Music teacher facing layoff uses music to lift her spirits

L.A. Unified music teacher Eloise Porter has received a preliminary layoff notice.
L.A. Unified music teacher Eloise Porter has received a preliminary layoff notice. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

California educators say school districts have told about 20,000 teachers that by summer they may lose their jobs. One public school instructor tries to distract herself from the prospect of a layoff by concentrating on her work.

Los Angeles Unified music teacher Eloise Porter lugs dog-eared sheet music, an iPod, and a hip-slung microphone and speaker to four different schools each week. On this day she’s in the auditorium at Buchanan Elementary School in Highland Park, leading fourth- and fifth-graders through lessons on pitch and harmony. As they warm up and begin she reminds them that they can do better.

"That's not your best tone boys and girls."

Their second attempt brings a smile to her face. "That’s my beautiful Buchanan chorus sound."

Like the math and English here, Porter helps these students build on skills they learned the previous year. The students tackle Hashivenu, a song in Hebrew that tests their skills. Porter says she's seen improvement.

"I’ve been at this school for eight years now. And when I came singing was not very good here. But I also see second grade, first grade, second grade, and third grade for classroom music. So by the time they get to fourth grade, most of them can sing on pitch and most of them are interested."

Music has accompanied every phase of her life. Her grandmother played the piano, and Eloise Porter studied music throughout her childhood in San Fernando Valley public schools. She began teaching music in the Valley 23 years ago. She organized her public school students into a community children’s chorus.

"That choir toured to Arizona, toured to San Francisco, it toured to Copenhagen, and Finland."

Porter has closely followed the budget cuts debate at LA Unified. She says it was a relief when the district’s school board didn’t approve layoffs of music teachers like her. But she believes that the four years she taught outside California have placed her low on the seniority totem pole. She received her Reduction In Force notice three weeks ago. In disbelief, she says.

"Why did I get this? I’m not supposed to get this and if this is real, what’s going to happen? Because I’m my sole support."

Porter maintains that the teachers union hasn’t done enough to ask her and other teachers what they’d do to avoid layoffs. "There are a lot of permanent teachers who did not receive RIF notices that would be willing to take some kind of a pay cut and some kind of furlough days if, rather than have thousands of people lose their jobs."

As a music instructor, Porter has seen the way singing and music shape young brains and prepare them for the rigors of learning. She worries that what she’s helped to build at Buchanan Middle School and other campuses won’t continue if she’s not back in the fall.

"Right now we have a music teacher who is at least one day a week at every single elementary school in the district. So what’s going to happen to the music teachers if they’re only 50 percent of those music teachers left, then 50 percent of the schools will have no music next year."

It’ll take four more years of teaching to earn a decent retirement pension, Porter says. The pressure is getting to many teachers, she adds - but not to her.

"When I’m with the kids, I’m with the kids, that’s what I do and I’m here for the kids and I love what I do. I also love music. I love to sing. I go sing in a chorus on Thursday nights. So you know, that helps. But music lifts everyone’s spirits, always."

Teacher Eloise Porter holds out hope that she can successfully challenge her preliminary pink slip when hearings begin in May.

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