Happy National Teacher Appreciation Day
We all will have the experience of learning from several teachers and mentors at various stages of life, both in school and outside of school. Coincidentally, one of my greatest teachers happened to be an actual school teacher, but the most valuable things he taught me were not found in the lesson plan or curriculum. In honor of National Teacher Day, a day dedicated to those who teach us more than just a curriculum, we celebrate Mr. Cote and all those who have taught us over the years.
Mr. Cote was perhaps tasked with the most dangerous job in all the school system— watching out for 15 teenaged boys surrounded by power tools, chops saws, drills, routers, and the scariest of all, the table saw (a woodshop tool notorious for taking off fingers).
Aside from woodshop, he managed to teach us about life, how to think big about who we are and what we would could accomplish. He taught us that we didn’t have to follow the beaten path and that just because everyone else was pursuing one thing or another, it didn’t mean we had to follow suit.
Mr. Cote was a man of great stature, both physically and in terms of his character. At around 6’4 with a muscular build, he always stood tall with his shoulders back and had a deep, commanding voice. We all, quite literally, looked up to him, but in every sense of the term. He was also a confident man who, even in the worst of times, never wavered (or at least never let it show).
Perhaps one thing that stood out to me is that he never raised his voice, and never lashed out at anyone for misbehaving. Rather, he had an incredible patience for all of us. Instead of reprimanding us as teachers might traditionally do, he would just be disappointed with us, which, trust me, was way worse! Bear in mind, this was an all-boys woodshop class, which sometimes (often) contained the most misbehaved among the whole grade. There were fights, arguments, and countless other stupid things that teenaged boys often do, but somehow he managed to keep us all in line.
Aside from teaching his love of woodworking, Mr. Cote had several other businesses. In the summer he had a company that would do household repairs or contracting. He also made fine custom furniture. He would sometimes work on the pieces right in the wood shop class, and many times the class would gather around him as he carved intricate edges, angles, and routing with perfect mastery. We were amazing by it, or at least I know I was; it wasn’t just woodworking, it was art. I was fascinated, and he showed all of us that his one passion for woodworking could be so much more than just being a carpenter or handyman. One passion could lend itself to multiple businesses, providing multiples streams of income. He was also using his passion to connect with the youth, sharing his passion with us and using it as a tool to inspire us to pursue passions of our own.
Most teenagers are pretty clueless about the world, or at least I was. At that age, it’s tough to comprehend all the possibilities that are out there. It doesn’t help that when you are in high school, all anyone talks about is going to college so you can then get a job that typically fits into a larger societal expectation. No one really tells you that there are so much more possibilities out there, but this is without a doubt the greatest thing that Mr. Cote taught all of us that attended his class. Like any old piece of wood, we could make our lives into we wanted.
Though he may not have called himself one, Mr. Cote truly was an entrepreneur and it was a life skill he instilled in many of his students. The truth was, many kids in woodshop likely weren’t going to make it to college; looking back I know he was well aware of this. Over the four years in high school I spent in his classes, there were maybe 10-15 times that Mr. Cote would stop class, gather us all in a circle and lecture us about life, about what we were all capable of, about finding something we were passionate about, and how we could use that passion to create our life for ourselves rather than fulfill someones else’s expectation. He was a modern day Socrates, sparking something bigger in our minds during a time when we often feel the most small. I have never forgotten those times in class, and they without a doubt changed who I was and who I’ve become. He taught me to think differently when every guidance counselor, teacher, and parent all told us there was only one path. Because of Mr. Cote, I was inspired at arguably the most impressionable ages, and he was a piece of the puzzle that made me who I am today.
He taught us that we could challenge the status quo and, looking back, I can remember that he accomplished the seemingly impossible— he inspired a large group of rowdy boys to be better, not for anyone else but for themselves, all while trying to navigate through that weird and uncertain time that is adolescence.
I dabbled in the beaten path throughout my 20s, as anyone does. I went to college and tried to get a “normal” job, but was ultimately dissatisfied and decided to chase down a passion and make it my art, no matter what others had to say about it. I have now made a business out of it, and try my best to pay his lessons forward to others. He inspired me to think differently at a very young age and the seed he planted back then has since sprouted and changed my life for better.
Still working at Hammonton High School, though now as a guidance counselor and appropriately so, Mr. Cote transformed his students lives and saw potential in them that no one else did, and as I grow up (spoiler alert: we never stop growing up) I hope to be able to do the same for others.
Know a teacher you love? Tell them about our education discount!