Seven years ago the Ramona High School band couldn’t quite grab any trophy above third place. They were solid, but just didn’t have that spark.
Then came Daniel James, described by co-workers, students and parents as a dedicated, hardworking, talented and extremely caring person. Under his direction, the most recent season ended with nothing less than a second place trophy, and five first place trophies.
It is no small feat what James has done for the program, and the entire community, and because of this he has been selected as the 2009-2010 Ramona Unified School District (RUSD) Teacher of the Year.
James has been a part of RUSD for only seven years and has lived in Ramona for only five, but he is a name that is well-recognized in the community because of the many young musicians he has inspired. Not only does he run a tough program at the high school, but he also is the RHS festival chairman who coordinates ensembles throughout the year and he also runs an afterschool drumline club for middle schoolers at Olive Peirce Middle School.
A day in the life of James is a busy one. He arrives at school before 7 a.m. His band students anxiously await his presence at their “home away from home,” as he calls it.
“Many hours of sweating, learning and listening have been spent in this room since the beginning of August,” said James. “The members represent a second family. It is a safe place to be, a place where they belong to something about which they feel good, and where they have an identity.”
Throughout the day students fill his room, create tight-knit relationships and grow strides in their musical development in any one of his classes. As the band director, he teaches marching band, jazz band and music theory classes. After a day of instruction and creation, he takes the time to fulfill his other duties, like grading or e-mails, which he usually has neglected because he chooses daily to make his students his number one priority. This sometimes means sharing lunchtime with them or setting aside his prep time to listen when they need to talk.
“A student stops by my office to talk with me about her travel soccer team and I have a choice, I can pretend I am listening to her as I check my e-mails, or I can stop and really listen,” said James.
He went on to explain that he could tell that after she finished talking she looked at him with a look in her eyes that said, “thanks for caring” and he is grateful that his heart had been moved to prioritize his relationships rather than the hectic pace of his day, a struggle for many teachers.
“Relationships are the cornerstone of developing student trust and respect for the teacher,” said James. “In college, I had a director that didn’t know my name, and never bothered to find out for the entire semester. I vowed never to treat my students like this and to communicate to them that my relationship with them is important. I care about their concerns, their lives, and their successes.”
This isn’t just a fancy statement. James means it. One can tell in his relationships with his students. The respect and admiration shown by his students is palpable. In addition to awards, the students were Division Champs in 2009.
“Over the past seven years the degree of musical difficulty has increased steadily,” said James. “In the past, the jazz band primarily performed music at a difficulty level of 2 and 3. This year the jazz band performed two level 4 pieces and one level 3. Each level builds on the level before it to involve more and more difficult concepts and a higher level of musicianship.”
By focusing on more challenging music, constantly evaluating and judging both student and teacher performance, and listening to feedback from several sources, James said “the RHS music student continues to grow and progress.”
James’ love of music has been in his blood for a long time, as has teaching. Both his parents are teachers. And, as far as music, he knew at a young age that he wanted to make a living doing something musical.
“Probably the most influential moment in my career was when my high school band director picked me to be percussion captain in the Rancho Buena Vista High School Band,” he said. “I saw a way I could make music and teach at the same time.”
At the time, James was a withdrawn, punk rock kid who was not the favored selection. Being selected changed his life, because he began to get training as a student leader.
“I excelled in music and leadership and at the band banquet I received most improved, outstanding leader, and the percussion section was awarded the most improved. I was hooked.”
From there, he spent seven years interning for the school as the percussion instructor while he earned his Bachelor of Music in Music Composition from San Diego State University.
It was a bit of a hard road after that as he was laid off twice due to budget issues. He then interviewed in Ramona for a split assignment between RHS and OPMS. He spent two years on that assignment before he was brought full time to the high school in 2005.
Since then it has been a whirlwind of progress and community. Along with the increases in awards and difficult pieces, James has also increased community involvement and continuity when it comes to music.
In 2008, he founded the All-District Band and Choir Concert, where hundreds of students come together of all ages and play. This year he created an outreach venture called the “Mayor’s Concert,” where the band shared a concert with the Ramona Town Hall Brass Band. The band also hosted its first festival in 2009. And, he has facilitated the high school’s student involvement in the RUSD Elementary Honor Band and Middle School Summer Band.
“I encourage my high school students to be involved by signing them up as tutors, and explaining the positive impact they will have on younger music students,” he said. “In addition, I highlight the value of teaching, and how teaching others will increase their understanding of their own playing by explaining concepts to others.”
“Daniel works tirelessly and selflessly to create a rich and meaningful high school experience for his students,” said RHS Principal Tony Newman. “To do so he puts in countless hours beyond the classroom practicing long into the night as well as organizing and running a very successful summer band program. He leads with his heart and is driven by his passion to provide worthwhile and meaningful education and life experiences for students in his classroom. It is because of this that the RHS band is viewed as a powerhouse all throughout San Diego County.”
When he learned he was selected for the award, he said he was extremely humbled.
“In my seven years here in Ramona Unified, I have had the opportunity to interact with several school sites and observe many of my colleagues,” he said. “I worked for two years at OPMS. My oldest son, currently at OPMS, started at Hanson Elementary in the second grade. Now my youngest son is attending Early Start Kindergarten at RE. I can honestly say that RUSD has amazing teachers. Therefore, this award is even more of an honor considering the caliber of my fellow colleagues.
“There is no way that I can do what I do alone. There are many people that I would like to thank. First, I thank God for providing me the privilege to work with children and music as a profession. Second, my wife and children have been there to support me through all the long hours, the difficult days and the joyous ones. Third, the students and parents of the RHS band program that work so hard and diligently for the betterment of the program. This program is as much theirs as it is mine. Fourth, Bob Graeff, Tony Newman, Dave Lohman, Kathy Gunderson, Liz Schaude and Jim Plum for supporting me as a colleague and friend. Thank you to the RHS staff and faculty for their continual support.”
As he fulfills what he calls his purpose in life, he is expected to continue to shine and collect awards because he plans never to give less than 100 percent and because he absolutely loves what he does.