Teaching for the Aha Moments

Fourteen-year educator Joe Paneitz has been hooked on witnessing students’ aha moments since his days as a Boy Scout camp counselor. This year, the robotics and engineering teacher won Humble ISD’s Teacher of the Year award and spoke with ATPE about what it means to be an outstanding educator.
 
What trait(s) do great educators possess?
Easy to talk to, patient, kind, passionate, risk-takers, outside the box (innovators), helpful to other teachers, connected to the community, and a little crazy (in a good way), such as when I sent 60 of my students up in a real airplane to copilot and fly the plane when I was teaching them aerospace engineering.
 
What do you think makes a great educator?
A great teacher connects with their kids and learns who their kids are, as well as their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A great teacher helps kids find their own practical pathway to success.
 
What made you want to be an educator?
I got my first taste of education at the age of 14 as a Boy Scout camp counselor. I continued to do that even through college. I veered from education after college and was successful, but I missed teaching. I went back and got my alternative teaching certification and have been teaching ever since.
 
What is your favorite part of your job?
Seeing kids get hooked on a project or lesson they love—the aha moments.
 
What advice would you give to a new educator?
Learn all your kids’ names ASAP, take time to talk to each of them individually, really get to know them/their interests, don’t lose your cool in front of kids, and know that one size doesn’t fit all.
 
What do you wish someone had told you when you began teaching?
Balance your teacher and home life. Both have to be nurtured carefully. Take mental days off. Stacking 198 paid days off is not exactly an accomplishment. Balancing this is ALL important because the victims of your inability to do this are the kids in your home, your spouse, and the kids in your classroom. Your attitude can affect hundreds of lives. You should be having more fun than not. If not, teaching is not for you. 


What is your biggest hope for the future of Texas public schools?
I understand that testing is important to some degree, but I hope that Texas soon makes a decision to back off from STAAR because it’s overly burdensome on schools, teachers, and students. STAAR sends a message to children: “You don’t fit the mold, so you’re a failure until you fit the mold.” It takes away from innovators, out-of-the-box personalities, and those who are beyond STAAR.
 
What is the most important thing Texas educators can do for their profession?
Teach kids how to ask questions, how to question ethics/morality, understand democracy, how to guide their own learning, how to be information filters and not sponges, and that not everyone gets a participation sticker after high school.
 
What’s one thing you would change about your job if money were no object?
My classroom would be a place we only visit sometimes. Instead, my students would be learning on-site/on location. We‘d be all over the place having adventures and learning.
 
Share your favorite moment as an educator.
My favorite moment as an educator involves Jessica, who was my student around 10 years ago. She was placed in my middle school robotics class outside of her choosing. Jessica was upset with the counselor’s choice and wanted out the first day she met me. She hated engineering and the mere thought of robotics. I told Jessica that she may not have chosen robotics, but robotics chose her. I pleaded with her to give me two weeks, and if she didn’t like my class after that, we could move her. She agreed. Two weeks later, Jessica actually liked robotics. One month later, she was coming in early and staying late. Two months later, Rice University gave me an opportunity to learn robotics on their campus, and I was allowed to bring one student. I brought Jessica. She had never been in an environment like that before. After three days of learning robotics, Jessica told me wanted that experience again and to find her way back to Rice. I told her that it was possible, but that she would have to work harder than she ever imagined. In December 2015, Jessica sent me a message, saying she got accepted to Rice. Tears nearly drowned me when I read it. She graduates in 2020 from Rice with bachelor’s in computational and applied mathematics and minors in statistics and financial computation and modeling. She said that in her scholarship application, she talked about how she didn’t choose robotics, but robotics chose her. Jessica is my hero.
 
Share something fun about yourself.
I LOVE backpacking long distance. I’ve backpacked in the Appalachian for a month, was lost in the woods for more than a week in British Columbia, and the list goes on. I’ve been on more than 100 camping trips. I really enjoy being off the grid and outside. I am a licensed professional drone pilot. I enjoy taking pictures of beautiful scenes in my off time. Recently, I was a top-three finalist for the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Civilian Congressional Medal of Honor for Lifesaving Actions. I’m also a comic book hero Medal of Honor recipient in Scouting Magazine, and I have been the game designer, program instructor, and lead teacher of the All-Earth Ecobot Challenge for 10 years. 
 
Photo provided by Humble ISD.
 
 
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