There were no classroom goodbyes, but that didn’t stop staff at Everett’s Whittier Elementary from staging a festive send-off for the school’s beloved music man.
George Spencer, who’s retiring after 41 years as a music teacher, stood out as grand marshal of a car parade on the streets of north Everett Wednesday. Riding in a convertible VW Bug, the lead car, and wearing a royal red crown headpiece, the 63-year-old teacher waved to clusters of Whittier students and parents along the route.
“He’s definitely funny,” said 11-year-old Caden Lewellen, who just finished fifth grade at Whittier and will start at North Middle School in September. “Music is not my favorite subject, but it’s just fun with Mr. Spencer.”
Caden waved as his family watched the parade roll by on Wetmore Avenue. His 21-year-old brother, Byron Lewellen, had been in Spencer’s classes too — as have generations of Everett kids.
“He taught all four of my kids at Whittier. The oldest is 35, the youngest is 20,” said Everett’s Ann Peterson, who got to know Spencer through PTA, volunteering and as a substitute paraeducator. “He’s one of a kind, a gifted music teacher who gets everybody excited about singing, even the reluctant ones,” she said.
“The kids just love him, love him, love him,” said Peterson, adding that Spencer helped two of her children become part of an All State Choir. “He’s made a big impact on so many. We’re big George Spencer fans at our house.”
Spencer spent 36 years in the Everett School District, beginning in 1984. In the mid-1980s, he was working in as many as eight schools. Back then, he’d visit three schools a day, carrying a guitar, a large tape player, a suitcase full of rhythm instruments and a briefcase packed with teaching materials.
He recalled that in 1986, Rudy Johnson, then the Everett district’s superintendent, asked if there was anything he needed. Covering eight schools at the time, Spencer said his answer was “more elementary music teachers.”
“Now Everett has one of the best programs in the state,” Spencer said.
Raised in Kelso, Spencer played trombone and double-majored in music, instrumental and choral, at Western Washington University. He spent the first five years of his career, 1979-1984, in La Conner, where he taught music in kindergarten through 12th grade.
In La Conner, Spencer employed the Orff Approach, a music education method developed by a German composer that adds movement, drama and speech to lessons, mirroring child’s play. He took La Conner’s high school band to state basketball tournaments all five years he was there. At a tournament in Spokane, Spencer said he once had to tell an organizer “I am the music teacher” because he looked nearly as young as his students.
He’s proud that one of his standout choir students in La Conner became a high school drama teacher in Lynden. When she was in his class, Spencer said, “we did goofy little plays — I guess it gave her a spark.”
At Whittier, he has taught both music and technology. This spring, he joined teachers as they taught virtual classes via Zoom. Last week, using the learning platform Flipgrid, he posted Whittier’s talent show online. “It’s normally live,” he said.
Highlights stand out as Spencer thinks back on decades as a music teacher. Years ago, he took students from Hawthorne Elementary School to sing at the home of Helen Jackson, widow of U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson. “That’s one of my favorite memories,” he said. Another was taking a group from View Ridge Elementary to sing in the Washington State Capitol.
When Mill Creek Elementary School was new, Spencer said his students there were involved in bringing food and gifts for families being helped by Housing Hope.
He especially cherishes memories of Whittier’s holiday concerts, which he said are always “a huge community event.”
“North Everett and the Whittier community are so great. It’s so well attended,” he said.
One hallmark of his students’ performances is “shadow sheeting dancing.” Spencer described using a white sheet as a big screen, putting kids behind it and illuminating their figures with bright light.
Teaching, he said “has and hasn’t changed.”
“It’s still about kids,” Spencer said. “At the beginning they’re not the least bit interested in a song. But then it’s their favorite song, they’re so excited to sing it.”
Once a budding musician himself, Spencer took violin in fourth grade. “I copied the kid next to me, so was always one or two notes behind.” The trombone, though, took him from junior high through college, where he also excelled in choir.
In retirement, he looks forward to travels with his wife, Debi, and to spending time with their two daughters and a grandchild. He’s also involved with Grace Bible Church in Marysville.
He loves all kinds of music, the Carpenters and country to jazz and big band. As a teacher, he fostered that enjoyment over a heavy emphasis on music theory or technique.
“If I teach all the basics in the world and they leave not loving music,” said Spencer, “what have I accomplished?”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.