instrument is the trombone. From day one, I loved school and band was a big part of that experience. I was also part of the “Marching Chiefs” at FSU.

Q: What do you do in your free time? 
A: I have a “Little Brother” with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida. I volunteered in October 2020 because I wanted to feel like I belong in the community. We go canoeing a lot since I live on the St. Johns River and we cook often. 

Q: You also work remotely for a law firm in Washington, D.C. Explain more about your passion for politics and education advocacy. 
A: I have always been fascinated by policy and politics. I think it is important to address these education issues at the grassroots level. I was able to attend “Music Education Hill Day 2015” while at FSU through the National Association for Music Education and was given a chance to meet with and talk to senators. We wanted music to be listed as one of the core subjects in public school so that it would be eligible for federal dollars. I also interned at an education non-profit for literacy, 826DC, through The Washington Center. I partnered with the Florida Collegiate Music Education Association to create an Advocacy Day for Music Education in Tallahassee. I was so inspired by “Hill Day” that I wanted to help more teachers become engaged in the process. That is still my goal today.

Photo courtesy Andrew Burk 
Andrew Burk

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