Teacher of the Year lifts students' voices, spirits


Martha Banghart expects the best and accepts no substitutes.

Chosen last week as Harford's Teacher of the Year, Banghart has taught music at North Harford High School for 10 years. Students expecting music to be an easy ticket-punch for graduation credits are in for a surprise in Banghart's class.

Students learn music, but they also get lessons in history, reading and writing. Her students keep a journal and, yes, there is homework.

"I have worked very hard to elevate music to an academic subject," she says.

Banghart, 43, says teaching music can be a way to teach teens self-discipline and help them build character.

"It's a way to learn life skills, to be able to communicate with others, to learn to be respectful and mannerly, to be considerate," she says.

And while this may sound like pie-in-the-sky wishing, Banghart, the mother of two, says she is no Pollyanna. The study of music, she says, teaches what commitment is all about. She learned that from experience.

"My parents made me take piano lessons, and that was the greatest gift they ever gave me," she recalls.

Banghart says her daughter, Tracey, 12, threatened to run away if she had to keep practicing the piano.

"I told her, fine, run away or switch to another instrument, but you will take something," she says.

A passion for studying and teaching of music hasn't always been in her heart. Banghart said she was disheartened when she went to work at North Harford 10 years ago.

"I only had 18 students, a piano that didn't work and a room where there were holes in the doors. I can't tell you how bad it was," she recalls.

That year her students performed a public concert and she began reaching out to parents, to get them more involved with their children's education.

Today, Banghart's music classes are in high form. She and her students have participated in two concert tours in England and Wales as part of an exchange program with the Oakdale Youth Choir in South Wales. Last Christmas, her students, along with four adult soloists, performed Mozart's "Coronation Mass" in its entireity.

She considers those events milestones in her career.

Banghart says her ability to build self-confidence in her students and teach them self-esteem are the most important lessons she can bestow.

She believes it's vital to instill in students an appreciation of the arts. Her students, she says proudly, go to Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Mary Foard, a North Harford senior, says Banghart is the best teacher she has ever had.

"She teaches you about life and about yourself; she could teach anything," says Mary.

While Banghart has great pride in her students and her profession, she says she finds it disturbing that teachers get comparatively little respect in the community.

"We spend more time with these teen-agers than their parents do. We have a very strong impact [on their lives]. Teachers don't need very many strokes, just an occasional 'thank you.' "

North Harford has a strong network of interested parents who assist at the school, Banghart says. But she believes too many parents think a minimum-wage job is more important for their children than homework. A lot of students at the high school have jobs, she says.

She also is worried that the teaching profession no longer is attracting the best and brightest people.

Today's teachers have more responsibilities than they did a generation ago, she says. They not only teach but are called upon to instill values that parents don't always have time for, she says. And too often, TV is a substitute for parental involvement.

Banghart now joins teachers of the year from the other counties and Baltimore City as nominees for Maryland Teacher of the Year. The winner will be announced in September, and a national competition will follow.

The county Teacher of the Year is chosen annually by a committee of retired teachers, PTA representatives, members of the Harford Regional Association of Student Councils, parents and principals.

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