Josh Rist

Back in early-March, McNary choir teacher Josh Rist spent all day preparing a special lesson for his students. He was under the impression that principal Erik Jespersen would be in attendance observing his class.

Jespersen was in his class, but he was joined by over a dozen members of the community to present Rist with the Service to Education Award for the 60th annual Keizer First Citizen & Awards Banquet — which took place virtually on Saturday, March 20.

“It was an overwhelming surprise and totally unexpected,” Rist said. “In a year where a lot of work that teachers do is going under the radar, it felt validating and encouraging to be recognized. It was a really special moment.”

Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell nominated Rist for the award.

“Josh is a one of a kind educator. He truly has a gift of sharing his art and passion with students. But from a teacher perspective he’s a solid mentor to so many. He’s authentic in his relationships with each student, he sees them for who they are and he allows them to be individuals," Bethell said.

"I’ve watched him find creative and meaningful ways to keep his students engaged and pouring out their love for music. In a time where so much is uncertain and students are really getting left behind academically, Josh invested a great deal of time into his students and motivated them to keep growing in their musical talents."

Rist has always had a passion for music, but he first got the itch to start teaching as a 19-year old while on a trip to Nigeria. Rist was there as a humanitarian, serving a poor and impoverished part of the country, and carried around a battery powered keyboard to teach piano lessons to kids. 

A children’s choir director in Nigeria reached out to Rist and asked him to direct and teach one of the choirs. Although Rist had little experience with directing a choir, he believes that he found his calling in that moment.

“He let me have the floor and I didn’t know what I was doing. I just imitated the teachers that I have had in the past. But in that moment I found something that left a lasting impression. I felt so alive. It was very powerful,” Rist said. 

Rist attended Oregon State University and received his bachelor's degree in music education in 2012 — he got his master's degree the following year. He then began working as the choir director at Hermiston High School.

Rist was the choir director at Hermiston for three years and said that he had no intention of leaving. However, when he got a call from Mary Lou Boderman — the coordinator of music and drama for Salem-Keizer Public Schools — about a job opening at McNary, he saw it as an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.

“I just decided to go for it. I just saw it as a place where I could see myself thriving,” Rist said. 

Rist has now been at McNary for four years and has fallen in love with the place where he teaches.

“I love that McNary is so well integrated into the community and I appreciate the small town loyalty that we have,” Rist said. “I love the vision of the high school and I believe in what our leadership is doing. I also really like the demographics and that we have so many kids coming from different walks of life.”

Rist not only has a deep love for music, but also a passion for teaching and developing close relationships with his students, which is why it was rough on him to be away from his students for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I love music and believe that it is essential to life and community. But the choral aspect means a lot to me because of the relationships that it creates with students,” Rist said. “The rich and in-depth connection with kids is what I love and is why I feel a philosophical calling to continue this work.”

During the year of distance learning, Rist took the situation as a challenge to work even harder for his students. In May, Rist instructed his students to film themselves singing to a rendition of “Smile” by Nat “King” Cole. With the help of fellow teachers Ashley Gruber and Andy Thomas, Rist was able to create a virtual choral performance of the song on YouTube — the video has nearly 5,000 views and was featured on KGW.

Then, in October, Rist created a choir club that involved students making their own Soundtrap projects online and sharing them with their classmates — Soundtrap is an online cross-platform digital audio workstation that allows users to create music. The club put together multiple performances, using Soundtrap to sing and layer each section of the song to make it sound like they were singing together.

Rist’s dedication and commitment to his students, despite the obstacles of distance learning, was one of the main reasons he was selected for the Service to Education Award. 

“I am so proud of him. Anyone who has gotten to know him knows how special of a man he is. He is an excellent educator and a wonderful human with infectious positivity. This award couldn’t have gone to a better guy,” Jespersen said. “From a musical standpoint, Josh obviously knows his stuff. But what makes him unique is how he brings out the most in people and how he gives kids confidence. He did a tremendous job making the most out of this year.”

Even though he has found an effective way to reach his kids during the pandemic, Rist is elated to have his students back in the new choir room at the newly renovated school — McNary students will begin coming back to in-person classes on April 13.

“This last year was by no means a wash. I feel like I have a whole new skill-set and have found a new way of assessing kids' progress. I’m grateful for the experience, but I am so thrilled to be able to teach in-person,” Rist said. “There is so much anticipation.”

Matt Rawlings: [email protected]