During third period choir class at Sanderson High School, between a vocal warm-up and a lesson on sight reading, Marshall Butler Jr. called out a question.
“Who’s the most important in here?” the veteran teacher asked.
“Everyone,” the class called back in a well-timed refrain before turning back to the music.
It was a short interaction, a seamless reminder of the lesson Butler has aimed to impress upon his students day after day for more than 30 years: In his classroom, everyone matters to him.
Butler said he shows up each day to teach music, but far more importantly, he’s there to guide and support students.
“All they want to know is that you care,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”
Butler’s dedication has earned him a following among students, fellow choral directors and musicians across the state. The North Carolina Symphony earlier this month awarded him the Maxine Swalin Award for Outstanding Music Educator.
It’s the latest in a pile of accolades Butler has accumulated in 22 years as the choral teacher at Sanderson. Before that, the graduate of Winston-Salem State University taught in Rocky Mount for nine years.
He’s been Sanderson’s teacher of the year and the N.C. Music Educators Association high school choral director of the year. He has traveled to China to represent the school and has performed with his choirs all over the United States and Europe.
Shane Dittmar, a 2012 Sanderson graduate who stopped by to visit Butler on Thursday, said the honors are well-deserved.
Dittmar was part of a production of the musical “Annie” at the school when Butler first took notice of his vocal talent.
“Why aren’t you in the choir?” Butler asked him. Dittmar replied that he didn’t know it was something he could do.
Butler brought him into the school’s program, showing him what was possible.
Now Dittmar is a music major at Elon University and hopes to teach young musicians one day. He credits Butler with inspiring him.
“It really felt like I was a student in a class with a teacher who wanted to be as supportive as possible,” he said.
Brad Bensen, the choral director at Panther Creek High School in Cary, said he’s sought to emulate Butler in his own teaching. Like Butler, he wants each of his students to develop a strong sense of character, not just learn about music.
Benson said Butler has helped many others teachers think the same way.
“I feel like there isn’t a chorus educator in North Carolina who doesn’t know him,” he said.
For all his awards, Butler said the thing that makes him happiest is visits like the one from Dittmar or an email from a parent or student telling him how he made a difference.
“That’s what makes my day,” he said.