Welcome to the first installment of a new series highlighting talented teachers from Milwaukee Public Schools. In this segment, meet Vincent High School teacher Joe Shokatz.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long have you been a teacher?
Joe Shokatz: I am in my ninth year. Prior to Vincent, where I was hired in November 2002, I was a sub for two months in the Cudahy School District.
OMC: Where did you go to college?
JS: I went to college at Edgewood College in Madison.
OMC: Why did you become a teacher?
JS: I became a teacher because I have always loved the reward of helping others.
OMC: What is your favorite aspect of your job?
JS: My favorite aspect of my job is that I never know what to expect on a daily basis. It changes every day. Some days go smoothly, and others not so much. If I had to sit at a desk all day and work on a computer, I would go crazy. I love the interaction and random teachable moments that occur. I also love the people that I work with and have developed some very great lasting friendships among my coworkers.
OMC: What, if anything, would you like to change about MPS and public school systems in general?
JS: The easy answer is to change the funding. But it always amazes me that everyone complains about how low achieving the schools are, yet no one wants to pay for it. Everyone wants the schools to do better, but they all want someone else to pay for it. I think the new superintendent is a start. I think it is always good for someone else to come in and analyze the problems. Maybe if he can identify some spending that may not be needed and allocate money elsewhere, it is a start. But to have the city, state and national government constantly argue about who is going to pay for schools, and where the money should come from, is a waste. Everyone benefits from better schools and everyone suffers when schools don’t achieve.
OMC: What do you do in summer?
JS: In the summers I have held a variety of jobs. In the past I have worked summer school, and for several years I worked landscaping with my brother. But this past summer I worked as a limousine driver. I have enjoyed the landscaping and limo driving the best, as they share one important thing with being a teacher: You never know what to expect. I also enjoy traveling and spending time with my wife and our two dogs, as well as anticipating the arrival of our first child.
OMC: What is your response to some people thinking teachers have insurance that is “too good” or that they only work nine months out of the year?
JS: To think that teachers only work nine months a year or eight hours a day is a joke. I typically leave my house by 6:30 in the morning, and do not return until after 7 or 8 at night. In order for me to have enough time to be prepared each day, I need to get to work at least an hour or two before school starts to have everything in place. Or enough in place to be able to manage the day. And then, I’m usually working after the school day is over as a coach.
I have had several college students come in to observe for one or two hours, and they have enough to write about for an entire semester. Other professionals have visited my class, and are amazed at the control and enthusiasm I have, and can’t understand how I do this every day. And, if you think teachers have it rough, administrators have it much worse than teachers. We have some great administrators at Vincent.
OMC: Do you have a story about how you impacted a student’s life?
JS: I can’t think of any one particular incident where I know that I have had a great impact on a student’s life, but it never ceases to amaze me to go to a Brewers game or the State Fair or Summerfest and be approached by a former student who wants to shake my hand or give me a hug and say “thank you” or “hello” or that I was their favorite teacher.
Most times, I may not remember the name so well, but I will always remember the face, and talk to them for a few minutes. I also found it funny and rewarding to learn a few years ago that there was a list somewhere on Facebook or Twitter that was entitled, “You know you graduated from Vincent if …” and one of the comments was that “You failed Shokatz’s class but didn’t care, because you still learned a lot.” When I heard that, I couldn’t help but smile and know that I have made a difference.
OMC: How is teaching different now from when you were a kid?
JS: I think teaching is the same as when I was a kid. The information is the same, the kids are a little different and have different life experiences, but the best teachers are the ones who relate to the students. If you can’t relate to the students, the kids know this, and react differently and it doesn’t matter how much information you know, the kids will not respond. If you can relate to them, and treat them with respect, they will respect you and want to learn.
The best teachers I had as a kid, were the ones who got to know me on a personal level, and interacted with me personally. The teachers who may not have been my favorite where the ones who I could not relate to.
OMC: Anything else you want to say about your career?
JS: I have had the awesome fortune to be placed at Vincent High School and I would not trade that for anything. I have met some amazing students who have taught me a lot more than I could ever teach them. Some of them will and have gone on to be very successful, and that is very rewarding to see. The two biggest reasons I enjoy going to work everyday are the students and the staff.
I have had a lot of friends who have moved on to other schools and other districts and they have told me the biggest thing they miss about Vincent is the staff and the camaraderie. At Vincent we are a family, and we work together to do the best that we can do. We may not always agree with the methods, but the goal is the same for everyone. We want to educate students.