Talk with Michael Sinnott for even just a few minutes about his passion for teaching, and you’ll understand why he was named one of 16 finalists for Alabama Teacher of the Year for 2020-21. He primarily teaches AP English Language and Composition but has also taught creative writing, public speaking and tenth-grade English, and in addition to that he co-sponsors Scholars Bowl, Mock Trial Program and Youth in Government. We chatted with him about his journey from Auburn to Vestavia and what stands out from his classroom. Oh and fun fact: current Vestavia Hills Schools superintendent Dr. Todd Freeman taught Michael ninth grade history at Auburn High School.
What inspired you to become a teacher, and how did you end up at Vestavia?
I teach because of my teachers. My English teachers and band directors had a big influence on my life. I lost my father suddenly in eighth grade, and there was a void left there. Teachers can’t replace parents, but they can step in as surrogates at times. Max Jones and Davis Thompson at Auburn High School became mentors and father figures and guided me toward teaching. I got my undergrad at Auburn in English and stuck around and got my master’s in education. I taught at Auburn High School for two years, and then we moved for my fiance’s career. I was able to get a job at Vestavia, which is her old high school. I just finished my 10th year here.
What do you like most about teaching?
I love to read and talk about books. I love teaching writing and watching kids developing their own voices. If they learn to become writers, they can become self advocates. We do a big unit on David Foster Wallace’s piece about the ethics of eating lobster at the Maine Lobster Festival. I have had students write about the ethics of the Vestavia Rebel. It’s interesting to see kids asking these questions.
What other moments stand out from what you do with students each year?
Early in the year we do a reading of a commencement speech by Anna Quindlen speaking at Barnard College about the struggles she carries a s a woman and high achieving student. She uses the metaphor of a backpack of perfection. I brought two backpacks full of bricks and made them write about what is in their backpacks. I had them come up if they wanted to and put on the heavy backpack to read it and then literally put the backpack down. It was a turning point for the community of learners because they are learning to be vulnerable with one another. I also used to teach A River Runs Through It about fly fishing. After we read the book I’d have a fly fisherman come, and they’d lead them in casting lessons with a fly rod because it’s a metaphor in the book about life and family.
Can you talk some about what you do tied to the Moth Radio Hour?
Two years ago I got invited to one of their teacher cohorts in Lower Manhattan, one of the nation’s largest organizations for storytelling. Now my students learn how to tell their story and turn it into a piece of writing. That’s something that really resonates with them.
What was it like to end the school year in quarantine?
I don’t teach that many seniors, but I was able to write them a letter to give them closure. In my AP classes I give every kid a word I think they embody at the end of the year. Good writing deals with abstract ideas like truth and justice and love, but it’s expressed through the concrete like my grandfather’s calloused hands. I might tell a student they are joy or perseverance. This year I had to record a video to do it.