Rick Joseph is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2015-16. He’s a fifth/sixth grade teacher at Birmingham Covington School and has more than 20 years of classroom experience. Meemic has partnered with the Michigan Department of Education for the MTOY program for more than five years.
We talked with Rick about his teaching experience and what his goals are for the coming school year.*
What is your teaching experience?
I began my career as a bilingual (Spanish) teacher in Chicago Public Schools and taught for the first seven years at the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade level. Next, I worked on the design team for a year for a new professional development school in Chicago, and then spent the final year in CPS at the Chicago Academy, a teacher training school where I had two career-changing interns in my fifth-grade classroom for the whole year. My wife and I had two young boys at the time and decided we wanted to return to the Detroit area where we’re both from in order to be closer to family. So, in 2003, we came back home to Detroit. I started teaching at Covington in the Birmingham Public Schools, and after one year at the 3/4 level, I have been at 5/6 ever since.
What is your platform?
My platform is equity, literacy and job-embedded professional learning.
One thing you’ve talked about previously is wanting to address inequity in the public school system and the achievement gap. How have you done that as a teacher in a more affluent district and how will your new post help that goal on a larger scale?
I think one of the most important first steps in addressing issues related to equity in all its forms is to humanize ourselves to each other. One of the best ways to do that is to put ourselves in situations where we can listen to each other, hear our stories and build empathy and compassion. When we are compassionate towards “the other,” we are more likely to view them as people like us and treat them with greater equity, or fundamentally, fairness.
The children who go to school in Birmingham will, by and large, grow up and find themselves in positions that will impact the well-being of others who did not have the same opportunities they did. In order for my students to relate in as equitable a manner as possible to others, I begin by reading stories aloud to my students that involve characters and cultures that are different from their own. We spend a lot of time examining people who serve others. We look at ways advocacy matters, in any community, but especially in examples where societal chasms are crossed. Of particular relevance is the gap between what happens in cities, suburbs and rural areas across our country. We also take a look at all the ways our society strives to be more equitable, in terms of treating people as fairly as possible regardless of their race, class, ability, language, culture, age and sexual orientation.
To give a concrete example, twice a week, my students engage in project-based learning activities. One group of kids enjoyed playing a game at our school called gaga, which is a fast-paced, high-energy sport played in an octagonal pit, which is a kinder, gentler version of dodge ball. They realized that kids in a school in Detroit, about 10 miles away, might like to play this game, too. We contacted the school and asked if they’d be interested in a gaga pit for their school. The idea would be to raise the money for the materials and then work together to build it. The school agreed. We are in the process of continuing this partnership.
As the MTOY, I am a servant and spokesperson for the teachers of the state of Michigan, and have the opportunity to tell their stories to people in positions of power. I now will have the ear of policymakers and legislators. I will invite legislators to join me in visits to schools in their legislative districts to meet teachers and students and see and hear for themselves what’s happening on a daily basis in our public schools. I will showcase all the amazing work that is happening across the state and also talk about the ways teachers may be challenged in the hope of closing the opportunity gaps that affect our students and their learning.
What is the biggest change in your classroom since you first started teaching?
I think the biggest change is the overwhelming need to value process over product in an educational setting. As kids have been able to Google answers for years now, the importance of teaching critical thinking is greater than ever. When I first started teaching in 1994, critical thinking was certainly important, but it’s never been more of a priority than now.
What is the most important thing your students have taught you?
My students have taught me to be humble. I have certainly learned a lot about myself as a man, brother, son, spouse and father by watching them over the years. As a lifelong learner, I have been extraordinarily gifted by the ways in which my students have led me down new paths.
What is your favorite story/event from teaching?
Once I had a student; we’ll call him George. George hated to read and write, and all he wanted to do all day long was play video games, for a variety of reasons that are all too familiar to educators. I battled daily with George and struggled to establish a relationship with him that would motivate him to do something more consistently constructive with his time. In the winter of the last year I had with George, I was accepted to go to Japan for two weeks that summer as part of a Fulbright Study Exchange. When George found out I was going to Japan, he said, “You know, Mr. Joe, I know a few things about Japan.”
George became my own personal “sensei” in the run-up to my time in Japan, helping me learn all about the things he cared about – ninjas, sword-play, manga and anime. I even learned a few words of Japanese. George actually softened to the idea of reading and writing. I softened a bit toward George, too. I finally found my way in, and was able to help George get motivated in ways that made sense to him and helped us both.
Who would play you in the Oscar-winning inspirational movie about your class and what would the movie be called?
Ty Burrell (the dad from Modern Family) – the movie would be called Being the Change.
Tell us a little about the mustache …
Every year I participate in Movember during the month of November to raise money for men’s cancers and mental health. My wife eagerly anticipates the arrival of December 1 so I can lose the mustache and she can have my face back. Last year, however, some students asked if I would keep the mustache and use it as a fundraiser for Race for the Cure, in support of a colleague, Karen Fitzgerald, who lost her fight with breast cancer. My wife was a good sport, and I kept the mustache until the beginning of June, where it was shaved off my two lucky students who had donated money for our school’s RFTC team. It was the first time in my life I’d grown a handlebar mustache – the overwhelming first choice of my students, as I let them pick the style. (Rick goes more in depth for the Oakland Schools Literacy Team.)
Do you have any words of advice for teachers (rookies or veterans)?
I would like to thank teachers across the state of Michigan for just being teachers at a difficult time in our profession. I would also encourage teachers to get to know one kid a little bit better than the rest. Make this kid one that you know needs you, for whatever reason. A lot of teachers do this without thinking. I know when I reach out to just one kid, in any kind of unique way, it gives me an extra special reason to get out of bed in the morning and come to school.