CLASSROOM OF THE WEEK | Pittsfield chorus classes hit high note with students
PITTSFIELD — The impact that Gaylan Palmer's music classes have on her students cannot be confined to a 140-character tweet, or a star rating on RateMyTeachers.com. But it is encapsulated in the candid, compassionate and encouraging 5-minute, 45-second YouTube tribute Palmer's students surprised her with this month. Palmer said it's the perfect 50th birthday gift.
According to the student testimonials in the video, Palmer is "not only an amazing teacher, but she's an amazing person" who "encourages you to be who you are."
The composing of the video was orchestrated by Pittsfield High School junior Brianna Nicola, who has been a student of Palmer's since Nicola was in the sixth grade at Herberg Middle School, where Palmer also teaches. Over the course of a week, she gathered 13 other video testimonials and edited them together in a musical slideshow spliced with the talking tributes. Nicola posted the video on YouTube with the quote, "Some people cross your path and change your whole direction."
Palmer, known for her warmth and frankness, recalled her early years teaching Nicola: "She used to be a mouse, but not now."
Nicola smiled wide at the comment, nodding her head. Today, the young woman stars in school and community theater productions and takes choral classes, as well as private lessons with Palmer.
"She's not only a teacher to everyone, but a friend," Nicola says in her video tribute.
Palmer, who has spent 20 years teaching in the city school system, said she has enjoyed watching her students grow not only as vocalists, but as individuals with a strong sense of character and purpose.
The teacher said that working with middle schoolers has taught her that, even at a young age, people process complex issues. She said she encourages her students to bring in music that speaks to them, and while some are upbeat, others touch on themes of suicide, abuse and divorce. So, she tries to empower them.
"It's amazing to watch that happen in my classes. I think music is a vehicle for getting you to realize what you stand up for," Palmer said. "In this discipline, we're kind of healers. We see ourselves as healers. We speak for people who can't speak."
Palmer said she is proud of how willing her choral students are to listen and sing new music, and how they're also willing to share their talents to help the community. Her classes regularly visit nursing homes and perform for various community events. After Pittsfield High School graduate Aaron Coty took his life a couple of years ago, the choral students decided to walk in solidarity and support of people who are struggling, during the Berkshire County Out of the Darkness Walk to support suicide prevention.
Nicola, in her tribute, said Palmer "cares for and supports people, [even] when they aren't themselves, and she notices. And that's literally all I could ask for from her. And she has done more for me and every single one of her students just by being there."
Palmer said she believes in building a foundation of trust and support with her students, which, in turn, helps bring out the best in them, she says. When they talk about the motive and emotion of a song, Palmer said she asks her students to apply it "to what you're trying to do in your life. This is about growing as a human being."
And while Palmer said that she and several of her students do work together on school musicals and extra lessons, most of the foundations, values and skills she tries to teach occur over the course of a 45-minute class slot, once a day.
"You can't educate a kid if you don't have a relationship with them, if you don't know where they're coming from. In order for them to feel safe, to feel confident in their music, they have to feel loved. But these kids are easy to love," Palmer said.
After watching the video tribute, it's apparent that this sense of admiration is mutual.
"She's basically my second mom," says Kennedy Merriam, another honors chorus student.
Crystal Moore, an intensive chorus class student, spoke for many when she described Palmer's class as her "favorite place to be."
Honors chorus student Elise Wellman said Palmer's class has taught her "to be mindful and aware" of how she interacts with others and respects their opinions and feelings.
Over the years, Palmer's students seem to have become in tune with the teacher's struggles, too, such as when there has been a serious illness in her family, or when they see how she has to shuffle their music and classes from space to space, since Palmer doesn't have a permanent room to teach in.
"You always keep pushing through," recent graduate Alyssa Puntin said to Palmer in her tribute. "Everything we hear from you, it's just incredible, and it's touching and you're brilliant. You're so brilliant and so talented."
Students like Molly Conroy, Patrick McKinney and Jacob Jamros all described becoming better musicians through the time and effort Palmer pours into her classes and lessons.
Aiden Chalfonte, whom Palmer characterizes as someone who can keep to himself, opened up and said of his teacher: "She makes me feel seen, and it's a beautiful feeling, and it's not something that a lot of people care to do."
For this, Brennah Brickle reminded Palmer that, "you matter."
Makailey Cookis wished Palmer an "eternity of great days," and Noah Lewis Bailey said to his teacher: "I hope and pray that you can also continually grow."
Said honors chorus member, Kaylee Salatino: "I think we can all say that Ms. Palmer made a huge impact in our lives."
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