The Illinois State Board of Education named Eric Combs the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year at the 45th annual Those Who Excel awards banquet Saturday, October 19 in Normal. Combs is a sixth- through eighth-grade band teacher at Richland County Middle School in Richland County Community Unit District 1 in Olney.
Gov JB Pritzker joined ISBE in honoring Combs and 257 other classroom teachers, educational leaders, and support personnel with Those Who Excel awards at the banquet.
“Eric Combs wowed me in his interview for 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year,” said State Superintendent of Education Carmen I Ayala. “Mr Combs’s passion for music education has touched not only thousands of students here in Illinois but also across the country and even beyond our borders. Arts and music education helps so many students find their home in our schools. I am proud to honor Mr Combs and all of the other Those Who Excel awardees for their incredible achievements and for opening doors of wonder and possibility for children in Illinois.”
Combs started a program at his school that loans out instruments to students for free. He developed a new system of differentiated and individualized music instruction in which every student in the band program progresses at their own pace.
“He puts forth a tremendous amount of effort into his band program and his students,” said Richland County Middle School Assistant Principal Darrell Houchin in his nomination letter. “Members of the public gain a sincere appreciation of his efforts when they hear his concerts put on by his students.”
Combs has built a network of band educators across the globe who have taken interest in his program. He shares his material for free with more than 4,000 followers. Last year alone, 650 band directors contacted Combs about his materials. Combs raised funds through his network to start a band program in Honduras.
During the video interview for 2020 Teacher of the Year, Combs said, “For the last 15 years, I’ve been thinking, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ I’ve strived as hard as I can to make it good for my community and worldwide.”
A former student of Combs wrote in his nomination letter about the impact Combs and the free instrument had on his career.
“Mr Combs has helped me through the past seven years of instrumental music instruction and has been one of the most influential factors in becoming the musician I have become today,” said Ethan Steber. “Mr. Combs has taught me that there is no substitution for hard work, no matter what it is in life.”
Eric Combs received both his Bachelors of Music and Masters of Arts in Music Education from Eastern Illinois University. He is a member of the Illinois Grade School Music Association, the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Music Educators Association, the National Association for Music Education, and the Society for Research in Music Education.
As the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year, Combs will have an opportunity to share his knowledge and expertise with an even larger audience. Combs will be available beginning in the spring of 2020 to speak at teaching workshops, education conferences, and community meetings. Combs will represent Illinois at the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and the National Teacher of the Year program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
“When he was in sixth grade, Eric Combs’s band teacher told the class he would be retired around the time they graduated college and one of them could be his replacement,” the ISBE wrote on its website. “Eric fulfilled his teacher’s prophecy by accepting the position—the one he still holds as band instructor at Richland County Middle School in Olney, where he can be seen offering free instruments to youngsters to entice participation in the band program.
“Eric feels his unconventional approach to teaching band, which is tailored around the needs of each individual student, is the reason for the success of the program. He has developed his own spreadsheets to facilitate tracking individual student progress and encourages his students to practice only when they want, as opposed to forcing a prescribed amount of time. His approach to teaching, coupled with assisting other band educators in developing their own curricula, is helping Eric meet his goal of advancing the profession beyond where it was when he first started.”