WEST VALLEY CITY — If you faced 14-year-olds — 110 of them at once — at 7:50 every morning, maybe the Granite School District would single you out as an exceptional teacher, too.

Music teacher Jennifer Strassburg is unfazed, standing in front of her advanced choir class at West Lake Junior High School. "I tell them I put my favorite class first," she said.

West Lake has the largest advanced choir of any junior high school in the state. And it began with just 11 students when Strassburg started teaching 25 years ago.

"She is truly a master teacher," said principal Arthur Cox, and that is why she is also the school's designated teacher mentor.

"For two periods each day, Jennifer goes about the building and responds to our new teachers," Cox said. There are 13 of them this year. Last year, there were nearly 20. And that's in a faculty of 46.

"There's a major need to keep those new, provisional teachers," Cox said. "And (Strassburg) helps give them some of that creativity, excitement and knowledge."

After their first day on the job, Strassburg passed out small apples to each of the new recruits. "You should have seen them. They looked stunned and tired," she said. "But we can't afford to lose these wonderful teachers."

Strassburg says almost every seventh-grader who first darkens her choir room door is musically illiterate.

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"You can teach students to sing without teaching them to read music," she said. But in Strassburg's choir classes, students learn music literacy — even if that knowledge never translates into a musical career.

"She taught me to experience music, not just learn about it," said Quang Dang, a computer trainer and a 1985 graduate of West Lake.

Dang and some of Strassburg's other early students remember well her struggle with lymphoma.

"When I was 29, I was diagnosed with cancer and told to get my life in order," Strassburg said. "I remember thinking, I'm in the middle of a musical. I can't go to the hospital now."

Some 15 years and 10 rounds of chemotherapy later, her health is excellent.

Strassburg admits junior high school students are known for being brash and self-centered. "They'll chew you up and spit you out. But they'll also rally for you."


E-MAIL: mtitze@desnews.com