"I have the best job in the world," said Dillingham's Brandon Smith. He was recently named music director of the year for schools in western Alaska, and he is planning on continuing the school’s music program at full speed in the fall.
Brandon Smith is hammering away on a piano during choir practice at Dillingham High School.
“Legato the crap out of those words. Make it indistinguishable. They’re not words. Don’t skip across the water. Know what I’m saying?” he asked.
Smith has held the job for two years now, his first out of college. As a student back home in Arkansas, Smith trained to be a high school chorus teacher. But he says working in Dillingham has opened his eyes to some of the challenges facing rural schools.
“It gave me a sense... of the many hats that the instructor needs to wear to give the kids what they deserve," he said. "No kid deserves more or less education based on place or affluence. And one thing I noticed was their need for consistency.”
At remote schools, teachers who move to the community to teach tend to come and go. After a few years, many move away – the high cost of living becomes too much to sustain, or they want to be closer to family.
This spring, Smith was weighing those factors, wavering between the stress of rural life and his commitment to teaching here. He was still having that debate when he stepped up to direct the regional music festival in April. Four schools traveled to Dillingham to play over several days. Smith says one rehearsal before the concert was a turning point.
“They absolutely crushed it and brought me to tears,” he said. "Then I was like... but this is the reason I'm doing this in the first place. This is the whole reason. How could I leave this? And so I told my students, ‘Thank you for making it impossible for me to leave,’ because that’s a really good problem to have.”
When the Alaska Schools Activities Association's Region I committee named Smith music coach of the year, he was surprised. Receiving an award for, as he put it, “just doing his job,” reinforced his gratitude to his students.
“Because it doesn’t matter how hard you’re working. If the kids don’t buy in nothing you do is going to come to fruition,” he explained.
Beyond next year, Smith isn’t sure where his career will take him. But no matter the length of his time in Dillingham, he hopes to have encouraged students to pursue a musical path.
“I’d love to see some major in music and, you know, pass it on," he said. "Because it’s… there is no more rewarding profession. I have the best job in the world."