In a classroom at Northwestern High School, with trophies lining the back wall and pictures of smiling seniors framed on the shelf, choral director Elizabeth Mixon commands respect from her students.
When she talks, students don't play around. They listen. They listen because they love her as a teacher, as an adult they can look up to and sometimes even as a friend.
So you can imagine the mutual sadness when Mixon gathered all 52 Troubadours, Northwestern's renowned chorus, and told them she'll be leaving her job as choral director.
Mixon's students describe her as a part of their families. She cares about their successes. She knows when something's wrong without having to ask. And she demands their best, just as mothers always expect the very best from their children.
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"We've literally grown up in front of Ms. Mixon," senior Rebekah Platt said. "Since we're always together, we really do consider her our second mom."
For Mixon, who has directed the Troubadours since 1999, balancing her love for the choral students with love for her real family has become a challenge.
"The older my children have gotten, the more they need me," she said. "I just can't give meaningful advice to my children while I'm running out the door to go to a rehearsal."
Running a nationally acclaimed choral program is much more than just a few classes a day. There's the organizational aspects, the rehearsals, the select group that meets before and after school, the costumes, the fundraising, the travel to and from competitions and the list goes on.
Mixon's job already has been advertised on the school district's Web site, and the position will be handed off when someone is hired. In a letter to parents and friends, Mixon said she would like to stay until the end of the school year if possible.
Next school year, Mixon will become the testing coordinator for Northwestern, a new position that involves lots of data analysis. It will put Mixon on a schedule without nighttime or weekend hours.
"She created a tremendous legacy within our choral department," Northwestern Principal James Blake said. "She followed a very successful choral director when she took over this position at Northwestern High School and has advanced it beyond any types of expectations of where we would have hoped the program would go."
Mixon has led the Troubadours to the state title in six of the past seven years.
This year, the group will forgo the state competition to take a trip to New York City that will include performing at the Statue of Liberty and meeting the cast of the Broadway show "Legally Blonde."
Students praised Mixon for pushing them, making them want to work harder and be better.
"She's tough. She expects the very best from you," senior Julianne Orr said. "With her, it's like when she gives you an expectation and she gives you a goal to reach, everyone tries their hardest to reach that goal."
Darsey Lingle, a 2002 Northwestern graduate whose first year in Troubadours also was Mixon's first year, said Mixon had the same stern, yet loving, teaching style back then.
"She wasn't just a choral director," Lingle said. "She taught us music. I'm very thankful for that because I wasn't very musically inclined before that. I learned a lot of what I know about music in Troubadours."
For Mixon, the decision to step down was a difficult one. She and her students cried when she told them about her plans to leave the program, she said.
Directing the Troubadours has been more than a job for Mixon. It's been an opportunity to help teenagers find passion and a purpose in life.
"I think the thing I will miss the most is the daily student interactions in a classroom, because I like figuring out what makes students tick," she said. "I like to see them rise to the occasion, rise to a challenge. One thing about this group is that they refuse not to rise."
Hear a clip of the Troubadours performing "Give My Regards to Broadway" at