As the clarinet player in her high school marching band, Dianthe “Dee” Spencer never thought she would be winning awards and shaping young minds to hopefully one day do the same, but now she plays a different tune.
This month, Spencer was honored as the Educator of the Year by the Golden Gate branch of the National Council of Negro Women, a group that supports local women of color through tools like financial support for public education and acknowledging women who show extraordinary passion. Spencer is one of five Bay Area women to be honored by the organization this year, but the only recognized for efforts in education.
Spencer is the current chair of SF State’s School of Music and Dance as well as a professor of jazz and other music classes. She is also an accomplished jazz pianist and has played all over the world, from Tasmania to China, although it is not her full-time profession to play.
“Teaching sort of picked me and I didn’t know I would teach… but turned out it was great,” Spencer said. “I can’t say all my life that I wanted to teach. It wasn’t in my plan at all.”
Spencer said that she tried to be a professional musician for a while, but in the end found that teaching brought her more joy and financial stability than constantly touring and doing gigs. She said that the life of a musician was not for her.
“For some people that’s great but I don’t want to be that person that is always in an airport, airplanes and hotels,” Spencer said. “It may look glamorous but it’s not easy.”
A professor at SF State since 1990, Spencer introduced a jazz studies program to the school. She said that through teaching she hopes she can find those who are truly dedicated to crafting music. To be a dedicated musician, she emphasized, it takes more than a so-so commitment.
“It’s like a 24/7 type of thing, it has to be your passion, your calling and I tell people don’t do it if you’re not really, really dedicated and into it,” Spencer said. “A lot of them want to master something but truthfully that might not happen immediately because it’s a lifelong journey and you have to keep striving.”
Although Spencer has not always dreamed of being an educator, ever since childhood she has had a profound love of music.
“Music is a very powerful thing because everyone is affected, and you can’t say that anyone breathing is unaffected by it… music changes you,” she said.
Some students at SF State find her a positive light in everyday school pressures.
“She’s very nice. When you present her with a problem, she wants to solve all the parts of the problem piece by piece,” said Alicia Dixon, a 23-year-old senior and music major. “She listens, and most teachers don’t do that.”
A portion of her students find that having her feedback and support is just as helpful outside of the classroom as it is within.
“She’s really fun, creative and she interacts with us and plays with us,” said Kevin Reierson, a 23-year-old senior and music major. “She backs us all up and brings the good vibe that jazz has into the classroom.”
Spencer has gone beyond teaching college and adopted the music program at Gateway High School, a college prep school in San Francisco, as her own personal project to support. She said it’s important to teach this generation about music, especially in the electronic age.
“I want to take them off their iPods a bit so I can help them understand how that music was made and what’s an artist rather than ‘I download a track, put in my ear buds and here I go,’” Spencer said. “I want to show them there’s much more than that.”
Spencer accepted her award Saturday at a NCNW luncheon for all the winners.