Journey to the classroom - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Musical Chairs Journey to the classroom

Singer inspired to tune into teaching at Hamilton High

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Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 5:30 am | Updated: 4:35 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

About this series: Ben Shafer dives into a new career as a music teacher. The Tribune will follow Shafer through a series of stories as he prepares for the first day of school, July 27, with the Chandler Unified School District.

Two years ago, feeling unfulfilled by his work, Ben Shafer decided it was time for a change.

The idea was first sparked during a church conference for young adults. The speaker encouraged the men and women to examine their lives and their skills to set the stage to help others later in life.

Not long after, Shafer, now 31, heard a piece of choral music while driving. Memories of high school and college choir flooded his mind: Singing with friends in concerts. Traveling with them to competitions. Performing across the Valley, state and country with the Phoenix Boys Choir.

The result: Shafer decided to return to school in 2007 to become a secondary music teacher.

On July 27, he'll start at Chandler's Hamilton High School. Former teacher Cris Evans - who began with the school when it opened in 1998 - retired this spring.

As Shafer prepares for that first day, he has tasks to complete, all with one goal in mind.

"In so far as leading warm-ups and standards, I can do that," Shafer said during a conversation in late June. "Am I going to be able to inspire them to want to learn? That's ultimately what we're doing as teachers, is inspiring them to be life-long learners."


Shafer said graduate school at ASU was easier than his time at Brigham Young University, where he completed a bachelor's degree in music with an emphasis on sound recording.

"For the first time I enjoyed reading. I enjoyed participating in conversations, the thoughts, reading philosophies," he said. "I wasn't much of a reader before. I was more committed to this," than his undergraduate work.

He also had inspiration of his own: His wife, in-laws and mom are all teachers.

As an undergraduate, Shafer chose the recording aspect of the music business, because that's where he thought the money would be. He ran his own recording studio while at BYU. He followed that up by joining an audio/visual company when he returned to Arizona. That led to a position in sales with the company, setting up conferences and seminars.

But it didn't lead to satisfaction.

When he thought back to those who inspired him, he realized how much of it came from his former music instructor, Kay Umberson, who is now retired from the Kyrene Elementary School District.

"She had the most positive spirit around her," he said. "If I can be a positive influence on someone else, that's what I want to do."


Shafer met Cris Evans and her husband, Bart, several years ago when he and Bart were in a summer performing group together. Like his wife, Bart's career is teaching kids music. He is the choral director at Mesa's Dobson High School.

When Shafer decided to return to school, he sought out the couple as mentors, doing student teaching with Bart. Shafer completed his master's degree in December.

In late May, Cris Evans invited Shafer to Hamilton. Together they conducted auditions for the school's choirs and Shafer met some of the 150 students participating in the multitude of choirs.

It also gave Shafer a chance to see if he would be a good fit for the students.

"Ultimately, it boils down to ... what's best for the kids. It's about how the kids feel," noting that music instructors who enter the field to fuel their own ego should "stay in performing."

Hamilton proved to be a good match.

When the school year ended, more than 40 students offered to help Shafer inventory music in the classroom, clean, set up bulletin boards, rearrange furniture and more.

And that was just the beginning of his preparation for the new year.

Shafer must select three to five songs for each of the choirs' four concerts throughout the year, as well as competition music and pieces for special occasions.

He must establish goals for the different choirs - men's, women's, mixed ensemble, advanced and beginning - work on curriculum, create a time line as the groups prepare for a spring break competition in Chicago and develop a list of what he wants seniors to accomplish before they leave his classroom.

"Music education is more than singing in choir and learning music," he said. "In music, we have the opportunity to teach the full human. We're not just teaching choir."

He recently returned from a music directors conference in Flagstaff.

One speaker said it best, Shafer said, when asked what he does as a music teacher.

"He said, ‘I teach language, history, poetry, social behavior, science, mathematics, French, German, Spanish and Latin,' " noting all the different types of music and skills needed in vocal music.

"With choral music, you can get stuck on being the best," he said. "It's more than the performance. It's about the journey. ... I want to be at this school as long as I can.

"I would love to stay there forever. I'm so fortunate to have this open to me at the right time, the right place."


Writing a handbook, a welcome letter and crafting a calendar are a few items on Shafer's to-do list the next few weeks. Then there's his week of first-time Chandler teacher orientation that begins July 13, followed by another week of training and meetings for all Chandler teachers.

He's doing some prep work at home and some at school. Shafer's also completing on an online continuing education class to turn his provisional Arizona teaching certificate into a standard one. Many teachers start with a provisional certificate in Arizona, the minimum required to teach.

They have one year to make up their deficiency, such as completing the Arizona/U.S. Constitution test. Then there's the music. Shafer wants to verify the contents of the school's music library, and borrow music from other instructors, knowing there's not a budget to purchase more.

He's looking forward to seeing it all come together.

Next week: Ben Shafer works to get his classroom at Chandler’s Hamilton High School ready for his first class of choir students.

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