As a young child, Brian Kuhn was so shy, he wouldn’t talk to people on the phone. As he grew older, he was happy to be part of a larger group, and not standing out. But in his freshman year of high school, a choir teacher gave him a solo and it unlocked something.
“It was one of those things where I was able to go out and actually share something,” said Kuhn, the vocal music teacher at St. Charles High School. “It was just like from that point on, I wanted to be able to do that — to do that for students and allow them to shine, be creative and express themselves.”
Kuhn was named a finalist in the 2021 Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) Teacher of the Year program and is Charles County’s nominee in the Washington Post’s Teacher of the Year program.
The shyness has gone, replaced by a teacher who collaborates with colleagues and gives students the room to grow and explore their talent. Omyni Harrell is the mother of two — a St. Charles’ graduate and a current student, Tamia, who is a member of the Spartones, the school’s a cappella group. “My youngest was a very shy girl not sure about herself in any way. She was a true introvert,” Harrell wrote in a nomination letter. “Mr. Kuhn invited her to work with the Spartones. She began making friends … and becoming sure of herself.” Harrell’s older daughter, Taleiah, wasn’t sold on going to college, but Kuhn encouraged her to explore how her talent could benefit others. She is now at Hood College, double majoring in music and psychology. She wants to work with children with autism through music therapy. “His kind and diligent mentorship to my daughter was phenomenal,” Harrell said.
Kuhn might be the teacher, but the choir belongs just as much to the students. It was something he realized as a long-term substitute who walked into a classroom of discouraged students. He did the simple thing of asking the kids what they wanted out of the rest of the year in choir. “An open dialogue and a collaborative learning environment guided these kids into a thriving group of young musicians,” he said. “The students didn’t buy into anything I was selling; they made the decisions; they were the stakeholders and the program was theirs.”
That philosophy continues. “We are a creative team, but my classroom is student led. This is only possible because of my trust in them and the trust they give in return,” Kuhn said. “Engaging students as partners in their education triggers a desire and an energy toward their own learning.”
The performing arts program at St. Charles is a collaborative one. “As a performing arts department, I definitely share this award with them,” Kuhn said of Timothy LaBelle, director of theatre arts, and Alexander Grisos, instrumental music teacher. Kuhn music directs for the school’s musicals, Grisos runs the orchestra pit. During choir and band concerts, LaBelle works the stage lights and sound. “They definitely help to build the program to what it is today,” Kuhn said.
In a nomination letter, LaBelle said Kuhn welcomed him to St. Charles and into the family atmosphere created by the performing arts staff and students. “By accepting me and opening the students to new and exciting possibilities of collaboration and cooperation, he showed me what caring in the classroom really looks like and how the relationships we build truly make a difference to the entirety of the social, emotional and educational processes of the learner,” LaBelle said.
Kuhn has created a booster club for the performing arts department, as well as smaller individual booster clubs for theater, band and vocal music. “Parents are just as dedicated off the stage as their children are on it,” Principal Richard Conley wrote in a nomination letter.
Kuhn is the performing arts department chair and directs the school’s choirs, including the Spartones, an a cappella group made up of 12 to 14 students who are sophomores, juniors and seniors. Kuhn directed the Henry E. Lackey High School’s a cappella group, then known as Fully Charged, when he taught there from 2010 to 2014. St. Charles opened in 2015 and Kuhn was met with students who were redistricted from other schools. Some of the students came from Maurice J. McDonough High School which had a strong show choir.
“I told Mr. Conley I’d develop a show choir,” Kuhn said. “People say it’s not your typical show choir, but we still put on a show with the choreography and the beatboxing.” The Spartones were founded in 2015 and have been around ever since, winning competitions at the group level and awards for individual members. “The kids just took to it,” Kuhn said. The Spartones act as ambassadors in the community, as well. “Because of the culture that fills my choirs, the students take a positive attitude and share it,” Kuhn said. “When we go to competitions, I am commended by other directors for the energy my group brings and their enthusiasm for other participants.”
The school closures and virtual learning have put a wrench in the works, especially when it comes to programs like choir that thrive on togetherness and harmony. For now, students submit solos for concerts that can be viewed on the school’s YouTube channel. Kuhn holds virtual workshops and master classes for students around the county helping them prepare for honor choirs like all-county, tri-county and all-state.
“It’s been tough, I can’t wait to get in person,” Kuhn said, who teaches a handful of students in person with the rest accessing the class virtually. Students continue to support the program and Kuhn.
“He’s legit,” Gerald Tate, a freshman, said. “He helps us grow and is flexible with due dates and stuff like that.”
“It’s the students and their talent, their drive and their buy-in that has helped this program,” Kuhn said. “I share this award with the students and my colleagues. Without them, I don’t think it would be possible.”