Longevity crucial to teachers’ impact in classroom

While school is in session, students spend about 30 hours in the classroom every week. That’s more than 1,000 hours each academic year.

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This means teachers play a pivotal role, not only in a student’s education, but in their development as a person.

Tom Bowerman is a music teacher, and he has been at Willow Crest Elementary School in Anchorage for 13 years. It’s not just his job to educate, it’s to inspire.

Unlike most educators who work in one classroom with the same children, he spends about an hour each week with every student at Willow Crest – so he sees the students every week the entire time they’re in elementary school.

A student starting in kindergarten would spend seven years with Bowerman.

That’s time he spends not only building relationships with the students, “but with the parents that have five and six kids that go through your program and you see them every year,” Bowerman said. “And it’s sad when you finally get the last one is gone, you know, ‘I’m not gonna see this family again.’”

“So it’s a little sad, but it’s also really happy that you’ve seen them grow from not being able to do anything, to being adjusted and ready to go onto that next level,” Bowerman added.

That longevity in the classroom, and community as a whole, builds relationships that persist for years – decades, even.

While music has always been an important aspect of Bowerman’s life, he remembers the impact of one particular teacher from his own formative years.

“My high school choir teacher, her name was Cam Bohman,” Bowerman said. “And we just had a 50th anniversary deal last summer where kids that she taught for her 50 years all came back from all over the country, and we had a big concert at West High to celebrate her.”

The turnout was impressive. Bowerman said about 150 people showed up to perform to a packed auditorium at the reunion.

Though Cam Bohman’s 50-year legacy could be tough to compete with, it exemplifies the influence a single teacher can have on the lives of hundreds of students over the course of decades, and it’s an impact that might not even be recognized for years.

“Music ties in with science, and it ties in with literature and it ties in with history,” Bowerman said. “And so we bring all those things together and we provide it for the kids and it helps them grow.”

“They might not even realize what they’re getting, but they’re getting access to it,” Bowerman added.

Bowerman acknowledges teaching music is different from teaching core subjects, like math, history and science – and he said burnout from a continually growing list of responsibilities and the prospect growing class sizes is affecting teachers’ longevity in the class, especially in light of recent layoff notices issued by the Anchorage School District, spurred by an uncertain level of state funding.

“As they get bigger there’s no room in the classroom for the desks, let alone the kids,” Bowerman said. “I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen the size of sixth graders these days, but they’re getting pretty big, you can’t put 35 of them – I mean, we’ve done it before, it didn’t last that long because kids moved out – but 35 6th graders in one room or 35-40 second graders — it’s like herding cats.”

By the end of this past school year, ASD issued 225 layoff notices to teachers – five just at Willow Crest Elementary. Some, or even all, of those teachers could be recalled, depending on how much money the district receives from the state.

The Senate is proposing an approximately $65 million cut to education funding, while the House is proposing a slight increase.

Bowerman did not receive a pink slip, but he’s still concerned about the possible effect on classrooms. And while uncertainty surrounds the issue of potential layoffs, he says teachers knowing their impact remains important.

“Teaching can drag on you at times,” Bowerman said. “Halfway through the year and you’re tired and you’ve been doing a lot, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, one of the little kids will run up to you and say, ‘Do we have music today?’ and I go, ‘Yeah we do’, and he says, ‘Alright!’ Or they’ll see you on bus duty, ‘do we have music today?’ Yeah. ‘Good!’ And, you know that you’re connecting with them when you get that kind of response. It just validates what you’re doing.”

Ultimately, Bowerman strives to inspire and to build lasting relationships with students and their families, which takes time and consistency in both an educator’s approach, and also their own future.