Teacher of the Year/Teacher of a Lifetime

This week is “teacher appreciation week”. I have said many times, and I’ll continue to say/write/SHOUT it: I was blessed with exceptional teachers throughout my education. I’m a music educator, so it probably comes as no surprise that my music teachers were outstanding instructors and amazing people.

I benefited from a lot of continuity in my music education. When I entered the 7th grade, my district opened a new site for Jr. High. My elementary music instructor moved up with us, so when it was all said and done, he was at the helm of my development as a musician for 9 years (1st-9th grades). I attended college at my high school music teacher’s alma mater, and was taught by most of the same professors. My college voice teacher referred to me as one of his “grandstudents”; I had the privilege of sending a few of my own pupils his way before he retired whom he fondly dubbed “great-grandstudents”.

In between those amazing elementary and college instructors, was Lori. Technically, she was my teacher for the shortest period of time, but had as much of a profound affect as her predecessor and successors. It was in her class that my skills as a musician matured to the point that it was clear that was the field I was destined to enter as an educator.

My music teachers–Rick, Lori, and Skip–with me at my “freshman” recital in college

The year after I graduated, my high school choral director moved back to her home in western Oklahoma. For the last 15 years, she and her co-director have been building a dynasty in choral music at Elk City. Last year, she was named her site and subsequently, district Teacher of the Year. She bestowed upon me the honor of writing a letter to accompany her portfolio for the state ToY submission.

Here’s what I wrote:

To Whom It May Concern,

I first met Lori at a Saturday morning rehearsal before the fall of my freshman year. She was drinking chocolate milk and eating powdered-sugar donuts to power through a show choir rehearsal while nine months pregnant. Having carried two children to term myself, I can tell you that running a show choir rehearsal is about the last thing I would have wanted to do while nine months pregnant. But that’s Lori for you. She always has her thumb on things to ensure her standard of excellence.

Many years have flown by since that first encounter. Many songs sung, contests won, superior ratings achieved. Many rehearsals endured, and many musicals opened (and closed) because of them. Many meetings attended, hours at the piano, practice tapes (and later CD’s) made. Many trips chaperoned, costumes sewn, funds raised, pleas made to administration on behalf of fine arts education. Many students turned teachers, and eventually colleagues.

Many memories. Sometimes heartache. And always, love.

But this love did not manifest itself in the ordinary way. It was much more subtle. Lori’s class was no cakewalk. Her standards were high and her expectations great for her students, and, I suspect, for herself.   We didn’t understand then the seeds she was planting while we were practicing the same four-measure passage for the umpteenth time. We couldn’t see the big picture when she made us rehearse that difficult dance break in the musical until it was perfect. She was teaching us that practice makes permanent, that talent is wasted without work ethic, and that what’s worth doing is worth doing well. Her class was not about making us exceptional musicians. Lori’s class was about making us exceptional people. And that kind of labor can only be one of love.

It was this passion that inspired me to pursue music as a career. And I’m not the only one. Dozens of my classmates continue to make music today. You can hear their students perform at contest. You can listen to their choirs sing on Sunday in churches across the state. You can even download their music on iTunes. A truly exceptional teacher is one who continues to inspire her students long after they leave the classroom. Because of Lori, music will be made and shared and lives will be enriched because of it. But more importantly, the love she shared will be multiplied in the endeavors of her students, no matter where they are or their chosen career. That is her legacy.

While I was directing a rehearsal in my classroom one day, a friend commented how similar my directing style is to Lori’s. It is one of the highest compliments I have ever received and one of the many ways Lori’s love continues to influence another generation of students. I was lucky to call Lori my teacher. I am proud to be considered her colleague. I think I speak on behalf of all her former students when I say I will be blessed forever to call her my friend.

To name Lori Park “Oklahoma Teacher of the Year” would certainly be appropriate. For me and so many others, she’s already been the teacher of a lifetime.

Oh, how I wish my words could have done her more justice…

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