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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Outstanding Teachers: What Sets Them Apart

Rachel Johnson plays fiddle with the Dixie Bee-Liners and travels nationwide. What she remembers most is how Bandy Brownlee promoted having a positive attitude.
Rachel Johnson plays fiddle with the Dixie Bee-Liners and travels nationwide. What she remembers most is how Bandy Brownlee promoted having a positive attitude.
Additional photos below »


What keeps Bill Phelps, Heidi McElroy and Bandy Brownlee going and makes them stay?

Here's what my students get from my classes: they come out with a sense of acceptance and a sense of accomplishment. They know how it feels to be part of a concert or show that receives acclaim from those who witness it.

McElroy: I try to make sure that everything I teach is worthwhile as a learning experience; that the art that students create is age appropriate. So many students stopped drawing in fourth grade (except in art class) and have a long way to catch up in their skills. I don't allow stick-figure drawings or "the sun in the corner" like they did in elementary. I teach the skills and most students rise to my expectations. My classes have to work and they know it. I do not do busy work and we do not have "free days." At the end of the year all students have their work in a visual journal of which they can be proud (if, indeed, they did what they were assigned). I expect good craftsmanship. I display students' work, changing the bulletin boards frequently.

Phelps: Perhaps it is that I have taught at the same school for many years, still enjoy what I am doing, and am striving to become a better teacher. I feel very lucky to be associated with a wonderful school and school system.

Their Strengths as Teachers

Brownlee: Vocal and instrumental music don't require a comprehensive lesson plan. It's basically, "What needs the most work in terms of technique and execution?" Of course, there will always be drills and sight-singing designed to strengthen fundamentals. But as long as there is a performance goal, relentless rehearsal of the current repertoire is what's required. Maybe my strength is finding the right material for my singers; that is, in fact, the first and most important aspect of teaching music. I look for fresh material and I never attempt material that I believe is beyond my students' capabilities. For example, the next event for my singers is the J.B. Lyle Choral Competition in the first week of March. My students must each present three songs from contrasting periods (contemporary, Renaissance, Baroque, etc.) and one of the three songs must be in a foreign language. Also at this event, groups must perform rhythms and four-part songs without rehearsal.

McElroy: I hope I am attuned to the needs of my students and that I teach them about life lessons as well as art. I encourage conversation in my room as long as it doesn't interfere with the learning process. So many times the class discusses issues not "on the color wheel." I aim to promote the creativity and self-confidence of my students because that will help them be more successful in all their classes and social situations in high school.

Phelps: I believe my strengths are instructional planning, organization, consistency, and involvement in a variety of school activities related to instruction. In coaching theatre and debate, I feel my strengths are giving interested students opportunities to participate in theatre and debate activities and helping students who have never participated in a play or debate feel at ease as they begin to learn about these activities.

Their Natural Talents

Brownlee: It is my good fortune to have experienced many aspects of professional music in my life's work. For example, I understand the workings of many instruments, which allows me to arrange vocal works with instrumental accompaniment, not just piano. And my work in church music, record production, and professional singing has equipped me for writing and producing live shows. Maybe my best natural talent is seeing the potential in my singers and helping them reach that potential with some camaraderie and laughs along the way. I enjoy seeing my students have fun as we strive to achieve our goals.

McElroy: Sensitivity to the needs of others, ability to break things down so that understanding is easy for everyone. Logical.

Phelps: I enjoy helping others, and I want others to be successful. I strive to be fair and make the right decisions.

Teaching Techniques

Brownlee: The most important component of my teaching is creating a sense of urgency. My students are performance-oriented from the very first day of class when they address a mailing to their parents outlining public performances of the term. Reviewing those show dates keeps my students goal-oriented.

McElroy: I teach basics and persuade students to use their own creativity to solve design assignments. I make suggestions that, hopefully, will spark their imaginations. I try to support their ideas and show them how they can implement them. I demonstrate techniques and offer suggestions. I encourage fun in art using good design. Not everything has to be the Sistine Chapel. Gel pens on black paper and just drawing lines are great.

Phelps: I try to present lessons that are developed according to an effective teaching model. These lessons primarily focus on improving students' reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. I try to involve students in lessons and give them a variety of opportunities to apply what they have learned. I strive to help every student be successful.

Are They "Unorthodox"?

Brownlee: This word describes me to a "t" — I'm not saying it makes me a great teacher — but it definitely defines my teaching style. I learned early in the game not to force students to adapt to my teaching, but rather just the opposite. I adapt to my students. I know how to capitalize on their skills.

My unorthodox teaching methods are most visible in the music my students perform. When considering a piece of music, I often ask myself, "Will some other group be apt to perform this music?" If the answer is "no' then I am much inclined to present that work to my students. For example, we'll perform a piece in a language like Celtic, or we'll do a piece that contains difficult clapping rhythms or anything else that's off the beaten path. I've learned that festival judges appreciate groups who perform music outside of the norm. Best-kept rehearsal secret: have your students spend time singing while they stand on their chairs!

In May we always do a musical comedy based on some well-defined decade or era; for example, the 1860s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, etc. We work up music from that time period and write a cheesy play which highlights some history from that time and ties the musical numbers together. Seniors from the advanced class have the lines. The more difficult tunes are presented by the advanced class, but most of the numbers are also sung by the general choir classes.

McElroy: I am open to new ideas and trying new things. They sometimes don't work. Recently my students colored their photos onto plexiglass with oil pastel, hoping to transfer them as prints — failure! I ended up scrubbing lots of plexiglass plates. Then there was the garden idea a few years ago made of recycled plastic bottles; we all agreed they still looked like plastic bottles. I get my best creative ideas in the shower, even if they are a little wacko sometimes. I take my students on mini "in-house" field trips where we look at the work on the bulletin boards. We go around the campus to draw and paint during good weather. They always like that. We have gone to the basement of the school to draw the pipes. Sometimes we sit on the floor to work.

Phelps: I really do not consider myself to be unorthodox. I just try to plan effectively, use learning activities that give students opportunities to be successful, and utilize effective instructional strategies. I strive to provide students with skills that can be valuable to them throughout their lives.

What Keeps Them Going,
What Makes Them Stay

Brownlee: There's one very important issue that I've not mentioned. I enjoy fabulous parental support in our projects. We call that group the Choral Boosters. All of our events have printed programs, and at the bottom of every program is this message, "We especially thank the Choral Boosters who help us realize our musical dreams."

McElroy: Teaching art is fun and I get paid for having fun. I enjoy working with teenagers. I am excited when they learn and produce works of art.

Phelps: It's hard for me to believe that I have taught at John Battle for 40 years. I still remember walking down the hall when I came to the school for a job interview. The reason I am still teaching is that I like my work. I really enjoy working with the students, faculty, staff, and administration of the school. The outstanding leadership of John Battle and the Washington County School System also inspire me to want to continue my work.

Time Restrictions

Brownlee: I never have unrealistic expectations of my students. I can gauge what we can accomplish in the time we're given. Students who spend a lot of time working outside of the classroom are the ones who appreciate the rewards that come as a result of their efforts.

McElroy: I design my lessons for student understanding and success. Some lessons take longer than expected. I aim for 100 percent understanding of the processes and media, but I accept that sometimes we don't get as much done as I would like. I have students do almost all their work in class. I rarely give homework.

Phelps: Since students who are involved in theatre and debate are often involved in other school activities, I try to schedule practices so that they do not interfere with other school activities and try to make every practice as productive as possible.

Budget Crunches

Brownlee: When I visit with my colleagues at various choral events, I'm always reminded of my good fortune in terms of financial support. As a city school (versus county schools), we receive some monetary support directly from the school system. But transportation, mailing, props, event fees, costuming, music, electronics, repairs, etc., are expensive items necessary for a successful choral music program. We have a great Choral Booster organization that raises funds by manning a souvenir booth at the Nascar races in Bristol twice a year and the Boosters support and organize our annual Madrigal Dinners. The foresight of the Boosters in the early 1990s made it possible to have the Duck Tape Studio in our department today.

McElroy: I find discarded materials from very generous local donors and incorporate them into art projects. Two of my classes just finished self-portrait sculptures from recyclables that I received from a factory and an interior designer. Last year students made jewelry from aluminum cans. We paint and draw on the backs of old posters. A printer gives us odd sizes of paper. A sign maker gives us vinyl scraps. A frame shop gives us remnants of mat board and foam core board. We use scraps of discarded wire. We do collages and photomontages. We are careful not to waste materials. We try to practice "economy of means." If you have scraps, call me. I can probably have my students turn them into a work of art.

Phelps: Personally, I strive to make economical purchases such as play scripts and debate materials and to use school resources efficiently. The Washington County School System and John S. Battle High School both strongly support arts-related curricular and extracurricular activities for students. This support is shown by emphasizing arts in the curriculum (art, band, chorus, creative writing, and journalism classes); providing for extracurricular arts activities; funding arts activities (including field trips); and providing facilities for arts instruction, including auditoriums with lighting and sound systems, band and choral rooms, classrooms, and storage areas. Ground is about to be broken at John Battle for additional space for band and chorus.

Extracurricular Activities

Brownlee: The students who are busy at school generally want to "go that extra mile" to accomplish their goals. Those same students discover that the folks they desire to spend time with are the very ones that they work with at school. We have a recording studio in the department called Duck Tape Studio (named by our students). One of our extracurricular programs is called SRS (Students Recording Students). My students are encouraged both to perform and to operate the electronics in projects throughout the year. Another extracurricular group is our bluegrass band, Slim Pickins (also named by our students). This group showcases acoustic instruments and a musical style that is an alternative to what most students cultivate. This is another example of perpetuating the talent pool by means of public performance.

McElroy: I try to let my students know that high school is only a brief period in their lives, and that they should take advantage of being in school. No matter what they do outside of school, they can probably do it after high school. Once they graduate, they can't come back. I encourage full participation in school.

Phelps: John Battle offers extensive extracurricular arts activities. These include an Art Club, Band Club, Chorus Club, Creative Writing Club, and Drama Club. In addition, students have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities such as band, chorus, creative writing, debate, forensics, journalism, public speaking, and theatre. These activities include attending special events, participating in workshops, and entering competitions. Many students who participate in theatre and debate have jobs and busy lives away from school. When students audition for a play or apply to be a member of the debate team, I inform them that these activities require considerable time. I emphasize that the busier they become, the more organized they need to be. I also stress that they need to be resourceful with the time they have. For example, during a play rehearsal, when they are not directly involved in a scene, they can be completing homework. I usually give theatre and debate students a schedule of practices and competitions so they can better plan for school activities.

Creating Opportunities

Brownlee: Luckily we live in an area that has constant need for entertainment that can be provided by school musical groups. The opportunity for our students to perform outstrips the actual time we have to give.

McElroy: My whole curriculum is about creating diverse opportunities. I introduce lots of different media in both two- and three-dimensional work. Every student can find several aspects of the curriculum that appeal to him or her. Almost every student finds an area in which he or she excels or, at least, creates works of art that make each of them proud. I let students know about local competitions but, generally, I don't think it is my job to promote contests. A lot of people would like free artwork for some [charitable] cause and think we have lots of free time in our schools to produce something for them. Actually, we have a packed curriculum and little time for contests. We have standards of learning (SOL) on both the state and national levels in which our students should become proficient.

Phelps: Those interested in being in a play are encouraged to audition for the cast or apply to be a member of the play's technical staff, such as working on scenery, lighting, costumes, or publicity. Depending on their interests, students on the debate team can participate in policy debate, Lincoln-Douglas, or Student Congress.


Brownlee: On the first day of school, our advanced students begin working toward the Tennessee All-East/All-State auditions. These auditions determine which students from East Tennessee will qualify to participate in those big choral festivals. And as a department, our main competition is the J.B. Lyle Choral Competition in the spring. Beyond that, I encourage our upperclassmen to participate in as many local music competitions as possible. These spring events are predominantly scholarship-oriented and can net a resourceful, talented student thousands of dollars toward college.

McElroy: My students have participated in the national Parent, Teacher and Student Association's "Reflections" contest where students have the opportunity to advance to state and national levels, and there are monetary rewards for them. Last year students entered Doodle for Google; it was fun to see how they compared with students around the country. I do think the Scholastic Art competition is a good contest, but it costs money; when we had local sponsorship and we entered, my students did well.

Phelps: In coaching drama, I prepare students to present a play at theatre competitions sponsored by the Virginia High School League. Students on the debate team also prepare for tournaments sponsored by the Virginia High School League. In both theatre and debate competitions, students advance through district, regional, and state contests. I also encourage students to participate in various contests, such as speaking and writing competitions.

Nurturing Creativity

Brownlee: Glorification of "thinking outside of the box" is a predominant theme in the THS Choral Music program. My students are required to write original lyrics to songs as part of their lesson work. Students who have mastered an instrument (guitar, violin, oboe, piano, etc.) are shown in a favorable light and are given the opportunity to share their talents with the class. These same talented students are used extensively to accompany our vocal endeavors.

McElroy: I believe everyone is creative. I try to help students find the connections between their interests and what they can create. I encourage experimentation.

Phelps: I utilize learning activities that give students opportunities to be creative. These activities can involve reading, writing, speaking, participating in drama, or constructing art-related projects.

Recognizing Student Talent

Brownlee: The nice thing about our music program is that the talent portion "snowballs." Creative students attract other creative students. Word-of-mouth and public performances seem to attract those students who are a good fit for what we do. However, the underlying truth is that we are in the South! Coming from the Midwest, where I was a high school band director, I can tell you that the talent quotient is high in this part of the country. Here, music is an abundant heritage not found in other sections of the country.

McElroy: I try to make my classes exciting and fun while students are learning at the same time. I display my students' artworks all over the school. If you can do this, students will hear about the program. I think everyone can discover and improve their talents in art.

Phelps: In thinking of students who might do well in theatre and debate, I consider students in my classes; get suggestions from other teachers; and identify students who are in play productions, forensics, speech activities, and choral programs that may have an interest in theatre or debate.


William MacMorran is based in Nashville, Tenn., and tours with the Celtic rock band Seven Nations. He credits Bandy Brownlee with helping to spark his interest in recording and giving him "opportunities to gain experience both on the playing as well as the engineering side of things."

Kyle Buckland is a plein air landscape painter in Abingdon, Va. He describes Heidi McElroy as "a very inspiring teacher whose ability to 'think outside the box' ... was a great asset to my early education as an artist."

Heidi McElroy's current students recently worked on coil baskets.

McElroy's students also work on self-portraits.