Potsdam Band Director Tops in NY


POTSDAM - When Theresa A. Witmer began her teaching career approximately 30 years ago at a small school outside of Rochester, she thought she was signing on for a job that would allow her to save up some money, return to school, earn a doctorate and become a collegiate saxophone instructor.

Now 30 years later, Ms. Witmer, who is teaching Potsdam High School students, is preparing to receive the New York State Band Directors Association (NYSBDA) Richard H. Snook Outstanding Band Director Award.

According to middle school band director Jill Rubio, a friend and colleague of Ms. Witmer, the award is given to one band director in the entire state, Ms. Witmer was competing against college directors, as well as directors from schools much larger Potsdam.

Ms. Witmer said she was notified of the award about a month ago when she received a phone call at home from NYSBDA President David G. Wilber.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, what could he be calling me about?’” she said. “I didn’t even know I was nominated.”

Ms. Witmer explained the association has a nominating committee that looks at directors from all levels across the state. They then meet and decide who will receive the award.

“I guess they know everyone,” she said. “I feel like I’m still in shock even though it was over a month ago. There’s so many people who could have got this award.”

While the award may have came as a surprise to Ms. Witmer, her students and colleagues are not at all surprised.

“She is an incredibly passionate teacher who loves what she does. When I watch her teach there is a true joy there. She really is having a great time,” high school Principal Joann Chambers said. “She understands you need to build relationships with students before they can learn anything.”

Noah Chichester is a sophomore trombone player, who says the lessons he’s learned from Ms. Witmer extend well beyond the stage.

“She takes a lot of pride in the students and our playing. If she knows we’re not living up to our potential, she’ll let us know,” he said. “She’s always telling us to keep practicing and bring our instruments home. She encourages us to go the extra mile outside of school, not just in music, but in life.”

Those are lessons Ms. Witmer said she’s glad to teach.

“Hopefully that striving for excellence they learn here is something they can apply in whatever they do,” she said. “Talent is just a small part of it. It may give you a ticket to the door, but it doesn’t do much more than let you inside.”

After earning her master’s degree from Bowling Green University, she began her teaching career in Avon, eventually coming to the north country and working at St. Lawrence Central before coming to Potsdam 25 years ago.

“I didn’t find high school particularly fun. I couldn’t get out of school soon enough and a lot of kids are still like that today. I enjoy helping them find ways to express themselves and if music can help them discover something in themselves I enjoy helping them do that,” she said, referring to her own time as a high school student.

Rukan Khondker, a senior at Potsdam, has never had Ms. Witmer as a teacher, but when she needed letters of recommendation for music schools she knew who to ask.

“I never had her as a teacher, but she still follows all my auditions,” she said. “She reaches out to all the students, whether they have had her as a teacher or not.”

Those sentiments were also echoed by Ms. Rubio. “She cares deeply about the students of the school, all of them, whether or not they are in her classes,” she noted.

Ms. Rubio said her genuine concern for all the students of the district is evidenced by her role as advisor to the Gay/Straight Alliance and her service on the building planning team, as well as other committees when needed.

Her service to Potsdam though, extends well beyond the school, as Tammy Madeja explained, “Theresa is a past president of the St. Lawrence County Music Educators Association and has served on the board of the Community Performance Series. She was the force behind the formation of Potsdam Music Friends, which has supported the PCS music program and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to our district for instruments, sound equipment and scholarships.”

Ms. Madeja also noted that Ms. Witmer was a founding member of the Northern Symphonic Winds and currently serves as a volunteer director for the Potsdam Community Band.

While her colleagues were quick to pay tribute to her, Ms. Witmer said the honor wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her co-workers at Potsdam Central.

“I really believe this is a ‘It takes a village’ kind of thing,” she said. “They gave the award to me, but I couldn’t have done it without Jill Rubio, who works with the middle school students and gets them ready. The kids I have now got their start in the elementary with Kathy Frick, and Tammy Madeja is the best chorus teacher I know anywhere. The strength of her program definitely helps ours. It’s nice to be inspired by your colleagues.”

Ms. Whitmer’s praise though, didn’t stop with fellow members of the music department.

“The whole school is great. You can’t do this in a vacuum. We have an excellent and supportive administration and the rest of the faculty is great too. The clerical people are great. They’ve bailed me out on more than one occasion and even our custodians. I don’t know of very many schools where you can go down in the basement and say I need a part for this drum and they can help you out,” she said.

While Ms. Witmer may have never became a college saxophone instructor and has yet to earn her doctorate, she said she has no regrets, realizing just a short time after her teaching career began that she had found her true calling.

“After a couple of months, I realized this is what I was meant to do,” she said.

As for that doctorate, Ms. Witmer said it’s never too late to go back to school, but that’s not something in her immediate plans.

“I don’t have any plans to do anything except keep getting better at what I’m doing. I still haven’t had a day where I went home and thought I did everything perfect. Maybe if that day ever comes that’s when I’ll move on to something else.”

Ms. Witmer, who serves as Region 5 representative on the NYSBDA board, will receive the award when NYSBDA holds their annual symposium March 2 -4 in Syracuse.

Courtesy Courier Observer