Joe Stivers: The Secretly Incredible Middle School Teacher
I want you to meet Joe Stivers.
Joe is a friend of mine from church. He leads FCA at the school he teaches at and asked for volunteers to speak to his students. Always excited about an opportunity to share, I jumped at the chance. That day I learned more from Joe and the students than they did from me.
Joe is a guy living a secretly incredible life as a middle school teacher, but it wasn’t easy for him to get there. t hope you learn as much about living a better story from him as I did.
JS: Joe, tell me about your job as a teacher and the school you work at.
Joe: I am the band teacher at Frederick Law Olmsted Academy North Middle School in Louisville, KY. We are the only all boys middle school in our system. The school has struggled over the years, and has been designated a PLA (persistently low achieving) school for over 12 years. Our school has about 800 students, 92% of which are on the free or reduced lunch schedule.
The most startling statistic I have learned about my students is that 90% of them have no father or father figure living at home with them.
JS: Wow. It sounds like a difficult place to teach. Maybe even a place where you have to focus on more than just academics.
Has it always been your goal to teach in this type of setting?
Joe: Not at all. When I finished my education, I was actually looking at 4 other schools in the same district. I knew Olmsted North could be in the mix, but it wasn’t where I wanted to go. I heard horror stories about the student’s behavior. It sounded more like a babysitting job than a teaching gig.
In my interview I was asked, “What would you do if a student decides to cuss at you during class?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or ask for the question to be repeated.
JS: So how did you find yourself there?
Joe: Like any other normal person, I applied to the better, more academic schools thinking “surely one of these school’s would need a Joseph Stivers.” I was wrong. God sent me to the one place I didn’t want to go.
JS: Once you started the job, how did it go?
Joe: It was really hard. I felt completely unprepared. College didn’t teach me how to manage a classroom of at-risk, inner city middle school adolescents. I came home exhausted every day from trying to keep kids in their seats and pay attention much less teach.
One day the hypothetical question during my interview became a reality. I corrected a student in the middle of class and he went off on me. I once again questioned whether this was the right place for me. I barely survived that first year.
JS: The first year sounds rough. How was the 2nd year?
Joe: I began the year with an incredible amount of anxiety, but that year something changed for me. I feel like I stopped complaining about not getting what I wanted and started to see God’s purposes in placing me there.
One day I was trying to get the kids lined up to go to lunch. They were loud and distracting to classrooms nearby. I tried everything to get them to quiet down, but nothing worked.
I was really frustrated. I had enough. I wanted out. I prayed right there in the hallway and asked God “Why?” Although I didn’t hear his voice, my thoughts seem to clear and focus. My frustrations melted away. I knew God put me there to do more than teach. He wanted me to minister to these boys.
JS: What helped you to change your focus from being frustrated with how hard the work was to simply choosing to do the work that is hard?
Joe: There is a verse in the Bible that helps me to stay focused on just that. It is John 15: 8;12-17.
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…
I realized it is not about how easy the teaching job might be. Life is about loving others and bearing fruit for their benefit. To be like Jesus, I would need to lay down my life for the good of these students.
JS: That’s really an amazing shift in your mind and your heart. Have you seen any changes in your students?
Joe: Absolutely. It’s there if you look for it.
I lead FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and one day we were talking about Jesus appearing to Peter and the disciples after his resurrection. This is the first time they talked after Peter had denied Jesus.
The speaker asked the students how they thought Jesus would respond. Some wondered if he would yell at him. One kid suggested that Jesus would “lay the smack down” on Peter. I have been in church all of my life, so I realize that Jesus didn’t do this. But hearing the students’ responses made sense, and made the actual story better.
We discussed how that would make sense and be the normal thing to do. But Jesus did something different. He made breakfast for him. They sat around a fire and ate. Jesus told Peter that he believed in him. Jesus still loved him in spite of what had happened.
Once the story was finished, one student raised his hand and asked, “Is this story true?” You could tell that his skepticism came from seeing Jesus love so much even though Peter didn’t deserve it. I doubt this boy had much experience with unconditional love in his own life.
I had the opportunity to tell him it was, and that I agree it seems to good to be true.
JS: What have you learned the most from all of this?
Joe: I have learned to trust God. I believe he is good, and that sometimes he gives us something even better than what we asked for. I can’t imagine teaching at any other school than where I am at. There is no place I would rather be than with these kids.
We are missionaries wherever we find ourselves. God wants us to remain in him all of the time. He promises that we will bear fruit that will glorify him. We don’t know how God will use us in our everyday lives, but if we remain in him for every test, others will see him in us.
Have you been placed in a difficult situation? Has it become an opportunity for you to serve?
Share your own story in the comments.
Or nominate a friend for the Secretly Incredible You contest here.