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Margaret Green remembers, at the end of her time at Ball State University in Indiana, she had an assignment to neatly summarize her goals and beliefs as an educator, to put on top of a résumé.
Not fair, she said. Having students who could read shape music? Know a quarter note from a half?
“I didn’t know!” she said, recalling all the surface-level stuff she wrote for padding.
Green teaches singing and choir classes at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. After about 20 years at the school, she thinks she can finally answer. It just took a while, and she points to her time at the school for helping her find it.
“I think I can honestly say that I can credit this school for building what is my philosophy of music, my philosophy of music education,” she said.
Green, 46, has been with Vancouver Public Schools her entire teaching career. For her first year, she split her time teaching classes at Hudson’s Bay High School, at what was then Shumway Junior High and at local elementary schools.
She grew up in a Chicago suburb and went to college at Ball State before coming West and getting her master’s degree at Portland State University.
The longest she’d been teaching at any one school was probably just a few years, she said, then the district gave her the chance to help build an entirely new program from the ground up.
That school became Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.
“I feel like I’m probably one of the luckiest people on Earth, to be really honest with you,” she said. “Coming into a school like this as a fifth-year teacher, I mean, what the heck?”
The school has about 600 students, and this year she teaches about 140 students split between six classes. The grades mix at VSAA, so Green might have anyone from 12- to 17-years-old in her choir classes, especially the beginner courses. Students spend about half the day in arts classes.
Seth Olson, a theater teacher at the school for the past 13 years, said he and Green, both being from the Midwest with a background in movement choirs, buddied up quickly.
“She is such a bundle of energy,” he said. “Those first years of the school, Margaret was everywhere.”
Her experience helping build the school helps keep the team grounded, Olson said.
“Being a staff of highly creative people, we get off on tangents like nobody’s business,” he said.
Green the historian, Olson said, helps remind others about their shared mission and purpose with the school.
“That sort of helps sort out some of the decisions we make, and why we do what we do.”
Each year, the school organizes its art classes around a particular theme, sometimes a genre or a particular artist. Teachers — whether they teach dance, visual arts or something else — have to find ways to make that theme, or a part of it, relevant to the class.
Green said it takes a lot of coordination, creativity and flexibility among faculty to work a certain playwright’s work or a director’s films into lessons for theater or singing classes.
Teachers have had to create relevant yet medium-appropriate lessons connected to the films of Stanley Kubrick, Cuban music, or, as they’re doing this year, the work and writings of American choreographer Twyla Tharp.
“To teach here is like being a student here, because I’m exposed to everything that those students are exposed to,” she said. “That’s the part of it that I think is really amazing, is that I am always pushing myself as an artist, as a learner.”
In part, that’s taught her a bit about how her students sometimes feel.
“The students come in, and we’re like, ‘OK, we expect you to be up here, we expect you to do this, or whatever.’ Some of them are freaking out,” she said.
She can sympathize. For a while, being among colleagues with loads of experience, she felt like she didn’t belong at the school.
The school isn’t a conservatory that’s taking the top artistic students in the district, she said, but students are still expected to show improvement, and some place a lot of unneeded pressure on themselves.
She’s seen students get the notion that if they’re not belting out “American Idol”-level ballads — huge statistical anomalies, considering most voices don’t mature until around the mid-20s at the early end — they’re doing it wrong and want to give up.
“You’re not seeing all the hours of rehearsal they’re putting in, you’re not seeing them hoarse and exhausted,” she said. “You’re only just seeing these great TV moments. Well, that’s not real life, that’s not it.”
She has colleagues elsewhere who have to bring home trophies and accolades to justify their program’s existence, she said, and she’s thankful her supervisors don’t feel the same way.
At her students’ age and skill level, music shouldn’t be a competition, she said. At their age, teachers ought to be able to teach the material but look at the whole person, and help them develop their skills, or their instrument, in a healthy way.
“I think it’s looking at every single one of these kids as an individual, and who are they, what do they have to say, and how do I help them release their ideas and their creativity,” she said. “My vehicle is choir, you know, but I still need to know every single one of them as an individual.”