As a Howard County educator for nearly three decades, Charlie Shoemaker, 58, says his passion for learning paved a way to connect with his students on a deeper level, particularly with those who needed some extra guidance. The Columbia resident spent 27 of his 28-year teaching career at Wilde Lake High School, where he established the alternative learning program for struggling students.
As he retires this month, Shoemaker said he will conclude his journey, leaving behind a bridge to success that he helped create for all students.
"I was not the best high school student," Shoemaker said. "Like anybody, there were decisions that I wish I could go back and change; however, what I think that gave me was empathy and patience."
Following his five-year service with the U.S. Marine Corps, Shoemaker went to what is now Towson University, where he received an undergraduate degree in jazz composition and economics in 1986. He never anticipated a teaching career, he said, but found an interest in working with children in 1988 while working at Cooksville Academy, a residential facility for adjudicated youth.
Cooksville Academy staff were teachers at Wilde Lake High School, he said, working different shifts throughout the day. Shoemaker was also substituting in Howard County public schools and decided to become certified as a social studies teacher, receiving a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Loyola College around 1990.
There were about nine kids in his class at the academy, Shoemaker said, ranging in age from 14 to 17.
"I think I just had a general knack in connecting with the kids," he said. "Sometimes, there are a lot of time constraints, so if we were working on something and the kids were very engaged, we would keep working on that subject."
In 1990, Shoemaker left the academy to teach history at Wilde Lake High School, where he started an alternative learning program a year later. Shoemaker then stopped teaching history to focus on the alternative learning program.
Only a couple of similar programs existed in the county school system, he said, so Shoemaker used their programs as a model for his own.
The new teacher attributed his flexible schedule to the program's success, which enabled him to pull struggling students out of class for some one-on-one sessions to review subjects. Although certified in social studies and economics, Shoemaker said he taught himself other subjects, like mathematics and science, where students had difficulties.
"I kept a log on each student and would write down their progress," he said. "The key then, as it is now, was collaborating with the staff and parents to make sure that everybody is on the same page as far as working with those students and helping them meet success."
Individualizing his approach to each student played a large role in his day-to-day instruction, he added.
"You have to relate to the students as people and talk to them about something outside the discipline that you're working with them in," Shoemaker said. "There's never a one-size-fits-all approach. One thing I told them all the time was that I care about them as people first, a student second and athlete third."
In addition to his work in the classroom, Shoemaker got to know his students through coaching 66 consecutive seasons of cross-country, outdoor and indoor track – three seasons a year for 22 years – as well as music courses, like the electronic music program.
An avid runner, coaching the school's teams was a spur-of-the-moment decision for Shoemaker, but grabbed his interested when a cross-country student needed some guidance and he accompained the student to a meet.
By 1996, both the boys and newly-formed girls teams won several cross-country championships.
Working alongside Shoemaker for the last 17 years was a blessing, said Wilde Lake English teacher Mary Kenney. Known to his students as "Shoe," Kenney recalled hearing students chant his nickname at high school graduation ceremonies after his introduction to the graduating class.
"The entire school would yell, 'Shoe!'" Kenney said. "I was taken aback the first time until I realized the kids loved him. He had your back."
Kenney said she saw Shoemaker's willingness to help any student in and outside the classroom and during parent and staff meetings. Some students had bigger concerns than school, she said, but Shoemaker's motto was to "keep them here."
"I wasn't really sure what he meant, but he believed that by keeping them in school, eventually, that light would go on and that puzzle piece would fall into place."
James LeMon, who has been principal of Wilde Lake High since 2011, said Shoemaker has "impacted thousands of kids' lives" throughout his career. LeMon has worked in the county school system since 2000, previously working as a licensed social worker.
When working with students in the alternative learning program, LeMon said, teachers must focus on each student's academics, attendance and challenges, whether behaviorally or emotionally. LeMon said Shoemaker has succeeded in doing this.
"With any student, but definitely with students in the alternative program, you want to make sure that you develop very strong relationships with them," LeMon said. "Sometimes, that can be challenging, but he has done a really masterful job of reaching out to some of our most challenging students. Having the right people working with our kids, who have these challenges in school or out of school, you want to make sure you try to engage them and empower them to do their best."
Although unsure of what he'll do during his retirement, Shoemaker said he was happy to make a difference in the lives of his students. He said his success would not have been possible without the guidance of his wife, Sharon, and two daughters, Adrianna and Laura.
"There are some students who are beyond your scope, and you have to help them get to a place where they're going to be successful," Shoemaker said. "I'm almost on the verge of being idealistic, but that's how I choose to live my life. I always believed that kids can achieve. With proper instruction and time, there's nothing they can't do."