My husband James is a music teacher, and like most music teachers, he feels fortunate to have a job. He is the only music teacher in the Ellsworth school district – with about 150 kids K-12, it’s the smallest district in Minnesota.
James came to Ellsworth in the fall of 2010 – his first job out of college. James stepped in as the sole music teacher for the entire school, so it was his responsibility to teach K-12 band, choir, and general music. James walked into a music program that had been through teacher after teacher in the last few years. The kids were used to their music teachers only staying for a year or two and moving on. With the town and school being so small, many music teachers saw Ellsworth as a starter job: a good way to start, but nothing they wanted to invest a lot of time into.
As a brand-new teacher coming into a school that was a revolving door for music teachers, James had plenty of work to do. A perpetual optimist, he didn’t see the music program for what it was – he saw it for what it could be.
So began his tireless mission to whip the Ellsworth music department into shape. Most days, James would be the first one at school and the last one to leave, and he would still have hours of work to do after he got home. He implemented quizzes and practice requirements and was met with some resistance. After all, the students had gotten used to music teachers with who didn’t expect much from them. They weren’t too sure what to think of this new guy who wanted them to work hard and create music that they could be proud of.
It took some time, but James’s music students began to accept his way of doing things. They realized that he wanted them to practice because he cared – he cared about the music program and wanted nothing more than to see it succeed.
During his time in Ellsworth, James has tweaked the music program into something that works not just for him, but for his students as well. James adopted a give-and-take attitude when it came to band and choir, which showed his students that he does value their opinion. James decided early on that his students shouldn’t have to sing/play music that only he chooses – he allows them to pick a piece or two, which usually ends up being something popular. James then arranges the piece for band or choir, spending hours to get the perfect arrangement. When his students perform a piece that they’ve chosen, they give it plenty of heart, and you can tell how much they enjoy it.
James is always on the lookout for ideas and technology that will make his program better. To help his students enjoy learning how to play recorders, James enacted a program called Recorder Karate where kids earn karate belts as they improve their recorder skills. James asked for (and received) a Smartboard, as well as more school instruments and cabinets. He spent a week in California receiving training for a program called El Sistema, which will begin in Ellsworth next year. El Sistema is an intensive program that will help kids learn better reading skills through music. James will be committing an extra three hours after school for three days a week next year, but he never thought twice about the substantial time commitment – if it’s something that can help his kids, he’ll be the first in line to sign up.
James’s work does not begin or end end when the school bell rings. He started a student drumline that meets before school, and his mornings and afternoons are booked full with individual lessons. James’s band marches in parades during the summer and plays pep band during the school year – and they man the concession stand at basketball games. Last summer, James’s band went on a trip to Nashville – and because of all the fundraising the band had done, students had to pay almost nothing for the trip. James’s responsibilities are not only music-related: he co-founded the Parent Teacher Organization at his school and is currently the president, and he’s also the students’ choice to emcee prom and homecoming each year.
The amount of work that James puts into his music program is staggering, but he loves every minute. James’s program has finally become his own, and his students know how dedicated he is to helping them learn and appreciate music. And the students have been soaking it all in: James has kids begging for vocal solos at each concert, and his summer lesson schedule is full.
Ellsworth students aren’t the only ones that have noticed James’s devotion: fellow teachers and parents comment on how the Ellsworth music program is better than ever before. James has two concerts per year, and each time, he’s approached by a flood of well-wishers who tell him what a great job he’s doing and how lucky Ellsworth is to have him. When the school year draws to a close each year, parents, teachers, and students alike ask him, “You’re coming back next year… right?” Dedicated and enthusiastic teachers like James can be hard to find in such a small school, and sadly, the Ellsworth School District is used to losing their best teachers in short periods of time. James assures them that yes, he will be back next year – and he’s always met with a big smile.
James is finishing up his fourth year in Ellsworth, and his plans for his program are bigger and better each year. James’s mission in life is to help kids, and he can’t imagine doing anything but teaching. James loves his job more than anyone I’ve ever met – he will come home after work and tell me stories of some musical breakthrough or a kid that got excited about Beethoven, and he just beams. Kids come up to him and tell him that they want to be band directors when they grow up, and to James, there is no higher compliment.
Everyone should have a teacher like James.