Q&A: How Georgia O’Keeffe Gave Teacher of the Year Finalist Chris Gleason His Best Moment

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Teacher of the Year finalist Chris Gleason claims he isn’t yet sick of teenage clarinetists performing endless renditions of “Hot Cross Buns.”

That’s no small feat for someone who has spent almost 20 years as an instrumental music teacher and band director at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (the birthplace of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, but more on that later).

Arts, so often the target of cuts in lean budget times, are necessary to reach parts of children’s interest and intellect not always captured in other classes, he said.

“As Ken Robinson once said, the arts teach to parts of kids’ beings that would otherwise be untouched,” he said.

Gleason ultimately didn’t win the national prize. Sydney Chaffee, a high school humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Massachusetts, was named National Teacher of the Year last month. She’s the first honoree from a charter school.

(74 Interview: Teacher of the Year: The First-Ever Charter Honoree Talks Social Justice, Trauma, and Accountability)

Gleason, and the other three finalists, spoke with The 74 in early March when they were in Washington, D.C., for their final interviews.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Why did you become a teacher?

Gleason: My father. He was a band director and an instrumental music educator for over 40 years in Wisconsin. I grew up in his band room, along with my brother, who is also an instrumental music educator. Just watching him work day in and day out with kids, and seeing the amazing things that he did, just rubbed off on me and instilled a passion in me that just continued today.

The National Teacher of the Year has a sort of platform he advocates during his year in office. What would yours be?

Really three things — one is to elevate the profession, to amplify our voice, and to lead from within. The voice of our educators and representing them, along with our students, is vitally important. That voice needs to be heard in order to help shape policy but also to uplift our profession and let them know that they are professionals and they do the most important work in our country.

I think it comes down to connecting. Just like with my own students in my own classroom. The key is to make that connection with them. I think it’s the same thing with educators. I think they want to see themselves in that person. They want to see the struggle, because I know it’s a struggle. I know the things that they go up against. I know the difficulties and the hard work that it is to be an educator today. To be able to uplift someone means to be kind … it’s the idea of empathy. It’s getting down right next to them and saying, “I understand, I get this,” and then to also say, “But look at the light. Look at the good that we’re doing,” and to help allow them be the very best selves that they can be.

What would you wish others knew about your classroom, or your students?

The love of learning. That’s our future; that’s what we have to instill in every child. The thing is, they come into education with curiosity, but my goal every single day is that they leave my classroom more curious than when they walked in. If we can do that, great things are going to happen. We really have to think about our actions and our choices. Every time a choice is made, a belief is applied. It’s really important we as educators think very seriously about what our outcomes are, what the choices that we’re making are, and that all of those have to lead to students loving learning. If they do that, then great things will just happen.

When schools have to make budget cuts, arts are often one of the first things to go. What would you say to districts that are facing that scenario?

It’s unfortunate, because as a music educator, I’ve gone to state conventions since I was a child. I’d go to sessions called “Advocacy.” That's been a constant in the 20 years that I’ve been teaching. I've been advocating for my discipline and for kids for my entire career. I don’t know any other way.

It’s vitally important that we teach to the whole child. No two children are alike. We know that they’re diverse, their intelligence is distinct. Teaching just one-size-fits-all doesn’t reach all kids. As Ken Robinson once said, the arts teach to parts of kids’ beings that would otherwise be untouched. We need to have the opportunity to get to all children to give them a world-class education any way that we can.

Education has become a very contentious issue, particularly since the start of the year. What would you advise President Trump and Secretary DeVos to do as they’re moving forward?

What I can tell you is what works in my school and my classroom. What’s working for us is equity, meeting the needs of our kids. We need to continue to do that. We need to focus on sometimes those hidden things that we don’t see, like children that have trauma. You talk about adverse childhood experiences, we need to do a better job of finding all those kids and meeting them and giving them services that they need. I can speak to that.

I can speak also to lighting a fire in kids, engaging them, figuring out intrinsic motivation, finding out what gets them excited and then building off of those things. Then the most important part is making connections … I would welcome the opportunity to sit down and to make a connection with them, to have them work with me on finding common ground and see what we have in common. I know at the bottom of all this, we care about kids and we want to do what’s best for our kids because they’re our future. That would be a great place to start, and then we’d work from there.

What advice would you give leaders in Wisconsin, or nationally, as they’re working on ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) implementation?

It’s one of the greatest challenges that we face right now, and it’s vitally important. Looking at the ACE scores, meaning the Adverse Childhood Experiences, is something that we have to pay attention to. We need to have the resources to be able to help. And we do — we have the answers to this. We can help kids out and we can give them what they need to be successful. We have to pay attention to it.

A great teacher once told me, in order to empathize, the first step is to notice. We have to notice and be aware of what’s going on, not put our blinders on but really notice what’s happening. Then there’s empathy, and then from there, compassion. We can make great things happen if we focus on that.

So what I would say to the leaders in my state and even our country is to listen to those professionals who are right there with those kids, because they have great solutions all set; we just need to have the mechanism, the systems in place, to take that great knowledge and then apply it.

What’s been your best moment teaching?

We commissioned a work called Blue and Green Music, which was a painting actually done by artist … Georgia O’Keeffe, who grew up in our city. We asked a composer to write a piece of music to resemble that art. All of this was done via the kids. I gave complete autonomy over to the kids. What they proved to me is that they’re capable of that and when giving up autonomy, the best teaching happened in my classroom, the best learning.

The performance happened at our state convention, and not only did the composer conduct the piece, but in the front row were some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s only living relatives. What was so neat is that the kids understood the moment. The O’Keeffe family was sitting there crying, and [the students] could see that and they could understand this is something significant, and they didn’t want to leave the stage. That was up there.

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