Sumpter teacher builds community one note at a time

Bethea Gliebe was sounding out church songs on the piano before she could remember, but it wasn’t until middle school that a teacher showed her she could be a musician.

Growing up in Gresham as the oldest of six siblings, Gliebe taught herself to play because her family couldn’t afford lessons. When Gliebe’s choir teacher found her experimenting on the piano, the woman offered to teach her to read music for free. Gliebe ended up accompanying the choir.

“I think she saw in me what I didn’t see in myself,” Gliebe said.

Now, Gliebe is in her eighth year teaching music at Sumpter Elementary School, where she hopes to bring out the same confidence in her students as she leads them in singing sea shanties, keeping a beat and dancing their feelings out on the dotted carpet that takes up much of her classroom.

Gliebe was recently named the Salem-Keizer School District’s music educator of the year. The honor is given by the Oregon Symphony in Salem following a nomination and observations of classes taught by finalists.

She leads half-hour lessons for Sumpter’s 500 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, with each class visiting her twice a week. Students file in eagerly and begin marching around the room in a circle, singing a warm-up song they know well.

Gliebe knows many won’t go on to be musicians, but hopes her classroom can be a place where they know they’re valued.

“My philosophy is that the students that leave my room feel safe, feel loved and have some sort of appreciation for music,” she said. “Even if they don’t perform later on, they’re all going to be music consumers their entire life.”

First-grade students in Bethea Gliebe’s music class parade around while singing on Wednesday, May 10 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Her classroom wall features notes and posters from enthusiastic students, some adorned with smiling bees. It’s how she tells students to pronounce her name: Ms. Glee-Bee.

During a recent lesson with first-graders, she approached a boy with a frown stitched on his face, inviting him to sit next to her as students gathered in a circle.

The first-graders sat in a circle, tapping out rhythms and singing while holding a colorful stretchy band, and Gliebe leaned in to ask the boy if he was having a difficult day. He nodded, later appearing relieved as he danced in the center of the circle.

“She just has a culture and environment in class that makes students feel safe, seen,” said Stephen Lytle, the district’s coordinator for music and drama, of Gliebe.

Though Gliebe doesn’t expect to convert every student into a musician, she’s been fairly successful in getting many to continue their studies.

Sumpter’s orchestra had 45 interested fourth-graders sign up this school year, all of whom stuck with it. A typical district elementary school might have 13 interested students, Lytle said.

Gliebe knew she wanted to be a musician after finding her place as an accompanist in middle school choir.

She was then homeschooled but participated in choir at her local high school, where her teacher gave her opportunities to lead sectionals and direct songs.

One week, the teacher was out sick and left substitute plans that said: “Bethea’s in charge.”

“It was a little awkward because it’s my peers, it’s hard to teach peers, but I got to lead the beginning choir, I did some rehearsing on piano with them,” Gliebe said. She found she could play piano while paying attention to something else and enjoyed the mental challenge.

“It was that week where I was like, ‘So can you tell me more, teacher, about this teaching thing?’” she said.

Gliebe thought she wanted to teach high school but realized as a student teacher that she enjoyed elementary school more.

“They were so much fun. And I realized in that class that I was more myself, I was more who I am inside, as an elementary teacher,” she said. With younger students, she was less reserved and could lean into silliness and jokes.

In addition to her district award, Gliebe was nominated for a Crystal Apple Award this year. 

“Ms. Gliebe is the best music teacher you could ever have because she makes everyone in the entire school happy,” a fourth grade student wrote in the nomination packet. “She works really hard and her work needs to be recognized. When a class is at music class, Ms. Gliebe teaches in a way that makes it easy for the students to learn. She makes learning fun by playing games or telling jokes. Ms. Gliebe is also kind because if a student is shy or needs help, she helps the student get better at the concept by saying positive words and encouraging them.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.