Sally Schneider retires, receives choral room dedication
— Sally Schneider’s favorite moments of her 32-year career teaching choral music haven’t been winning the Teacher of the Year award, or a particular concert, or even her choirs doing well at a competition. Her favorite moments have been seeing the impact of her teaching on the hundreds of her students, long after they’ve graduated.
“The kids that were suffering and struggling with really serious problems while they were here in high school –products of divorce, kids that were cutting, kids that were having trouble with depression, kids that were suffering from great poverty, living in cars, homeless…those were the kids who sometimes you didn’t think that they were embracing what was going on in the classroom so much, but then they come back and they visit you five or 10 years later, and they’re these resilient, independent, productive young adults and the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Choir saved me. You [Schneider] didn’t know it at the time, but it saved me.’
“I am absolutely humbled by that, but at the same time it scares me as a teacher and it reminds me that we have kids’ lives in our hands,” she adds. “We have such a powerful influence and we can’t take any minute for granted. Every minute is precious together and it has to be meaningful and it has to be structured and it has to be productive.”
It’s clear that the music teacher synonymous with the top-quality choral program at Firestone High School has indeed made every minute of her career count.
After 32 years of teaching — at Kenmore High School, Garfield High School, the University of Akron, and for the last 20 years at Akron’s Firestone High School, where she is beloved by students and parents alike — Schneider is retiring. On May 20, the night of Schneider’s last end-of-the-year choral concert as director, every choral student and dozens of alumni in the audience stood and sang the song “Softly” as a tribute and a goodbye to their teacher.
Schneider’s supportive yet no-nonsense way of teaching has enriched the lives of hundreds of students, and the love the students show for her clearly shows that.
Akron Public Schools superintendent David James made a surprise appearance at the concert and announced, to a standing-ovation audience and a surprised and delighted Schneider, that per students’ wishes and constant requests, the new Firestone High School choral room will be dedicated to her. It’s an apt tribute to the teacher who has touched the lives of so many students.
A few days after the concert, Schneider talked in her office about what led her to teaching, what it means to her and why she feels so strongly about the value of arts education.
Schneider didn’t come from a musical family; in fact, she wasn’t even always sure she wanted to be a music teacher. Her father wore two hearing aids and was legally deaf since birth. Her mother was an inner-city public school teacher in an all-black community in a poor steel mill town, prior to the Civil Rights movement.
“I think I have some of her chutzpah… I have her soul, I think,’’ Schneider says.
Her mother was passionate about helping her students, who had little. She bought them secondhand clothes and baked them “health cookies,” knowing that many of the kids didn’t have much nutritious food at home. Her mother’s love of helping children learn, grow and develop as people inspired Schneider to become a teacher.
Teaching the person, not the notes
Schneider’s hands-on approach to helping students through learning and caring is evident in her teaching method. “I’ve done this at all three of my schools. My culture and my attitude is that I don’t care if you’re 14 or you’re 18 or 19,” she says. “I’m going to treat you as an equal until you prove otherwise. So the whole idea is, we’re going to start from day one, here’s the expectations, and that means there’s more ownership on the relationship on the student. And a lot of kids aren’t used to that. They’re used to Mom and Dad doing everything for them, and they’re used to having teachers and coaches tell them everything to do. So in here, it’s role reversal. They need to take ownership of rehearsal, they need to take ownership of their contribution, there’s no time for them to be adolescent and unprofessional. Show that you can do it here, and transfer that energy and professionalism and that sense of maturity into your other aspects of high school.”
Schneider does what the best teachers do: teach students about life, not just about school. She guides them along as best she can without holding their hands or coddling them. On her method of putting students in a place of responsibility, she says: “Sometimes that’s risky business. That’s probably the biggest learning curve that you don’t learn in college, is that you want them to assume responsibility and take ownership, but they still need structure — you just have to think of everything that could go wrong and have a solution for that up your sleeve. Because things will go wrong and kids will make poor choices and then you’ve got to steer them without shooting down the choice.” Without squashing students’ creativity, Schneider has taught students to weigh all the variables in their decision-making.
She wants students to collaborate, too: “The community aspect of doing art together is really addictive. It fills a void. I think making art together is very important.”
Arts in schools
Schneider wants people to see that studying the arts in public schools is invaluable, not expendable. “A lot of people think that being in the arts is just about having a lot of fun. And we have to dispel that myth, because it’s actually very rigorous if it’s done right, and the more you put in the more you get out. So, if you put in average, you’re going to get out average.” She says that kids who study the arts bring a lot more to the table than kids who haven’t: “The artist sees possibilities.”
Schneider stayed at Firestone for 20 years because she appreciated not only the academic rigor and cultural diversity of the students, but also the strong arts culture at the school. For students everywhere, she says she believes the communal aspect of art is truly healing for the soul. “When a choir sings together, they’re embracing the text and you have to have a certain amount of vulnerability to sing a difficult text. It might really be causing angst in your soul to revisit some uncomfortable moments in your life that are embodied in that text, but then that music helps you diffuse it and helps you digest it, and so the fact that we do it together, it’s an experience they don’t get anywhere else.”
Goals for retirement, legacy
Schneider’s goal in teaching is to help her students become professional, well-rounded, capable young adults, whether they pursue music after high school or not. Says Class of 2013 graduate Hannah Pryseski, who is now studying to be an educator: “It’s almost hard to put into words what it was like being Mrs. Schneider’s student. Never did I feel like I was just another 14-year-old freshmen coming into women’s chorus for the first time. She treated us like adults, and in return we became talented, hard-working students who earned respect from others. It wasn’t just the musical aspect of things she brought so much knowledge on, it was life itself…I couldn’t ask for a better woman and choral director to look up to in my four years at Firestone.”
The Akronist’s Editor Chris Miller had Schneider as a teacher during his time at Kenmore, and says, “She was one of the most inspiring teachers I ever had, and one of the most compassionate people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.” Those students who don’t go into the arts become “arts advocates” in the community; just being surrounded by the arts is a positive influence. Schneider credits the arts in Akron with improving education. For her, “education is enlightenment.”
Schneider knows from her teaching experiences how important the role of a teacher is. Her advice for any future teacher? “Make sure that you love people and respect people and feel responsible for their development. And if you do, then you’ll take whatever your medium is and whatever your subject is, whether it’s art history, English, calculus, music, and that’s going to become a tool to build a better person. It’s not about test scores. Those matter, those are doors that open opportunities for you, but ultimately we are building people.”
In the future, Schneider expects to stay busy and involved in the music education community. She’s hoping to help mentor other teachers and do outreach work, saying, “I’m not really retiring, I’m just going to do something different in the same field.”