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Choral director uses music to teach compassion, inspire students

Jordan Markwood, choral director of Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, Va., is The Washington Post’s 2022 Teacher of the Year

Jordan Markwood, chair of the fine arts department and choral director at Rock Ridge High School in Ashburn, Va., is the 2022 Washington Post Teacher of the Year. (Loudoun County Public Schools)

On a recent spring day in choir class at Rock Ridge High School in Virginia’s Loudoun County, choral director Jordan Markwood noticed that a student was overcome with emotions. She went to the corner of the room to collect herself. A classmate got up to check on her before returning to her own seat.

The moment was evidence to Markwood, 37, of the work he has done to make his classroom a safe space. “I feel like the students have been more empathetic towards one another because of what they experienced” during the pandemic, he said.

The return to in-person school has been bittersweet for students across the country. Though many are happy to be back, they have emotional scars from their experiences over the last two years. Their social skills are rusty.

“Even just having conversation and maintaining eye contact, or giving positive affirmations to other people was challenging and uncomfortable,” Markwood said about the return to school at Rock Ridge this past fall.

To help students adjust, Markwood canceled the fall concert in favor of bonding exercises to build community. He put a gratitude box on top of the piano in his classroom where students could write the things for which they’re grateful on slips of paper. The moment when the student checked on her peer in class felt like proof that his efforts had paid off.

Markwood, who has taught at Rock Ridge for eight years, has been selected by The Washington Post as the 2022 Teacher of the Year, chosen from 18 finalists in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Amy Schott, the principal of Henderson Elementary in Prince William County, Va., is The Washington Post’s 2022 Principal of the Year.

For Markwood, teaching chorus isn’t just a job, it’s a manifestation of his childhood dream. The youngest of five children, he corrected his family’s technique when they sang silly children’s songs together in the car. “I’d tell my family to stop singing because they weren’t doing well enough,” he said, laughing his big, tenor laugh.

In middle school, he told his brother’s high school chorus teacher in Winchester, Va., that he would take his job when he retired. After getting his BA in music education from Houghton College in New York, Markwood got a master’s in vocal pedagogy and performance from New Jersey’s Westminster Choir College in 2007. He has been teaching chorus in Loudoun County ever since.

It’s funny to imagine a middle-schooler knowing he wants to be a choir director, but Markwood said he knew that he wanted to sing and have job security at the same time. “I’ve always been a practical person,” he said. People suggested he become a performer, but he knew he didn’t want a life working nights and weekends. He wanted time with friends and family. He wanted health insurance.

That practicality makes him a particularly good fit for the job at Rock Ridge. Loudoun County is academically competitive, and it can be challenging for students to find time to pursue the arts. Many of Markwood’s students take classes over the summer, like PE or a foreign language, to free up space in their schedules for choir.

Markwood does what he can to make it easier for students to access his program. When he noticed that students were dropping choir because taking it would lower their grade-point average, he worked with colleagues to make it possible for students to get GPA credit for advanced-level music classes.

That kind of savvy support has been invaluable for students who are passionate about music. When one of Markwood’s students, Ananya Akula, a sophomore at Rock Ridge, entered high school last year, she assumed she would spend it preparing for a career in STEM. Every person in her family was a doctor or an engineer, and she loved math and science. She was accepted to Loudoun County’s Academy of Science, which she left Rock Ridge to attend two-to-three days a week. She also enrolled in choir.

Akula has loved to sing since she was old enough to talk, and she took classes in Carnatic music, a form of classical Indian music. Still, she thought of singing as a hobby. After two years of choir with Markwood, she and her parents agreed that she should make singing her priority. For her second two years of high school, she will no longer attend the science academy to make more time for music classes.

“When I started taking choir with Mr. Markwood, I found myself putting the same amount of time into that entire STEM academy that I would preparing for auditions and performing,” Akula says. “The difference is when I worked with Mr. Markwood on auditions, it felt like time passed so quickly because it was so fun to me.”

Akula’s talent and hard work already show. She is one of four students from Loudoun County to be selected for one of the 2022 All-National Honor Ensembles. This summer, she will attend the pre-college music summer program at Carnegie Mellon University, a college that would allow her to major in music while minoring in computer science.

None of this, she said, would have been possible without Markwood. Her current ambition is to become a high school choir teacher herself. “Watching him engage every single student in his classes with all the good that music offers, and seeing him make people’s days and put smiles on people’s faces, and doing everything that he can to make his classes a fun and safe space is something I really admire,” she said.

Currently, in the heady craziness of spring, Markwood is focused on rehearsals for the spring musical, “Matilda,” which opens on April 29, and getting students ready for the spring concert at the end of May. The theme this year is “Rock Ridge Remix,” broad enough to ensure that students can choose music that excites them — usually pop.

In a recording of a recent performance of “Grace Before Sleep,” students can be heard singing about what could be described as Markwood’s classroom: “Each one of us has walked through storm. And fled the wolves along the road; But here the hearth is wide and warm.”