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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pomeroy School District hasn’t had a music teacher for nearly four years

POMEROY, Wash. – In June 2020, Marcus Pederson retired from his 35-year career of teaching band at the Pomeroy School District. Since then, the only district in Washington’s least populous county has been unable to hire a replacement.

The reasons are unclear, but could have to do with the smaller district’s ability to offer a competitive salary, pressures on young music teachers or the challenge of recruiting teachers to rural schools.

“We truly want to give students a well-rounded education that goes beyond our core academics,” Superintendent Rachel Gwinn said. “We want to have music.”

Since Pederson announced his retirement in the fall of 2019, there has only been one applicant but that person accepted another job offer at a nearby district.

Gwinn said Pomeroy plans to keep the job posting open until they can find someone. But in the meantime, a generation of students is missing out on a music education. The school district, which has an elementary school and a combined junior and senior high school, has about 350 students.

This year’s senior class is one of the last to remember taking a full year of music. Students such as Ollie Severs and Rylan Hays-Carnahan say they would like to have continued playing. Without a teacher, they haven’t kept up.

“It’s hard to play an instrument after losing a class,” said Hays-Carnahan, who played French horn. “It’s hard to figure out how to do it all over again. It’s really hard to remember.”

Severs, who used to play bassoon and now plays football and basketball, said the pep band is noticeably missing from home games.

“We always used to run out to the fight song from the pep band, but we don’t do that anymore,” he said.

Robbie Wolf, grade 6, is one of a few students who still plays an instrument. He has been learning the guitar for a couple of years and takes private lessons from Pederson, who still lives in town.

The hardest part is learning to read music.

“It’s like a foreign language,” Robbie said.

He would like to see the school bring back the music program.

“I think that would be an exciting new class and lots of kids would enjoy it,” he said. “Something new.”

The school district has done its best to fill in the gaps.

The high school brought back a visual arts class taught by one of the regular teachers. This elective adds to the high school’s career and technical education classes on agriculture, business, computers and metal arts.

Other teachers incorporate music where they can.

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Waldher wrote a grant to purchase high-quality tambourines, cymbals and triangles for her students. She introduces these instruments in the spring, after the kids have learned the basics of kindergarten.

“Music is a huge part of my teaching,” Waldher said.

And it’s not just instruments. She also uses clapping rhythms and chants with her students. While reading to them, she leads this ditty: “Character-setting-problem-and-solution,” which they repeat three times before concluding: “these-are-the-parts-of-a-story!”

Waldher said rhythms help young children remember things and make learning more fun. With the instruments, she uses a curriculum she found online.

“We have beginning readers, so why not beginning music readers too?” she said. “I wanted to make sure that is a foundation for my students, and what better grade to do that than kindergarten?”

The elementary school manages to put on a musical Christmas program, which is a big event for the town to attend. The classes sing carols with a piano accompaniment.

Despite the absent music program, teachers say students are still getting a top-notch education. Just this school year, Pomeroy Elementary was recognized as a National Distinguished School.

“We do a lot of great things here, too,” Waldher said.

Pederson is surprised the district hasn’t been able to fill the position. He moved to Pomeroy in 1985 and liked it so much that he decided to stay and build the home where he still lives. His three children grew up there, and they each received excellent educations, he said.

“I enjoyed teaching, but it was time for me to move on,” he said. “Being a music teacher is a young person’s job.”

Pederson was already planning to retire before the pandemic started. He put in his notice at the beginning of that school year. A month later, he had a heart attack.

It was unexpected, but proved to him he made the right decision. He recovered and returned to school, but in another few months COVID-19 forced everyone home.

Like everyone else, he taught by Zoom and YouTube videos for the rest of the year.

“That’s not band,” Pederson said.

Spending his last weeks teaching that way was surreal and frustrating.

“A lot of schools have had a hard time bringing back music programs from the pandemic,” he said.

The vacancy is a sad situation, but he has no regrets. He won’t go back to teaching, though he has offered to mentor a new teacher.

Music teaching is rewarding, yet difficult, and takes “a special kind of person.”

He liked that every day was different and that he got to know his students as he taught them year after year through high school. Some students became lifelong friends.

“I thrived,” he said. “I loved the chaotic aspect of band. It’s loud, fun, exciting to see the kids.”

However, the job can be a lot to manage. It requires flexibility and selflessness.

“You’re not going to become rich being a teacher,” Pederson said.

Now that it has been so long, rebuilding the program will be an even greater task. Even if the school district hired a new teacher tomorrow, it would take four or five years to bring back a full band, Pederson said.

But it would be an interesting challenge to start over from scratch. The new teacher won’t have to worry about filling his shoes since he has been gone so long. They would have the space to make it their own and would have the full support of the administration and the community behind them, Pederson said.

Why aren’t there more applicants?

The district hasn’t had a problem hiring other teaching positions, Superintendent Gwinn said.

That could change since more retirements are expected in the next few years. Hiring high school teachers in specialty subjects like math or science could be challenging.

But overall, the staff has high retention. Some have ties to the community, while others are attracted to the small-town feel.

“I am probably partial, but I think we have an amazing district,” Gwinn said. “We have high standards, a very supportive community, success in athletics.”

One factor could be pay.

“Being small and rural, there are so many benefits, but we can’t compete with some of the bigger districts as far as salary,” Gwinn said. “I don’t know if that plays a role or not.”

Starting salary for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Pomeroy starts at about $50,000. In Spokane, it’s $56,000. The gap widens with more experience and education.

Washington used to have a standard salary schedule that paid teachers based on their education and years of experience, no matter where they taught.

Jim Kowalkowski, a former Pomeroy superintendent who directs a statewide cooperative of small and rural districts called the Rural Education Center, said it was an effective system.

“Probably the biggest challenge for small districts across the state is dealing with this loss of the salary schedule,” Kowalkowski said.

Part of the legislature’s reforms to education funding in response to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision did away with that pay model, replaced it with an average allocation based on enrollment and left it to individual districts to negotiate their own pay scales with their teachers unions.

The result has made it difficult for smaller, less wealthy school districts to compete with larger districts in how much they can afford to pay teachers.

“Small districts are really struggling to find qualified staff,” Kowalkowski said. “Part of that, I’m sure, is salary.”

Last year, the Rural Education Center commissioned a survey of 1,500 rural school staff that asked in several different ways what rural districts can do to recruit more teachers. The top answer was competitive salary and benefits.

Other challenges

Besides compensation, there could be issues mores specific to music teaching.

Gwinn guesses there might be fewer students going into music education. The district shared the job posting with local university music programs, but hasn’t had any bites.

Martin King, professor of music education at Washington State University, said WSU encourages its graduating students to apply for open jobs like this.

“It is always a concern that if a position like this goes unfilled, eventually the program may be cut,” King said. “We do not want that outcome.”

From his perspective, rural schools face challenges in hiring specialists that they may not have in filling other faculty positions.

Part of it is a numbers game. King said there are more open music educator jobs in Washington than qualified teachers.

The majority of music students come from more populous areas, and these students are more likely to want to return to these areas to teach. They may feel uncomfortable moving to a rural town or teaching at a smaller school.

Another challenge is that music teachers often want to specialize in one area such as elementary music, band, choir or orchestra. Yet smaller schools usually expect them to teach a combination of these.

Ron Gerhardstein, president of the Washington Music Educators Association, said there is a national shortage of music teachers, though it is not as severe in Washington.

The biggest problems are in rural areas and sometimes urban areas where music funding is lacking.

He agreed with King on specialization.

“The biggest issue as I see it is that most of our teachers have most of their training in a singular curricular area,” Gerhardstein said. “They have been trained as a choral educator or a band teacher, and they feel out of place teaching at a school where they are required to teach both.”

It compounds if the district also requires teaching multiple grade levels.

“Candidates who could be a decent fit for an open position in a rural school district talk themselves out of applying because the job feels out of their range of skills,” Gerhardstein said.

Scott Ketron, executive director of the music educators association, said the teacher shortage shows up even in suburban districts with high pay and good administrative support.

College music departments have a healthy population, Ketron said. The problem is what happens after graduation.

“There is a low retention rate for new teachers to make it to year five,” he said. “It seems that music teachers that get to year five will often stay with their careers longer and even until retirement. If they leave before that, they never come back.”

Teaching music is complicated, he said. High expectations and a lack of understanding from administrators can feel overwhelming to new teachers.

“Often a music teacher is the only music person in a small district within 50 miles or more,” Ketron said. “Sometimes that manifests as isolation or loneliness.”

Ketron stressed that small-town music teachers play important roles in their communities.

“They are to be treasured,” he said.

Gwinn said the school board plans to continue budgeting for the position in the hopes of bringing back the music program.

“We are still putting it in our budget because it is so important to us,” she said. “We want to continue to offer it if we can.”

Reporting conducted for this article was completed with funding from a Center for Rural Strategies and Grist grant program.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.