Southport Elementary School music teacher Rhonda Hawley lives life by the power of threes.
She teaches her students to do likewise, and says it starts with “school, family and me.”
Rhonda’s threes include many other groupings, including music, patriotism and character; families, community and nation; and singing, songwriting and curriculum development.
Her impact on people in her community and beyond is multiplied many times over.
“I taught the parents of a third to half the kids I’m teaching now,” says Rhonda, who spent her entire 35-year career at the Panhandle school.
That chapter of life closes with Rhonda’s retirement this year, but the legacy continues for the Florida State University music therapy graduate.
The America’s Pride and Promise program Rhonda developed in 2000 and released as a teacher’s guide before 9/11 sets an environment of patriotism and expectations for behavior at the school. Playing off Southport Elementary’s mascot, the eagle, students are taught to soar—and not just to survive, but thrive.
“Every kid learns the Pledge of Allegiance, but they don’t know what it means,” Rhonda says. “I wrote a song and played it. A third grader pounded on the desk, ‘keep the promise.’ It struck such a chord with students, teachers and parents. It really has changed our school.”
The curriculum is used at schools in 30 states to teach students character and citizenship.
“Mrs. Hawley definitely set a Southport standard in all of us,” says former student Rebecca Nicole Sherrill of Panama City. “She taught us music and about our country—the two most beautiful things in life: song and pride. She allowed our little minds to form into beautiful works of art. My kids love her. My husband loves her. My whole family loves her.”
Once a week, all 400-plus Southport Elementary students spend time with Mrs. Hawley.
“I have the best job in the school because the kids want to come to music,” Rhonda says, noting Queen Dodo of LaLa Land, her “secret music spy persona,” makes learning fun. “If the teacher is not having fun, the kids won’t have fun.”
Unlike other teachers, Rhonda is in a unique position to create lasting relationships.
“I get my students for six years, from 5 years old to 11 years old,” Rhonda says. “That’s a time we are laying the foundation in every area of their growth and development. It’s important and a privilege.”
Her music therapy training is always front-of-mind.
“When I see that kids have a need, it’s natural for me to use music to address the issues,” Rhonda says. “I have a second grader who refuses to speak, but he participates fully and sings in class. Music is an expression from the heart. You can’t really express yourself until you feel safe. If someone is sad or anxious, you don’t start with happy music. You start where they are at.”
To label Rhonda just “the music teacher” undersells her contributions, which extend across all classroom disciplines.
She leads flag raisings.
She empowers students through regular performances for their classmates, family and community groups.
She exposes them at a young age to a world they might not otherwise experience.
Rhonda took 30 students ages 10 and 11 on a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia in 2002. They sang “The Promise”—the song she wrote about the Pledge of Allegiance—at the National Cathedral, Jefferson Memorial, Smithsonian, Ft. McHenry and Independence Hall.
Students spent some of their own money to buy canned goods for a food program in Washington, made cards and visited hospitalized veterans in Baltimore, and spent a night with Amish and Mennonite farmers outside Philadelphia.
“This is different than what most music teachers do,” Rhonda says. “I focus on more than music. I’m exactly where God wanted me. My prayer has been, ‘Let me be an instrument.’ I’ve been blessed.”
She has also been a blessing.
“Mrs. Hawley was such an inspiration to me when I was a child at Southport in the late 80s,” says Crystal Carpenter Bullock, who teaches English at Bay High School. “No one could make children feel more loved and excited about music.”
Last year, Rhonda fulfilled a dream: establishing an outdoor music playground, Harmony Gardens, in the courtyard at Southport Elementary School.
Not surprisingly, the garden has three rules, each with three aspects: Be respectful of the instruments, of yourself and of each other. Be generous, take turns and always share. Be joyful, happy people and make happy music.
“I wanted it to be a place where children and adults could go and make beautiful music together,” she says. “When you learn to cooperate and you listen to other people and you blend what you’re doing with what they’re doing—that’s great life skills.”