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Exit stage left: Steelman takes a bow

Shakespeare’s work long a focus – is an encore in the wings?

Northview — High school English teacher Sheridan ‘Sheri’ Steelman is approaching retirement in much the same way she has approached her own learning: as a lifelong, seemingly limitless opportunity.

She says her 50th year at the head of a classroom – all of which have been at Northview – is going very quickly, but that it has been her most challenging.

Dr. Sheridan Steelman Retirement Open House
Noon-3 p.m. Saturday, May 14
Northview High School cafeteria
4451 Hunsberger Ave. NE

“Students are still trying to find their place in high school and figure out who they are going to be, now that they are here full time (after three school years of pandemic pivoting),” she says.

She’s grateful for the tight-knit relationship she shares with the school’s three other English teachers, which has made that pivoting easier to endure, but admits “all of us just feel this overwhelming sense of fatigue.”

Freshman Jalese Rosado gets help from Sheri Steelman with an exercise meant to get pre-AP lit students thinking about how novels begin

And she also admits her outside-school activities might have something to do with it.

The final revisions of a book manuscript she has written over the past few years – classroom stories about teaching Shakespeare – were due May 1.

“Then it will be out in November,” she muses, “and the National Council of Teachers of English’s annual conference is in November, and I’ll be able to promo it there.” 

So she’s hardly retiring retiring.

“So many people have asked me ‘What’s next?’ and sometimes I feel I should know that. I should have an answer.” 

But someone she is still close with, retired Northview Superintendent Mike Paskewicz, told her to take some time. “And it just sounded so good to me to hear that,” said the mother of six and grandmother of seven.

And Yet and Still …

But then her mind is off and running again. 

“I also think ‘Oh, I’d just like to teach Shakespeare to senior citizens, that would be fun.’ And another part of me thinks I’d like to teach prospective teachers. And if I could teach a college class here, to show them ‘this is how you move about your room, this is how you create groups, this is how you do a book talk, this is how you confer with students…’” 

She trails off, but let’s be honest: Steelman is talking about retiring from teaching, after 50 years, and maybe to continue teaching.

‘I have learned so much from my students. They teach me every day, and I truly just like being around them.’

– English teacher Sheridan ‘Sheri’ Steelman

Then comes another curveball. AP lit and theater student Kayden Bravada walks into her classroom and says “Mrs. Steelman, did you know we’re doing ‘Macbeth’ next year?”

Her “Noooooooo!” response is an immediate mix of sheer elation and disappointment at the realization she won’t be on staff when the school performs its first play by the famous bard, to whom she has dedicated so much of her own career.

“I’m totally going to feel her not being (in the classroom) next door for quite a while,” said colleague Audra Whetstone, who has worked with Steelman since coming to the district 15 years ago as a new teacher and calls her “the steel to my stone.” 

“Her knowledge and experience over teaching for 50 years is incredible. She has seen all the changes in just one place, and adapts so well to students’ needs. That will be one of the great losses to students, always willing to try new things for them

“Becoming set in your ways after so many years teaching, it’s just the complete opposite for Sheri,” Whetstone adds. “She is such a role model for all of us other teachers. I consider myself so fortunate to have absorbed some of that.”

AP literature student Sarah Verberg talks with Steelman about the themes and lessons in the books she has chosen to read

Master of Her Fate

Born and raised near Detroit, Steelman in high school thought she was headed toward a career as a French interpreter. She didn’t consider teaching until she was a student at Michigan State University. It was there she earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in French.

She taught the language for a few years at Northview High before she became a reading consultant and eventually took up English classes while earning a master’s degree in literacy.

Shakespeare became a passion while she was taking classes “just for fun” at Grand Valley State University, she recalled. One was poetry, which she found she enjoyed. So she took another, and another.

Steelman was recognized in 2012 as an outstanding educator by the University of Chicago. The nomination came from a former student

Eventually, “I thought, ‘I should just get another degree or something,’” Steelman recalled, and found out she only had a few classes left to a second master’s degree, this one in English literature. One of those classes was Shakespeare. 

“I read ‘Hamlet,’ and it was the part where Ophelia gave away all these plants … and I thought, ‘What is this?’ And I dove headfirst into Renaissance plants. That was what got me into it.”

At Northview she has taught Shakespeare using primary documents – such as marriage records and royal proclamations – for years: “Macbeth” in AP lit, “Romeo and Juliet” to all freshmen, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to middle-schoolers at Crossroads, and “Hamlet” to juniors.

In true Steelman form, she wondered early in the coronavirus school building shutdowns, “Who cares about that (Shakespeare) stuff, during a pandemic?” 

Turned out she did, and was inspired to add chapters to her book-in-progress that made his plays even more relevant to modern day, considering that Shakespeare himself was inspired by a plague, and that racial issues that have taken center stage for many in the past couple years can be related to “Othello.” 

She also turned to Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” lesser known works such as “Measure for Measure,” which she said “is the #metoo movement.” Domestic violence. Ethnic stereotyping. 

She tweaked her lessons yet again. 

“The only question I had (for students) was, ‘Is Shakespeare relevant today?’ That’s the only thing I wanted them to answer.” 

Parting: Such Sweet Sorrow

Steelman earned a Ph.D. degree in English literature and language in 2017 from Western Michigan University. Pursuing that degree was a nearly 20-year process, fitting in weeknight classes at WMU and writing over weekends while teaching at Northview.

It was her love of teaching Shakespeare that led her to write her doctoral dissertation on a new way to do just that – and to write a book to help fellow teachers.

Her goal all along has not been to create readers, necessarily, or playwrights or poets, or even teachers.

“It’s been to instill that love of lifelong learning,” she said. “I have learned so much from my students. They teach me every day, and I truly just like being around them. I think it keeps you fresh. Every year has been different and new for me because of them.”

Principal Mark Thomas called Steelman’s unceasing energy and passion for her job “a sign of a vibrant professional. I have never seen someone more dedicated to the craft of education.

“For someone of her experience to constantly be looking at how she can innovate and adapt her teaching methods to the kids, and not the other way around, has been amazing,” Thomas said. “I just truly admire her.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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