Albion alumnus Jontaj (Taj) Wallace (‘20) has always used music to set himself apart.
Coming from a family of basketball players, Wallace adopted his family’s athletic genes and ran cross country during his time at Albion. Music, however, was something he wanted to make completely his own from a young age.
“I really drew near to music because I felt like in my family everybody else was a big sports name,” said Wallace, “I wasn’t awful at sport, I just wasn’t good at the ones they were. So, I felt like I needed to find this alternative. I thought music was going to be that alternative for me, but it really became a passion.”
Wallace’s passion set him down a path to become the band director and choir teacher for Hanover-Horton Middle School and Hanover-Horton High School.
Wallace’s personal music career was quite successful early on. As a sixth grader, he was section leader for his middle school. As a seventh grader he was already playing at the high school level and section leader for the high school band. In eighth grade, he was the last drum major for Albion High School and played as the principal timpani player for Albion College.
However, during his senior year of high school, his band director was fired, and Wallace took it upon himself to assist the substitute for the rest of the year to teach his fellow band members. It was there where he learned the importance of educators.
“At that moment, I knew that being a music teacher was for me, unequivocally,” said Wallace, “I just knew in my heart that was the path I wanted to go on.”
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, Wallace’s first year as a teacher has not gone as expected. The pandemic pushed public schools to take new approaches in educating their students, and the Hanover-Horton School District has been no exception.
At the start of the 2020-21 school year, students and their parents were given the option to opt-out of in-person instruction. Not having all of his students in class has been difficult, especially when teaching music.
Wallace currently uses a software called SmartMusic to upload the different parts in music his students are to be learning at that time. He also makes sure he has PDFs of the music, after it has been legally acquired and approved, so his students have constant access to the music. Wallace makes additional instructional videos through Loom or even PowerPoints with step-by-step instructions.
“I think the toughest thing about being a teacher right now is finding a way to reach all the different ways your students learn.” said Wallace, “It’s a lot, but I think that if the students know you are putting in the extra effort to help them learn, they want to put in that extra effort as well.”
Having students in person also poses its own challenges. Wallace has to wipe down the chairs after every class, has to stop rehearsal every 30 minutes to let the air dissipate, and has to constantly encourage students to wear their masks. He also needs to make sure his online students are keeping up with the class and everyone’s mental health is being prioritized.
Wallace also mentioned that communicating with parents has been a struggle. Having to explain why band camp, something many students look forward to, had to be cancelled, what kind of in-person instruction was taking place and the type of work required from students was difficult at first.
“Communicating with parents is a delicate thing,” said Wallace. “And as a kid straight out of college trying to explain something to a 50-year-old parent why it may not necessarily be safe [to have band camp and marching band this year] and walking them through the process is tough.”
Wallace is also the only Black teacher in his school district, which he has said has given him a unique opportunity to reach his students with a deeper message.
“It has been a joy exposing students to how a teacher, someone who is assisting them to learn, may not look like them,” said Wallace, “This has been rewarding because these students are witnessing someone who may not look like them, and may not meet those perceptions that they may have had before, instruct them and make them have fun. They genuinely have fun in my class.”
It is through all the hard work and dedication Wallace has put into teaching his students that has helped him appreciate his former teachers and professors.
“At the end of the day, a lot can be said about educators,” said Wallace, “But one thing that cannot be said about the overwhelming majority of them is that we don’t care.”
During these trying times, educators have gone to extensive lengths to assist their students in every way possible, and they have put no shortage of effort into this process.
Wallace made an extra effort to connect with his students as well. With his wife being the assistant coach of the cross country team, he came to practices over the summer and ran with the students as a way to get to know them better before school officially started.
“We love our students, we love our jobs,” said Wallace, “And we make sure that is seen every day, and we make sure our students are having as much fun as possible along the way.”