Retiring Chief Jo teacher offered more than music lessons

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJune 7, 2013 

Owen McKinstry, 14, has a simple explanation for why Nancy Elliott is a good teacher.

"She teaches you but you still have fun all the time," said the eighth-grade clarinet player, as he helped move timpani Wednesday to be used for a last day of school assembly at Chief Joseph Middle School.

Elliott has been at Chief Jo since it reopened in 1994, working with about 200 students a year, instructing them in everything from bassoon to snare drum.

"I love the fact I have the students for three years and I get to see them develop," the band teacher said. "I get to see them blossom."

Students and school officials said it's hard to imagine what Chief Jo will be like next year without her.

"To me, it's just overwhelming the amount of growth she gets from the kids," Principal Jon Lobdell said.

Elliott began teaching in 1975, starting out as an elementary school music teacher. She said she comes from a musical family and her sister and two nieces also are music teachers. And while she enjoys all forms of music, Elliott, herself a piano and clarinet player, said teaching band has been her dream.

"It's just so fascinating to blend all those sounds," she said.

Elliott took some time away from teaching in the 1980s to raise her three sons but shortly after returning went to Chief Jo as its band teacher.

As with any job in a classroom, there are challenges, from working with students of varying ability and even willingness to play, especially if band was their parents' idea, she said. There's also the annual issue of having too many or too few students wanting to play specific instruments.

"I have a sixth-grade class with 11 drummers," Elliott said, smiling.

She said she's experienced the tough choices of budget cuts through the years but also has seen the benefits of technology, especially when it comes to teaching students how to write their own musical compositions.

But Elliott said she still believes in the root benefits behind music education: discipline, self-expression and friendship.

"We don't teach just music. We teach human beings to relate to human beings," she said.

Lobdell said he can tell from listening to Elliott's former and current students that she's had a profound effect on their lives. Those students' parents also have rallied and supported her through the years, organizing and financing trips for the band, the most recent a performance in Washington, D.C., in May 2012.

"(The parents) know we're losing a gem," Lobdell said.

Elliott's students said they know they sometimes can test their teacher's patience, as evidenced by her occasional use of the so-called "Elliott Glare," but added they've learned a lot about music and life from her.

"I have a younger sister who won't get to have her," said Georgia Coleman, an eighth-grade trumpet player. "She taught us to never give up."

Elliott said there are aspects of retirement she's looking forward to, such as playing with her baby grandson and chatting with a friend over coffee during the middle of a school day. But she said she'll miss her students, whom she said taught her things about life as well.

When talking about the notes and messages she's received in recent weeks, she fought to regain her composure.

"I wasn't aware I was reaching students (so deeply)," she said.

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