A musical heart for kids
Joel Tanner is a busy guy. If it involves music at Newberg High School, he is likely a part of it. Still, his care for students is what precipitated his nomination as the Newberg Graphic’s Amazing Educator for 2023.
The 48-year-old is in his 17th year as instrumental music director at NHS and Chehalem Valley Middle School — 24 years teaching overall. The Corvallis native came to Newberg after a five-year stint teaching music in Roseburg and two years in the North Marion School District.
The list of classes he teaches at NHS is long: jazz ensemble, wind ensemble, symphonic band, and chamber orchestra. At CVMS, he teaches intermediate and advanced band classes.
Before receiving his degree in music performance (flute and saxophone) in 1997 from Pacific University, Tanner practiced his art during a year abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
“(I) had the opportunity to perform in a production of all nine Beethoven symphonies and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the Edinburgh Symphony, which was a huge influence on my educational path,” Tanner said.
The experience prompted him to return to Pacific to seek a master’s degree in teaching, and to Newberg for a stint of student teaching under legendary music director Dick Elliott. Tanner replaced Elliott when he retired in 2006.
Tanner’s enthusiasm for teaching is readily apparent when one observes him interact with his young charges during classes and performances.
“There are two moments in teaching music that I live for,” he said. “The first is standing in front of a great-sounding band when they are rocking their way through a good grove that you can feel in your soul, and you just want to dance. The second is the moment the last note hangs in the air before the audience applauds as you finish a really emotional work.”
His care for his students goes beyond the classroom and beyond music.
Alex Jackson, who works for Providence and nominated Tanner for the recognition, told how the teacher contacted him in 2017 after the school had suffered a rash of suicides and suicide attempts.
“His heart for seeing kids exactly where they are, without judgment and only love, surpasses all my expectations of an educator,” Jackson wrote in his nomination. “He is a mentor, encourager and friend for any child at risk.”
Jackson added that Tanner was instrumental in forming the school’s Wellness Center, a school-based health clinic that provides physical and mental health and resources for students.
“With the turmoil in our district, he has never gotten in the middle of it but kept kids at the center while building bridges through humor and humility with adults who may have been skeptical,” Jackson said.
Tanner’s gift for teaching has been tested during the past several years due to circumstances beyond his control.
“Teaching music online through a pandemic was one of the worst experiences I’ve lived through, but it taught me a lot about the contrast between what we expect from students in terms of content and what they need emotionally to be successful,” he said. “It also taught me just how much I depend upon my students for my own musical and even emotional well-being. Teaching today has become more like triage. Ever-decreasing resources spread among more needy students, combined with the increased emotional needs and pandemic-related skills deficiencies, have made it much more difficult to find the joy in teaching.”
Still, the rewards have outweighed the difficulties.
“These kids at the high school are playing at a pretty high level, and honestly, it is a privilege to get to work with them every day,” Tanner said. “Now that I get to teach at the middle school as well, it is really awesome to see the monumental musical growth kids are capable of from the first notes in sixth grade to the ring of the last note at graduation.”