The loud, crowded choir room was abuzz with activity as students chatted amongst themselves and prepared for class. Teacher Ethan Chessin instructed them to gather in a circle and the classmates proceeded to share interesting tidbits of information about themselves.
Then, before any musical instruction began, Chessin began the task of successfully naming every student in class — no small feat considering it was only the first full week of school and he teaches some 200 students per day.
These shared experiences, which help classmates bond, are just a few of the ways Chessin has helped build a strong musical program at Camas High School. This, among other reasons, is why he was recently named Teacher of the Year for the ESD 112 region.
“Music is a part of being human,” Chessin says. “Whether beautiful or brutal, I try to show my students how this is true, and help them see music as a means of communicating meaning.”
State education officials honored Chessin, along with eight other teachers of the year from across the state, at a special reception in Seattle on Monday, Sept. 11.
This is the choir teacher’s seventh year as an educator, and Chessin has spent his entire career at CHS.
“I thought I was going to be a band director, but teaching choir lets me see music as a tool for bringing people together and connecting them to the world, through exploring world music and cultures, performing pop music, discussing texts, words, and ideas, and so much more,” he says. “Choir folks are so open to making connections.”
Chessin grew up playing and performing Eastern European Jewish folk music with his family. In high school and college, he began to realize that playing music was a way of expressing his culture.
“At the same time, I started to get involved in band, orchestra and choir, and I was drawn to the way that playing together drew me closer to my peers and created a sense of community where I hadn’t noticed one before,” he says.
Chessin can play piano, trombone, euphonium, accordion and “a few other instruments poorly,” he jokes.
He lives in Portland, but says he enjoys working at CHS because it’s less restrictive than schools in Oregon and CHS administrators allow his students to tackle big projects.
“The Oregon school music system is extremely restrictive,” Chessin explains. “You have to perform music from a list of prescribed works, you have to organize your classes a specific way, and you have to bring your choirs to competitions throughout the spring. I’m just not interested in my students associating music with competition. So much of high school is a competition — it’s so important for students to have a place where they can just sing because they love it.”
Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell nominated Chessin for the Teacher of the Year award.
“Ethan has developed a choral program that empowers students,” Snell says. “Attending a choir concert is an amazing experience. The students’ voices create beautiful music and you also get a sense of the community and ownership students have about the program. Like any great teacher, Ethan is a master of helping his students discover themselves, dream of the future and become more than they thought they could be. We are very proud of his well-deserved recognition.”
Chessin says that, at first, it felt strange to be singled out for recognition.
“I know so many incredible teachers at CHS, and I kept wanting to say, ‘But you really need to go see my colleagues teach!'” he says.
In his seven years as a teacher, Chessin notes that he has been fortunate enough to have more peak experiences than he can count.
“A few that come to mind are performing at the state music teachers’ convention, selling out world premieres in downtown Portland and our school’s production of Cabaret,” he says.
“Honestly, though, the most memorable moments that stick with me are great conversations we’ve had in class. I am always blown away by how much my students are willing to open up and share — whether the conversation is about personal hardships, struggles, loss and heartbreak, or whether we’re talking about big issues like race, religion and world events.”
Hannah Upkes, a junior, describes Chessin as creative and engaging, and says: “He always has a new way of teaching us and is totally deserving of being named Teacher of the Year.”
Bella Rafn, a senior, describes Chessin’s classes as inclusive.
“We all work together,” Rafn says. “There’s a lot to learn, and it’s not an easy process. I know I wouldn’t be the performer I am today without his teaching.”
Chessin notes that for the students, sometimes the best days are when lesson plans are set aside and they “just talk about movies.”
“I’m not sure what that says about my lesson plans,” he jokes. “Seriously, though, I had a student call me from college recently to thank me for the experiences we shared in choir and how he grew as a result. I don’t think you could ask for anything more as a teacher.”