A Summerville Union High School District choir teacher and the director of the acclaimed and award winning jazz choir Jazz@8 was honored Tuesday night with an award celebrating his 47 years as an educator in Tuolumne County.
Jim Wells, who is now in his mid-70s, began as a band teacher at Twain Harte Elementary School in 1970, and he still remembers the first, fondly intentioned review of his teaching from a friend.
“He said, ‘Your choirs suck,’ ” Wells said, laughing.
“I started looking to it and started to appreciate that we had words to sing instead of just music. But I'm still a band guy at heart.”
A few years later, a new choir and band gig opened up at Summerville High School, which Wells decided to take. In the years that followed, Wells helmed the development of what he described as the “phenomenon” of high-achieving high school choir at the Summerville Union High School District campus.
His first day as the band and choir teacher at Summerville High School, eight students arrived for the choir class, leading to its subsequent cancellation, he said. But by the time he retired from full-time teaching at the school in 1997, the campus had a total of 11 performing groups of choir and band.
“I started teaching in 1970, which is the other phenomenon,” he said. “I’m still going, and it's the kids that keep me going.”
Wells was presented with the Career Achievement Award Tuesday night at the 2017-18 Excellence in Teaching Awards dinner sponsored by the Tuolumne County Board of Education and the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office at Black Oak Casino.
“The feeling of somebody recognizing your life is really good. It felt really good to me. And actually it was kind of fun, because some of my former students were there,” Wells said.
During the ceremony, Wells was introduced by Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin, who tested him publicly on his musical knowledge, he said.
“Everyone knew” the selection of notes derived from Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, he said, but he was able to identify the more difficult compositions such as a Fugue by Jonathan Sebastian Bach, the song “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” and “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington.
During his speech to those in attendance, Wells defined an uplifting and fulfilling career working in Tuolumne County.
“Somebody said, ‘Why don't you retire?’ and I said, ‘I have, because this is my hobby,’ ” Wells said. “I'm just working with kids having a great time.”
But since he had never “had the chance to talk to so many board members in my life,” Wells also made an appeal to the promise of students involved in musical education.
“I have one thing to really say that's really, really, really important. It's that group that you saw is not a special group. They're just a bunch of kids that had the opportunity to grow and become different from when they started,” he said.
While the Tuolumne County Board of Education is tasked with making difficult decisions, he added, they have an obligation to protect musical education for the students of the county.
“Every year there are kids at your schools that are full of talent … they just need some guidance, and they need some opportunities, and it is your responsibility to give them those opportunities,” he said.
About 170 teachers, administrators, board members and families were in attendance at the event.
Prior to the speech, guests heard a performance from Jazz@8, the district’s award-winning student jazz choir that has made appearances throughout the state since 1980.
Wells explained that the name originated with the development of the group as an eighth-period course, and a discovery by the developmental team of the choir.
“We discovered if you sing at 8 p.m. at competitions you were in the finals,” he said. “It was kind of a motivation thing.”
Wells cited Jazz@8 as a formative developmental activity for high school students, noting that the current Tuolumne County Board of Education President Cyndi Simonson, who presented him with a certificate after his speech, was once a member of the choir.
“She was in our ‘88 jazz choir right in the transition time, which was great. They were starting to get really good then. It was really fun to see the community people there that were already doing it,” he said.
Simonson cited her own personal journey as an elementary school student that was motivated by Wells to sing a solo performance, and eventually grew into more advanced choir work.
“I ended up doing it, and I ended up with the confidence that he gave me in myself,” she said. “I wouldn't be the person I am today without him, and I wouldn’t be the only person who feels that way.”
Simonson added that she was “ecstatic to see him recognized” after his years of work with the county.
“Other than just being really long term in the county, he’s really good at getting kids to believe in themselves and step out of themselves,” she said. “He really gets them to believe in themselves, and just one-on-one with them he gives so much of his time and energy. He’s just a wonderful guy.”
Wells’ award was decided by a committee of Tuolumne County school officials, she said. Other recipients of the annual teaching awards were nominated by individual districts for being well-liked by students and staff, and for being effective in their positions.
The Tuolumne County 2017-18 Excellence in Teaching Award recipients were Mike Brown, Twain Harte Elementary School; Paige Garcia Webb, Summerville High School; Tina Heldstab, Summerville Elementary School; Russ Fulkerson, Soulsbyville Elementary School; Carol Woods, Sonora High School, Ginny Milnik, Sonora Elementary School; Robin Postin, Jamestown Elementary School; Patricia Baer, Gold Rush Charter School; Holly Azevedo, Curtis Creek Elementary School; Maureen Peacock, Tuolumne County Schools Office; Jim Retemeyer, Columbia College; Kristin Wilson, Columbia Elementary Schools; Jennifer Smith, Big Oak Flat-Groveland, Barbara Gissler, Belleview Elementary School; and Allyson Rasor, ATCAA-Head Start.