While Chris Gleason is always glad to hear his middle school band students hit the right musical notes, it’s their curiosity, creativity and joy of learning that make his heart soar as he heads to work each day.
The UW-Eau Claire graduate’s passion for teaching, as well as his talent for nurturing and inspiring his students in ways that help them use their gifts to excel in band and in life, has earned him the 2016 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year honor.
“My teaching isn’t about playing notes on a page or learning a new skill on an instrument,” says Gleason, who earned his degree in music education from UW-Eau Claire in 1997. “It’s about looking at life through the lens of another human or artist; considering the viewpoint of someone trying to convey something that could only be said using music.”
As the state’s top teacher, the band director and instrumental music teacher at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie now is in the running for the National Teacher of the Year honor, an award that will be announced early next year.
In the spring, he will join the other National Teacher of the Year nominees in Washington, D.C., an event that will include a meeting with the president of the United States.
While he credits his parents — accomplished musicians and educators — with instilling in him a passion for music and teaching, Gleason credits UW-Eau Claire with helping him turn that passion into a rewarding career by broadening his perspectives and nurturing his desire to educate young people through music.
“What impressed me most about UWEC wasn’t anything that would show up as a number,” says Gleason, noting that some of the faculty he studied under continue to be mentors and friends today. “It was the care and attention the professors gave you. It was the familylike environment created within departments and on campus. It was the respect given to young people eager to pursue their dreams.”
It was at UW-Eau Claire that he met his wife, Erin, who also is a music educator, as well classmates who became lifelong friends.
“Clearly, my coursework and professors had a huge impact on preparing me,” Gleason says of his alma mater. “However, my fellow Blugolds also had a significant impact on me. The students I attended UWEC with are some of my best friends and colleagues today. They are all amazing, successful people who continue to do great things. When I think back to those years, it was a magical time of interacting with some brilliant minds and passionate individuals.”
While at UW-Eau Claire, Gleason was an accomplished tuba artist, performing as principal tubist with the UW-Eau Claire Symphony Band and University Orchestra, Wind Symphony, Concert Orchestra and BASSically Brass. He also was a member of The Singing Statesmen and was a regular soloist on campus
He now is introducing his young band students to UW-Eau Claire and its music program and faculty.
For the second year, this fall he and his colleague, Sharon Haraldson (also a UW-Eau Claire music education graduate) brought their seventh-grade band students to campus to participate in side-by-side experiences with current Blugolds who are part of Dr. John Stewart and Dr. Phil Ostrander’s Wind Symphony and Symphonic Band.
His fall visit to UW-Eau Claire focused on music, but Gleason hopes to return to campus later this year to encourage talented students to consider a career in teaching.
“It is my goal to share the good news about this life-changing, noble profession,” Gleason says. “The most important component to all improvement in education comes down to the teacher. We need to encourage our best and brightest students to become future educators.”
Fortunately for him, music and education always have been a part of his life so he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a teacher.
“I basically grew up in my father’s band room in Arcadia,” Gleason says. “We later moved to Durand and then La Crosse. Wherever we went, the band room was my home within the school.”
Much of his teaching style is modeled after what he observed during those many hours in his father’s band rooms.
“He gave his students his most precious possession — his time,” Gleason says of his father. “His dedication, persistence and passion are with me every day. Dad passed away this past February. I know he would have loved seeing all of this.”
Gleason’s mother, who grew up poor and was the first in her family to attend college, also helps shape how he thinks about his teaching, he says, adding that his mother earned a doctorate in education.
As he creates opportunities for his middle school students, he works to ensure that any child with an interest in music — regardless of their socioeconomic standing — can fully participate.
For example, after establishing his Band Lesson Academy, which pairs students with community musicians, he secured funds through grants and donations to pay for community lessons for families who can’t afford them.
He builds civic pride in his students by having them perform outside of the school at community events and in venues ranging from senior care homes to the Capitol Rotunda.
A project he started in 2009, ComMission Possible, has student musicians collaborating with nationally renowned composers to write a commissioned piece of music for his middle school band students.
Gleason also is proud of a concert band festival he created in Wisconsin Dells, which already has benefitted more than 20,000 young musicians. The festival, now in its 10th year, involves 54 bands from four states.
This year's festival is even more special to him because it will feature a side-by-side experience with members of UW-Eau Claire’s Wind Ensemble and Symphony Band.
"Not only does the festival benefit middle school musicians, but now it benefits music education majors who will have an opportunity to see and work with bands from across the Midwest,” Gleason says of involving Blugolds in the event.
Providing middle school students with these kinds of opportunities helps them build their skills but also gives them the confidence they need to continuously push themselves in and outside of music, Gleason says.
“I believe in nurturing my students’ grit, persistence and love of learning through intrinsic motivation,” says Gleason. “My teaching focuses on mastery and learning to enjoy striving for things just out of reach.”
Despite his years of success as an educator, being selected as Wisconsin’s Middle School Teacher of the Year — and then Wisconsin Teacher of the Year — was a complete surprise, Gleason says.
“Surprise, excitement, humility, but mostly gratefulness,” Gleason says of his reaction to the honors. “I know that this recognition would not have taken place without lots of support from family, friends and colleagues over many years. I'm thankful for all of my past teachers, mentors and schools for inspiring me and instilling the love of learning. Finally, I’m grateful to work in an environment that supports curiosity and puts kids first.”
He now hopes he can use this Wisconsin Teacher of the Year honor to share his vision for teaching with educators across the state.
“I want to work with current educators and school districts to talk about teaching the whole child and realizing the importance of creativity, imagination and innovation,” Gleason says.