By A.M. Sheehan
Editor’s Note: When we went to meet the teacher behind the apple this week, we discovered he had just been named Teacher of the Year for Oxford County!
PARIS — For 17 years, right out of high school, Joe Cummings sold washers and sofas. And handled customer complaints as the sales and operations manager at Western Auto on Main Street in Norway.
And then he had an epiphany.
He began coaching on his son’s athletic teams and was asked to mentor students at the Guy E. Rowe School.
“It was so much more fulfilling than selling a washer,” he laughs. “I said to my wife ‘I really want to change’ and she said ‘go for it.'”
So at the age of 35 he decided to go to college.
“I drove in and out of the parking lot [at the University College South Paris center] two times … I was 17 years out of high school and not sure I could do it.”
He says the folks he spoke with at the center were “so kind” and he enrolled in a couple of classes at the center and became a member of the first class to graduate through the South Paris Center.
And the planets aligned for him.
Having quit his job at Western Auto, he was fortunate to discover an Ed Tech position that had just opened up at the high school in the library.
“It was based around technology and I went to work at the high school and worked there for seven years while I got my degree and, eventually, found a social studies teaching position in the district.”
It took three years to get a position but because he was adamant that he wanted to teach in the SAD 17 district, he waited. This was, in part, because he “loved the district and its leadership” but also because he doesn’t want to be anywhere but the Oxford Hills.
In fact, he says, “the longest I have ever been out of the Oxford Hills at any one time is eight days!”
The 46-year-old Norway resident teaches the social studies portion of humanities at Oxford Hills Middle School.
Teacher of Year
Cummings was nominated as Teacher of the Year for Oxford County by OHMS Principal Troy Eastman.
“He’s inspirational,” says Eastman of the reason he chose Cummings, “to students, staff and parents.”
“He is such a professional and he has a vision bigger than his classroom … it’s district-wide and its impact is bigger than that. He influences other teachers’ classrooms, has an ability to form relationships that support student learning, social growth and the school climate.”
But the nomination was only the first step on a long and somewhat arduous process that is required of those nominated.
“It is crazy process,” Cummings says, shaking his head. “After you are nominated you have to write two essays. For the first one I used Death of a Salesman to describe my life.
“For the second I had to write about setting up the classroom for success. When I started teacher here the classroom I was assigned was the same room I had for eighth grade history. I remember the classroom was set up with desks arranged in islands. I made sure there were no islands in my classroom.”
His two essays propelled him into the top four for the county.
And then he had to write four more essays. And from that submission, he was chosen.
“I was stunned,” he says, “I am sure I was up against people with far more experience.”
He also notes that last year’s the county Teacher of the Year was from OHMS as well.
On Friday, May 13, he and the 15 other Teachers of the Year from Maine counties gather in Augusta to be recognized in the Hall of Flags.
The comes the next step as all 16 vie for state Teacher of the Year.
Each has to tape 10 minutes of class time and submit it – unedited – along with a reflective essay on what worked and what they would do differently.
So he told his students he would be taping the class and, of course, they behaved perfectly. “The whole dynamic changed.”
But unbeknownst to him or the students, someone else had taped the class at a different time. That’s the tape he says he is going to use because it is much more real.
After that, Cummings thinks eight are chosen and a round of interviews follows prior to one being honored as top teacher in the state.
Cummings says being chosen is “a validation of my decision 12 years ago to leave a good-paying job and go to college. I had three kids at home … I owe a lot to Sarah [his wife].
“My wife is amazing. She has faith in me that I don’t always have.”
And what did Sarah say when he won Teacher of the Year?
“Wow, I knew it!”
But Cummings also admits that all the essays and the taping of his class have “caused me to look at my teaching. A lot of this is what you do right and when you do wrong how do you fix it.”
“I guess I am better than I thought I was! But,” he quickly points out, “I think this is a reflection of all of us.”
Last year Cummings got a grant and used it to start a news channel (on YouTube) that 22 students are involved in. NewsQuest was asked to make a video for PACE ambulance service about what it is like for young children to ride in an ambulance and they have just been asked to make a video for parents of seventh graders who will graduate with a proficiency-based diploma explaining what that means.
He is also on the proficiency-based diploma committee, the middle school leadership team and the district social studies curriculum committee.
Cummings says he is going to get much better at assessing what he does in his classroom and improving it.
“I think I have already made adjustments based on what I said [in his essays]. I just want to get better.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Cummings says his worst experiences teaching have been when he has a student in crisis and can’t help them.
“It is hard when you see a kid struggling with a poor decision they have made or something happening at home, and you can’t help them.”
However offsetting that are the letters of gratitude he gets “when a kid tells you what you mean to them.”
His professional goal, he says, “is to get better at the pedagogy of teaching skills. I am good at relationships now I want to work in skills.” He has no interest in anything but teaching.
He and his wife Sarah are parents to Christian, 22, Hayley, 20, Emily 12, and Ben 8. They are grandparents to Peyton who is two months old.
They have three cats – Sparky, 15, Bettle and Hood, 1.
When he isn’t teaching he enjoys yard work and puttering. He likes to spend time with his kids, cooking and is an Indianapolis Colts fan.
“I am also a huge Star Wars fanatic,” he laughs.
His family enjoys camping and “outdoor stuff.”
He hopes to teach until he is 65, see all four of his kids get a degree and a job “they love as much as I do mine.”