See you around, Mr. Spitler!
Classes end for the day at Daniel Island School. Students in oversized book bags hurry towards the main door, hop on bikes outside, or wait for their parents in the front office. The muffled sounds of music echo down the education facility’s painted hallways. Music instructor John Spitler conducts a group of students responsible for the orchestral composition floating out of the school’s music room.
He stops to give recommendations to the young musicians, but before he asks them to perform again, he poses a different kind of question. “What do you call a group of whales playing music?”
He waits a beat and answers his own question, “An orca-stra.”
The students playfully groan and giggle, and Spitler smiles as he raises his conducting wand.
This day, Tuesday May 29, is one of the last afterschool rehearsals Spitler will oversee in a traditional classroom. His retirement after 28 years of teaching begins with the end of this school year.
For the popular music teacher, it’s been a fruitful career as an educator and musician that he traces back to his childhood. “I started learning how to become a musician when I was four, standing on the church pew beside my grandma, and she was teaching me how to sing harmony out of the hymnal,” explains Spitler. “I have a good number of musicians in my family. What I do is a natural thing.”
As a young boy, Spitler’s father taught him the basics of trumpet. From there he moved on to lessons from his father’s teacher. His time as a musician brought him to the beginnings of a passionate career. The first inklings of his future began during his high school days when he started giving private lessons in 10th grade.
After graduating from Findlay High School in Findlay, Ohio, Spitler attended Bob Jones University in Greenville. “After I graduated [college], my wife and I got married,” says Spitler. “That was in 1981 and we moved to Michigan.” After Mr. and Mrs. Spitler set foot in the Great Lake State, Mr. Spitler taught at Christian day schools there and in Indiana.
After a brief stint as a midwestern nomad, the educator came to the conclusion that set the mold for the rest of his career. “I realized I needed to be in a public school, because I wanted to have a bigger impact,” says Spitler.
He and his wife relocated to South Carolina, where Spitler’s wife received a surprise call from the band director at Wando High School about an opening that had occurred at Moultrie Middle School. Before the week was over, Spitler was the new band director at Moultrie Middle. He remained there from 1990 to 2004. From there, he spent four years at Hanahan High School, three years between Daniel Island School and Cainhoy Elementary/ Middle, and finally six years full time at the Daniel Island School.
Spitler’s success as a teacher doesn’t have a specific credit. He’s stern, but has a compassion for his students, speaking in a monotone that’s a step away from sarcasm.
The students seem to latch onto that.
“They have to know it’s OK. This is a safe room,” says Spitler in reference to his classroom. “They can come and they can make all the mistakes they want. I just ask them to try not to make the same one twice.”
“I truly have never shown up one day of my life to an education job for the sake of anybody but the children,” he continues.
And Spitler’s influence on some of his students is far reaching. Todd Smith, Spitler’s former student at Moultrie Middle School, is now director of bands at Stratford High School.
“In one of my most influential lessons with him, and this is something I try to spread because of him, we were playing something and he told me I could interpret the music the way that I wanted to,” says Smith. “He told me it’s OK to play emotionally, play artistically, make really aesthetic decisions based on who you are and how you feel and what you want others to feel. And that’s one of the last things that really stuck with me.”
Spitler reveals a morsel of his teaching mentality by sharing an anecdote about a guest observing a class he taught. “A man who I greatly respect, watched me teach for probably a couple hours, and he said, ‘teaching isn’t something you do, it’s something you are,’” Spitler recounts. “I said, ‘that’s what I think it should be.’”
And though he has a palpable pride for his work, Spitler says that his job is not his most cherished life achievement, “My favorite accomplishment is that I’m still married to the girl I married after I got out of college,” he says. “In this business, in education, specifically band and orchestra, I see a lot of my colleagues that are on their second, third, and some forth marriages. This is a very time intensive thing.”
He says of his marriage and work, “It’s not been without some bumps and rocky boats in the path, but we’ve managed to make it work.”
“She’s my best friend and I can’t imagine life without her,” he shares.
As is the case with anyone who’s passionate about their craft, the question is raised: Why stop now?
“I promised myself, when I started doing this, that when I felt like I could not give my 100 percent best that I would step aside. And that’s really the big reason I’m leaving the profession this year,” says Spitler. “Because I want my kids—and I’ll always think of any of the students I ever taught as my kids—and I want them to have the best. And if I can’t give them that, I want somebody else to.”
Reflecting on his 28 year journey, Spitler knows that there are some things he could have done differently, but concludes with one simple statement. “It’s been a good career.”