Teacher finds his groove in RPS 205

Evon Sams, a local performer and 2011 Auburn High School graduate, is teaching at two Rockford Public Schools this year.

When Evon Sams performed with the Rockford band Grand Groove Hotel this month, he played five instruments—the alto, tenor and baritone saxophone, a flute and a clarinet. It was nothing compared to synchronizing the needs of 33 students in each of the band classes he teaches at RESA Middle School.

On a recent Monday, there were lessons on note values. Reading the treble clef and bass clef. Rests. Practice on a new note (A). In between measures of “Jingle Bells” and “Good King Wenceslas,” there were the requisite interruptions.

“This thing is broken.”

“My instrument is out of tune.”

Then, after two class periods at RESA, Evon Sams packed up and drove to Jefferson High School, where he is band director. His schedule makes performing with five instruments and playing with seven bands this summer seem like child’s play.

Classroom work demands stores of patience, which Sams said is the most important value his mother, Emma Gipson, taught him.

The 2011 graduate of Auburn High School grew up in what he describes as an “education household;” his mother is the principal of Lewis Lemon Elementary School. But he pushed away the notion of teaching until he studied music at Rock Valley College, where he began to understand the theory and pedagogy behind music. “I realized I had a gift for explaining it to other people–classmates, band members, etc.”

Along the way, there were other formative influences–such as teacher Beth Heuer at Auburn,   where Sams was in the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) program. Heuer, then the band director, gave Sams the extra challenge he needed. Like Sams’ mother, Heuer mentioned he might want to consider teaching. “I was like, nah, not for me,” he said.

That all changed when he decided to transfer to Elmhurst College to get his teaching degree. He taught for a year in a private school before coming to Rockford Public Schools this year.

He’s teaching at two schools in the district because of the explosive growth of band at RESA. Under RESA music director Sarah Byrnes, enrollment in the school’s band program grew from 44 students in the 2015-16 school year to 214 students this year.

Having classes next door to one another allows Byrnes and Sams to team-teach. One recent class period, Sams took the saxophone players for a group lesson. Another time, Byrnes took the flute players.

Sams is happy to help his students build their skills, but he hopes to be a part of another kind of growth. “One of the things that we’re missing in our world now is students that are ready and have a high moral and work expectation. It’s one of my goals to make sure that students, no matter their music ability, understand the value of hard work.”

The demands of teaching don’t allow Sams to spend the four to six hours a day practicing his instruments like he did in college. He makes time, though, for composing. Rearranging music helps him differentiate the needs of his students, who range from middle schoolers with no musical experience to high school seniors nearing proficiency.

For more support, he often consults his mother, the principal. Gone are the days when he would ignore her advice about following his calling. Do they talk about teaching? “Definitely. Almost daily,” Sams said.

At a recent performance of the Grand Groove Hotel, a fellow band member wondered out loud about why people don’t celebrate good music the same way football players celebrate a sack or a touchdown.

Evon’s mom was in the audience and took the bait. After one of the next songs, the quiet, dignified principal sprung up from her seat, ran to the stage and fist-bumped her son.

He recalled his reaction: “Oh, that’s my mom! Yeah!”

Mary Kaull is strategic communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. Click here to subscribe to this blog. Also, please like RPS 205 on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.