For students at Vaughn Elementary, a love of music and science starts early. That’s largely thanks to the work of teachers Lisa and Matthew Mills, who share their love of music, science and education with their students and the Key Peninsula community at large.
Born and raised on the Key Peninsula, the couple met in second grade at Vaughn Elementary. Decades later, they teach where their own education started out. Lisa is a music specialist and Matthew teaches science, technology and math as a STEM specialist. Both at school and at home, the Mills have an approach to education that’s rooted in balance and treating the child as a whole.
“Music is a language,” Lisa said. “Music is science too,” said Matthew. “Everything is interrelated.”
Just like there is crossover and connection between their two subjects, the same is true for their students. “Sharing students is helpful to us as we analyze what’s best for kids,” Lisa said. “Matthew says something that he has experienced with a student and I have an ‘Aha’ moment.”
Both began their teaching careers in 1990 with Lisa in the South Kitsap School District and Matthew in the Central Kitsap School District. Eventually, they made their way back to their roots. Lisa came to Vaughn in 2013 followed by Matthew in 2014. Teaching at the elementary school they both attended has made for a special relationship with their jobs.
“I understand these kids because I am one (of them),” Lisa said. “The community has put time, energy and money into us as individuals, so now it’s our turn to move forward and help the next generation.”
She has done so through her love of music. In 2017, Lisa put together a funding request using DonorsChoose.org. The organization was founded on the premise that there are plenty of people who would like to help a classroom in need of the tools and experiences needed for a great education, if they could decide on and be assured how their money was spent. Teachers can post classroom project requests and potential donors choose the projects they want to support.
Lisa was able to raise $2,200, which allowed her to purchase 13 guitars for her music class. Later, a Kiwanis grant funded two left-handed guitars. That makes Vaughn Elementary the only school in the Peninsula School District to offer a string program. “The kids are loving it,” she said. “It’s high physical engagement, it’s high focus. I think they get a lot of personal satisfaction when they can play a little song or chords.”
Learning guitar has affected how Layla Hawkins, a fifth-grade student at Vaughn, experiences music outside of the classroom. “Every time I see someone play a chord at a concert, I go home and try to master it,” she said.
Fellow fifth-grader Kristopher Davis said that learning music has made listening to music different. “It’s different because Ms. Mills has taught us a lot,” she said. “When I hear an open E or an F sharp, I picture a guitar and someone holding down that string.”
Originally thinking that he would be a “pure scientist”—like a marine biologist or ornithologist—Matthew turned a passion for science into helping students be more curious and think about how they look at the world. “I say to the kids all the time ‘I don’t expect all of you to be scientists, but at least you should have a basis for arguing with evidence.’”
If there is one underlying principle that drives both of them, they said, it’s that every child has potential and, whether it’s music or science, they want to make sure all of their students can explore their own possibilities. A child “might be a great singer, but if no one ever told them, how would they know?” Lisa said.
“The reality of what humans are here for is to help other humans,” said Matthew. ”And when I think about it, teaching is the best way that I can impact the future of the planet.”
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