MENDOTA - What can music teach us? For Lori Schrock, who recently retired from Mendota High School after 26 years as choir director, music was not only a way to enable students to share their talent but it also offered lessons on resilience and how to persevere through life’s challenges. In the last few months of school this year, those life lessons would become more important than ever.
Schrock had made many plans for her final few months as choir director at MHS. Then in mid-March, schools were required to shift to remote learning due to COVID-19 and all those plans fell to the wayside. Despite all the cancellations and other disruptions for schools caused by the pandemic, Schrock was able to end her tenure at MHS with one special surprise - being named Teacher of the Year by the Regional Office of Education (ROE).
Although the usual ROE banquet and announcement of the award could not take place this year, MHS administration did their best to make this a special moment for Schrock. When Superintendent Jeff Prusator requested a meeting with her at the end of the year, Schrock assumed they would discuss how the school closure had affected the music program. “We had lost so much for the band and choir this year,” she said, “I had all my notes ready and prepared for what I wanted to say.”
Before getting the meeting started, Prusator said he wanted to move the conversation to the board room instead of his office. Schrock did not think too much of the switch until she walked in and saw her daughter, husband, mother and mother-in-law sitting in the room. At first, she thought it might have something to do with her retirement. “Then they started a virtual presentation with the regional superintendent - I had no idea it was for Teacher of the Year for three counties,” she recalled. “I was so blindsided. I feel very overwhelmed.”
A born teacher, Schrock knew from an early age what she wanted to do. Growing up in Amboy, she was inspired by her junior high band director, Greg Knutson. “That’s when I decided on my career,” she said. “I loved the feeling of empowerment, the feeling you have as a musician and I wanted others to feel it, too. Music is a vehicle that can help kids learn how to be the person they want to be, how to channel their emotions, how to validate themselves, to know they are worthy, important, smart and that they matter. I wanted to use music to help kids do that.”
As a high school student, Schrock’s goal was to go to the University of Illinois. In fact, she was so determined that the only college she applied to was U of I. Fortunately, she was accepted. While in college, she had the opportunity to intern with Mr. Baile at MHS, which proved to be very beneficial to her education and career.
Her first teaching job was at Paw Paw, where she spent three years instructing all grade levels in band and choir. “It was a great learning opportunity - exhausting - but I respected what the job gave to me about teaching and what’s important,” she noted.
Schrock spent the 1989-90 school year filling in at Northbrook in Mendota during the regular instructor’s maternity leave. That year, she had 180 band students in grades 5-8.
The next year, she taught in Amboy but because of her experience at Northbrook and the relationships she had formed in Mendota, she was asked by Rex Benson to apply for the choir director job at MHS, which had opened up. Schrock said there had been quite a bit of turnover in the music program at the time and this would be a chance to help grow the program again. “Working with Mr. Benson, we did great work and we had fun - there was energy and growth,” she recalled. “My first students at MHS were the ones I had taught at Northbrook and that first class had lots of very talented students. They were great performers, very talented and the level and expectations got better and better. It was great to be the visionary behind that. I always wanted something more, better and I was never afraid to try something new. Kids have no fear. It was nice to evolve in that way.”
As the years passed and times changed, that evolution continued. During an interview in early March, just prior to the scheduled opening of the spring musical, Schrock was asked what types of lessons students might learn from being in a play - a big question to answer on the spot. But after pausing for just a moment, she answered. “It’s a laundry list - confidence, learning how to work hard, being accountable to your teammates, holding up your end because the show is the greatest when the weakest person is at their best, being responsible, being prepared - and they’ve done it,” she said of the students who were to appear in the play.
As Schrock continued her answer that day, she had no idea how timely her words would become. “Working through the struggle. How do you press on? We’re in a society that throws in the towel way too easy,” she said. “How do you overcome your own self doubt and get past fear of judgement? There’s all the social stuff, too. They may have to be in an ensemble with somebody they don’t really care for but have to learn how to work with them. They’re still kids and there are still lessons to be learned. You have to be accountable. We talk about those things. How do you be a person? If you don’t want people to talk about you in a negative way, what do you need to do differently? Teenagers don’t always think about that. We discuss those things a lot and we have the hard conversations with students.”
Two months later, with so much having changed for everyone, Schrock said she had really noticed a change in the needs of students over the last 8 to 10 years. “You worry about your students and wonder how you can help them, but it has become more about things other than the music,” she said. “In recent years, I always had kids at my door wanting help of some kind, kids that have a lot of baggage that is out of their control.”
Schrock said some of her students were forced to rise above some really difficult situations but they were resilient. “It has been heartbreaking and fulfilling at the same time,” she explained. “The needs of the kids changed in the last decade and I probably got better at what I did. Kids were at my door for help, comfort, reassurance. I gave them gas money and money for groceries when they were going through a tough time.”
But through all the changes, Schrock never lost her love of teaching. “I have worked hard but I never considered it a ‘job,’ and I never said I didn’t want to go to work.”
Looking back through the past 26 years, Schrock said one thing has remained the same. “The music has connected us, helped us understand and to teach kids how to do the right thing, to be kind,” she said. “We had a lot of group discussions about how to treat people and be a leader. I’m proud of the culture that we have built and the people I’ve worked with. It’s being selfless, using the gift of music to make people feel better.”
During the shut down, Schrock told her students that music and the arts are a time stamp and she encouraged them to journal what they observe because literature, poetry and music will be written about this time in history.
After receiving the Teacher of the Year Award, Schrock said she was asked to share some of her favorite moments as a teacher but her answer went in another direction. “It wasn’t ‘favorite moments,’ it was all the little moments,” she explained. “Watching students find that joy. Those are the moments. Every year was full of them. The energy - that happened every week - the magic we do because of the art form we do.”
What’s next? Schrock plans to spend some time working as a substitute teacher in Mendota or Amboy, but she definitely intends to spend more time with her husband, children and grandchildren. “With this job, family has been a sacrifice,” she said. “Yes, I chose this field but I never had summers off and family gatherings were difficult to plan with my schedule.”
Schrock also hopes to do some traveling, take up yard work as a hobby and just enjoy her home.
After announcing her upcoming retirement three years ago, Schrock had made many plans for the end of this year. Of course, as with most everything else this spring, those plans all changed. On the day of what would have been her final concert at MHS, she admitted that she cried most of the day. But despite all the disappointments, she decided to write a letter to her students. “There was no closure, not for them and not for me,” she said. “It took me hours to write and it was hard. So many things were canceled including our show choir tour this summer.”
But mostly, Schrock said she felt bad for her students. Not only did they miss out on many special events they had worked so hard for, but they will have two new teachers in the fine arts department next year. “But I’m so proud to leave the new director with the students we have now,” she emphasized. “This group of students is prepared for what is to come and everyone will find creative ways to make it work. I just don’t know how, and I am worried for the kids and the teachers.”
After years of teaching important life lessons to students, Schrock said she has heard from many of her former students who made her feel that it was all worthwhile. “Kids have sent texts - one said if not for me, he wouldn’t have made it through high school,” she said. “That is what matters. He said I always made him feel like somebody. And I got another text today thanking me, and this was a kid who I thought hated me.”
Schrock said throughout her teaching career she always remembered something Mr. Baile told her early on. “He said you may think kids aren’t listening but they hear you,” she recalled. “At the end of the day, they’ll do the right thing.”