One might think it unlikely that a middle school band teacher would be named Arlington County's Teacher of the Year. But anyone who has worked with Paul J. Norris at Swanson Middle School will tell you that the honor is well deserved.
"Mr. Norris' dedication has been unwavering," says Robert Pope, a co-worker and friend of Norris'.
"WHEN I came to Swanson," explains Norris, "there was not a lot going on musically." Norris had spent the previous four years as a snare drummer in the Commandant's Own United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. "I was ready for things to be ship-shape and for the kids to be working hard." But he noticed that they weren't taking their instruments home. "I was not mad," he says, "but disappointed. I asked them, 'why sign up if you're not going to take your instrument home?'" One student explained that carrying an instrument home led to jeering by other students. It just wasn't socially acceptable.
That was 1994. Since then the band has grown from 60 students to 184, and they're all proud to be a part of it. Pope estimates that about one-third (250 students) of the student population is involved in some way or another with the music department, of which Norris is the director.
Principal Chrys Forrester cites "the variety of students he reaches out to" as one of the reasons Norris is being honored. Students of English as a second language and those with special needs regularly participate.
Norris is not simply a band teacher. He conducts the symphonic, cadet and concert bands. He started the only middle school marching band in Northern Virginia. He directs the beginner's band and a jazz ensemble. The band students regularly participate in competitions around the East coast, and have received many accolades and awards.
Norris has had an impact on the Arlington Community as a whole. He directs a swing band at the Levine School, located at Westover Baptist Church, in which many high school students participate. He also helps with the Yorktown drum line during the summer. He started the New Horizons band, which is for citizens age 55 or older, some of whom have never held an instrument before.
"Of course we're thrilled when a teacher gets the recognition that is so deserved," says Forrester. She adds that more than 84 letters supporting Norris were submitted to the county. Supporters of Norris included students, former students, and even parents of students and former students.
"IT MAKES you feel funny," Norris says, "because there are a lot of great teachers out there. So you think, why not that other teacher?" The award will be presented at The Washington Post on May 1 as part of the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Awards, which recognize 20 Teachers of the Year from the Washington-metropolitan area. He'll receive a crystal apple and $3,000.
Mary Roos, who is a teaching assistant at Swanson, was also a band parent when her daughter Eileen played clarinet there. Norris encouraged her to take up bassoon in addition to clarinet. Eileen continued to play clarinet in the marching band, and began playing bassoon in the symphonic band. "He enlarges what kids can do in music," Roos explains, "without making them give up something that they already like."
One of his strengths is his ability to get parents involved with school activities.
Roos and her husband often chaperone band trips, along with many other parents. "It's become our hobby," she says. "Parents feel so grateful to him for what he does for the children, and so appreciated by him." She says that he never fails to express his appreciation to the parents.
Norris draws on his Marine Corps experience when teaching the band students. Roos says that on overnight trips, he walks the halls during the night to make sure everyone is getting a good night's rest. "The parents enjoy seeing him achieve that level of discipline with the kids, and they just perform so well," says Roos.
NORRIS SPENDS a lot of time staying after school to help kids individually, especially for upcoming competitions. "It's typical of his above and beyond activities," Roos says. It's no doubt he's had an impact on the kids. "I know of at least four kids in college, former students of his, who want to be band directors."
"My family is really excited," says Norris. After Swanson named Norris its teacher of the year, his is 8-year-old son Gus asked if there was any monetary award that accompanied the honor. Norris tried to explain that it wasn't about the money, but eventually he did admit to Gus that he might receive $3,000.
"Wow!" said Gus. "What are you going to do with the money?" Norris, who didn't believe he was going to win, said, "Well, maybe we'll go to Disney World." As soon as Norris found out that he won, he called his wife, who was taking the kids to the dentist. Once he told her, she turned to the back seat and said, "Boys! Daddy won!" To which Gus replied, "We're going to Disney World!"