Getting to the Top

December 27, 2017

How does a guy like me get to be named one of the top 50 teachers in the world out of 30,000 applications? I have been asking myself since I was honored by the Global Teacher Prize.

It all starts with my wife and a suspended student. Nancy and I were married less than a year. She was teaching. I was going to castings for commercials and movies. She informed me it was fun seeing me on TV, “but, there’s no money. My parents and I think you would make a good teacher.” Luckily, her father was an administrator at historic Miami High and they needed an athletic trainer. I interviewed and was hired.

Day one was a Thursday. I would be taking over the next day and was told as the athletic trainer, I had a reduced schedule which meant teaching four classes then reporting to the training room. I was excited. We had a football game that night. I realized later that getting home from the game at midnight and having to be back in the classroom at 7:15 the next morning was not what I was used to. That was 33 years ago. I’m used to it now.

1n 1987 Miami High opened a television program. A colleague led classes the first year. After that, my principal decided, since I had experience, I would be a good choice for the program. That was 1988 and I’m still here.

For 16 years I taught TV and then headed to the training room working with 15 sports. Our focus, however, was on boys’ basketball. We were winning, and winning big. State championship after championship. I worked in sweaty locker rooms listening to coaches tell kids they were champions; in fact, everyone in the room was a champion. I began to believe, and I still do. Over the years we have won 12 state championships in boys’ basketball and three for the ladies.

I did notice, however, my efforts with my student trainers were not paying off as much as with my TV students. Maybe it was time to head to the classroom full time, which I did.

At the same time, I began writing grants and was able to form an Academy for Television Production. Our program grew, going from one-camera to three. Our daily, live newscast expanded from five minutes to ten. We began working with community members needing video production which helped my students get “Real Experience for Real Careers” to help them in college and with industry jobs.

A major turning point came when I was granted National Board Certification. The process helped me become a better teacher. That was also the year I had a student suspended from my program (and from Miami High). She swore she would be back and would leave notes of her progress at her alternative school. Eventually, she was let back in, but only if I would accept her back into my program. This young lady, much to my surprise, nominated me for the Disney American Teacher Award and I was named a Disney Honoree in 2004 with 39 educators from across the country. It was life changing. The Honorees even picked me to be the lead author for our book, Today I Made a Difference. At the same time, I was battling Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and going through chemotherapy. Luckily, that was successful. From there, good things just kept happening because I believe in my students and they believe in me. This year, in addition to the Global Teacher Top 50, I was also named an NEA Foundation Global Fellow and will be going to South Africa. We are focusing now on global competency in my classes.

I guess the real reason I have been recognized by the Global Teacher Prize is that I have never given up. I was told I am a champion and I tell my students there is a champion inside them; we just have to find out what kind of champion they are. Being recognized late in my career also validates the fact that I am continually trying to energize my students to be the best they can be.

Joe Underwood, NBCT

Dr. Joe Underwood teaches television production at Miami High School in Miami, Florida where he has been teaching since 1985. Dr. Underwood served as the school’s Head Certified Athletic Trainer for 16 years while teaching before heading into the classroom full time in 2001. He has taken his program and his students to new heights by expanding the television production facilities and providing “Real Experience for Real Careers” for his students by working with community members in need of video production services. Dr. Underwood’s students have worked on projects ranging from Safe Boating messages for the United States Coast Guard, a training video for college football officials in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and many projects with South Florida law enforcement agencies. Dr. Underwood has proudly earned 12 state championship rings in basketball serving in several capacities with the school’s basketball programs. Dr. Underwood became Nationally Certified in 2003. He is a member of the Athletic Trainers’ Association of Florida Hall of Fame, the National Teachers Hall of Fame, and has received numerous awards for his teaching including being named a Disney American Teacher Honoree, USA Today All-Star Teacher, Toyota International Teacher Ambassador to the Galapagos Islands, Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Ambassador (Japan), 2010 Florida Education Association Teacher of Excellence, 2011 Pearson Global Fellow (China), and most recently Dr. Underwood was named a 2018 NEA Foundation Global Fellow (South Africa) and a 2018 Top 50 Finalist in the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.