As soon as I read my friend Martha Milam’s post on Joe Sherwood, I knew I wanted to share it. While I never taught Joe, he and my son were friends growing up, and I knew him and his family. I was so saddened to hear of his death. I love that Martha’s words serve as a tribute to Joe and honor him, and I also love her teacher heart. While a little longer than my typical post, I would encourage you to read to the end to honor Joe and to be inspired by a teacher who loves her students.
Teaching Joe by Martha Milam
Joe made his mark on the world. Joe was vibrant. People loved Joe, and he loved people.
I knew that I was fortunate to teach Joe Sherwood. I taught Joe Physical Science during his sophomore year and Chemistry during his junior year. I met Joe on my very first day of fall semester at East Coweta High School. Although I had previously taught high school for four years, I was re-entering the career world after nine years of staying at home. Joe didn’t know that I was a bit rusty at teaching and needed some time to warm up. Joe didn’t know that I had never taught Physical Science before, and he didn’t know that I wasn’t prepared for him.
Joe passed away this week, and I have been slowly absorbing the truth and trying to understand its meaning. As you read, you’ll see that it’s my personal story. It is – but that’s because I don’t know Joe’s version of events in my classroom. Because he is gone, I can now fully understand the impact Joe had on my own life. More importantly, I understand the impact of our relationship on all the students I have taught since Joe and all those I have yet to meet.
Joe wasn’t easy to teach. But, nobody had told me that teaching would be easy. What I learned from Joe during my first semester at East Coweta High School set the tone for the following nine years (and counting). Joe Sherwood illustrated that the classroom was a challenging place to work. He also showed me that teaching is a rewarding job. But most undeniably, he led me to the conclusion that teaching is fun.
Joe was charming. He was likable. He smiled big and often. He called people by name. He was loud. He liked attention, and he was good at getting it. He also got angry and frustrated, as humans often do, especially when they are trying to learn chemistry. Because he was so vocal, we usually knew when he was mad, which would sometimes make us mad. I can’t remember any specific event, but I would bet money that we argued with each other during our time together. That’s okay. It is part of our story.
Joe’s best quality was his genuine personality. He was authentic and down to earth. He was not afraid to be himself or to speak his mind. When he was happy, we knew it…because he was smiling. When he was sad, we knew it…because he was frowning. When he was angry, we knew it…because he was yelling. When he was excited, we knew it…because he was laughing. And best of all, when he was enjoying life, we knew it…because he was dancing.
Through Joe, I could understand how well I was teaching the lesson. If he understood everything, he would answer all my questions aloud….with pride and confidence. He was happy to help me teach the lesson by confirming what he learned. He might even explain the concept more thoroughly to the class. Joe was a leader. He explained things to his peers in his own terms, which is really helpful to us teachers. When class was going smoothly, Joe was happy. When Joe was happy, he laughed and smiled and generated positive vibes. That is also really helpful to us teachers. Positive vibes are always conducive to learning.
Joe worked hard at learning. He had a knack for math and science, but chemistry can be especially rigorous and has a well-deserved reputation for being a booty-kicker. Joe had a good work ethic. He never slept in class or used his phone to watch Netflix (it wasn’t invented back then, but he still wouldn’t have watched it in class). In addition to being a football and lacrosse player, Joe was a wrestler. Wrestling is really tough, but Joe was good at it because he was strong and willing to work hard.
If Joe didn’t understand a lesson, he became frustrated. When he was frustrated, he became negative and grumpy. That is not helpful to us teachers. Negative vibes can ruin learning, even for the most dedicated students. And, unfortunately, teachers are susceptible to negative vibes. Especially this one. I can quickly spiral downward when the mood turns sour.
Teaching Joe was challenging. I didn’t know what to do with these negative vibes, and my own negativity didn’t solve any problems.
I don’t know how Joe and I overcame the first academic challenge. I don’t remember if I did re-teaching or if I let a peer try to explain to him or if I just gave up and hoped for a better next lesson. In physical science, I co-taught with a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Alissa Sullivan. I am sure she pushed him to success much of the time.
Teaching Joe was rewarding. Although it wasn’t always easy, Joe overcame challenges and understood concepts. Lessons eventually clicked for him, and when they did, he knew the science well. Achieving a goal that is difficult is so much more rewarding than when it is easy. Just like hard-core exercising is more rewarding than watching television. Right?
I don’t remember how it quite came about on a particular fall day in 2008, but the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe” began playing on my computer. Joe immediately hopped up from his chair and started dancing. It was clearly “his” song, and one of his classmates joined him for as long as she could keep up. I’m pretty sure there were a few hoots and hollers from him or from the class. Joe’s joy was contagious, and I remember how much fun we were having with him.
Somewhere along my journey with Joe, I realized that making Joe happy had a positive effect on his learning. And making him more successful made everyone else (including me) much happier. Note: There are many teachers who firmly believe it is NOT their concern or responsibility to ensure that their students are “happy.” I do not understand that philosophy. If you are one of those teachers, you may wish to stop reading my story.
I liked making sure that Joe was happy. We laughed at his jokes, and he laughed at mine. And when he laughed, everyone else did too. As I said, he was a leader. He was magnetic, and people sensed his emotions. Like Maya Angelou’s quote, we don’t remember any specific words or any particular conversation, but we know that we felt good about life when Joe was in the room. He made us feel like the sky was shining. My friend Stefanie Easterwood reminded me that Joe was a close friend to Ryan Carter, who has cerebral palsy and who shares the joy of life that Joe shared with us. He enjoyed a friendship that many people simply could not do. He was a truly special person.
Teaching Joe was fun. We continued to play music. We continued to tell jokes. I praised him for learning tough stuff. His friends praised him, and he made them feel needed. We encouraged him when he got down, and he rewarded us with his contagious joy.
Most students don’t show their emotions like Joe did. Many students are quiet and don’t let anyone know what they’re thinking. That’s okay, and I was one of those kids. But, every student feels the same emotions that Joe did. Joe expressed the feelings on behalf of his classmates. He expressed anger and frustration at not understanding something. He expressed the happiness that comes from achieving success. Joe was an open book, and he was exactly what I needed to see as a teacher. I needed to understand the direct relationship between my student’s emotional well-being and their ability to learn.
There is most likely research to support the discovery that creating a happy, positive environment leads to an increase in learning for all students. But in 2008, I was too busy teaching Joe to read that research article. And teaching Joe was a lot more memorable than any article I have ever read.
Maybe one day we will find a book titled “Teaching is Challenging, Rewarding, and Fun.” But for me, that book has already been written. Not on paper, and not in words, but in real life. And that book was written by Joe. It has been dedicated to me and all his teachers. And his legacy will benefit many students for years to come.
Looking online, I have seen stories of how kind Joe was. I know that about Joe. He had a giving spirit, and he delivered a wholehearted hug. My former student Kiera told the story of how Joe stayed behind with her and her classmate Ryan because their wheelchairs prevented them from joining the rest of the group on a field trip. He made her feel important. He had the self-confidence to stand with Kiera and Ryan instead of going with “everyone else.” Who has that kind of confidence? Who has the wherewithal to know how meaningful that decision was? (I don’t). Joe had that kind of confidence. And because of that, many people in our community are better for knowing him.
Joe’s work on this Earth is complete. While his life was shorter than we expected, I know that God crafted Joe to be exactly who we needed him to be. He created the one and only Joe Sherwood to shape our lives in a very deliberate way. He placed Joe in our paths, in our families, and in our classrooms. I am thankful that God selected me to be Joe’s science teacher. Twice. God chose me to teach Joe for a reason, and it is now crystal clear to me what He was doing. As I was teaching Joe, God was teaching me.
Postscript: Joe’s mother, Cindy, is a fellow teacher at East Coweta High School. She is a colleague who has thanked me generously on several occasions for my work with Joe. She knows that Joe struggled in his classes. She knows that he wasn’t always easy to teach. But because of that, she is truly thankful. I sincerely appreciate her kind words since Joe graduated. Her words inspire me to keep working hard at this job. I know this is work worth doing.
Read more about Martha on her blog at The STEMtastic Spin: Martha Milam.