Music teacher Kathy Rodeffer of Beltsville recalls the day in June when she received a text message from her supervisor to check her email.
Rodeffer, who was retiring that month after 34 years in instrumental music education in Prince George’s County, said she began sobbing as she opened the email containing a school board agenda item that proposed the music wing at Landover’s Thomas G. Pullen K-8 Creative and Performing Arts School be named in her honor.
“I was just so touched and overwhelmed by it and humbled,” said Rodeffer, 56.
A Nov. 9 ceremony is scheduled to name the music wing at Pullen, where Rodeffer taught music for nine years.
Anita Lambert, coordinating supervisor for Prince George’s County Public Schools’ creative arts programs office, made the proposal to the board in June because of Rodeffer’s work in developing advanced music students, training new teachers and advocating for more music funding.
Rodeffer, who said she retired to spend more time with her daughters, Grace, 8, and Sarah, 11, rotated through several elementary schools since starting as a music teacher in 1978, with stints at Bowie’s Samuel Ogle Middle School and Temple Hills’ Crossland High School before coming to Pullen in 1989. In 1998, she left Pullen to become an instrumental music supervisor for Prince George’s County Public Schools.
Rodeffer said she was a ninth-grader when she decided she wanted to be a junior high band teacher, as her teacher often would give her different instruments, such as a French horn or tenor saxophone, to learn on her own.
“My mom and dad never knew what was going to come through the front door because I was always bringing something different home,” Rodeffer said. “They were a challenge. They were always like a puzzle for me to solve.”
As an instrumental music supervisor, Rodeffer saw her goal as building a community among more than 100 instrumental music teachers across the county’s public schools. She interviewed new hires and assigned mentor teachers to guide them through their first year. She also saw her role as a chance to advocate for the instrumental music program in the ebb and flow of budget cuts she has witnessed since the mid-1980s.
A decade ago, Rodeffer, armed with information that about 50 percent of the county’s public school fifth-graders received free and reduced meals, was prepared to fundraise to purchase new instruments for students. Rodeffer said her proposal made its way to the county’s school board, which decided in 2007 to allocate more than $1 million to purchase 5,000 new instruments based on her proposal. As a result, no fundraising was necessary, she said.
Rodeffer said the effort was important to her because she believes music can change a child’s life and it could be their ticket to college through a scholarship.
“I know that it changes their social lives, it changes their academic lives, and it brings them on common ground because music doesn’t see differences in people,” Rodeffer said.
County school board member Amber Waller (Dist. 3) said she got to know Rodeffer as Waller’s son participated in ensembles at Hyattsville Middle School and Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School, including the high school marching band.
“Whenever we had the marching band showcases, she was there to support the students,” Waller said. “She was there to support those music teachers in their careers. The students, even as they went on to college, she was seeing the results of her labor.”
Orin Gillian, 44, of Upper Marlboro was in Rodeffer’s first music classes at Camp Springs Elementary School — now a senior center — where he first learned to play the saxophone. The two met again when Gillian became a student of hers at Crossland, but Gillian said his overconfidence and disobedient behavior got him thrown out of Rodeffer’s class his junior year.
“She was not going to sacrifice the music program for disobedience and whatnot,” Gillian said. “I missed music that year and got my act together and ... finished my senior year out in the symphonic orchestra and the marching band.”
Today, Gillian plays in a gospel jazz group called The Holy Horns and credits Rodeffer for giving him his foundation in music. He said Rodeffer is his biggest fan.
“She is such an instrument of love, an instrument of knowledge and an instrument of straight truth,” Gillian said. “If your performance is good, she’s going to say it’s good … she’s not going to sugarcoat it because she holds such a high standard.”
During her years as a teacher, she directed her students at performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Rayburn House Office Building, both in Washington, D.C., and even commissioned a piece of music, a four-movement piece called “Tales of the Bay” in 1998 composed by James Hosey, which is played by other Maryland school bands at state festivals to this day, she said.
“Thirty-five years later, if I had to do it all over again, I would’ve made the exact same decision,” Rodeffer said of her education career in the county. “It’s a great place to teach.”