By Martie Thompson
Jim Schmitt, Duval County’s Teacher of the Year for 2021, said he always knew he would end up being an educator. He named his mother (not a teacher herself) as a main influencer for him — and in fact all four of his brothers also ended up in education. A native of Farmingdale, Long Island, Schmitt earned a degree in history from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He then spent five years in the Navy and ended up stationed at Mayport. When he left the service, he landed at Northwestern Middle School where he taught math before teaching his first love, history. He was named Northwestern’s Teacher of the Year before moving on to Paxon School for Advanced Studies where he taught AP US History and honors economics. It was after five years at Paxon that he took a position at Mandarin High School teaching AP Government and AP US History. He took a brief sojourn into the world of administration and served as assistant principal at Mandarin High School and Raines High School before coming back to Mandarin High School again as a teacher in the AICE program, where he now teaches AICE US History and AICE Global Perspectives. Schmitt’s wife, Debbie, herself a retired principal, also teaches at Mandarin as does his step daughter — making teaching quite the family business.
Q: What was it about your mom that influenced you to become an educator?
A: There was something special about her. She would always take my brothers and me to museums and she and I would spend hours looking at exhibits and reading everything. Meanwhile, my brothers and my father would race through. She also had a great fondness for Norman Rockwell paintings from “The Saturday Evening Post.” Two in particular resonated with me — the one with Ruby Bridges going to school and “New Kids in the Neighborhood.” We would spend lots of time talking about them.
Q: What would you say is your teaching philosophy?
A: I remember something my 10th grade humanities teacher, Mrs. Hartford, would always say when we learned something new: “But, do you appreciate it?” It’s important to know what led to an event and what follows from it. We need to look at history through a variety of lenses, not just our own. It’s important to find empathy.
Q: What do you think is important about coaching students?
A: I have coached baseball and track/cross country in the schools where I have taught. I like working with kids for multiple years, helping them find their voice and to grow. It’s part of the reason I came back to the classroom from administration. I started realizing that I wanted a closer connection with the kids. The direct contact I get from coaching and teaching really matters to me.
Q: How did you find out that you were Mandarin High School’s Teacher of the Year?
A: I was in the middle of teaching my class. Everyone who knows me knows not to mess with my teaching minutes, but one day, in walked my principal with balloons to let me know I had been selected by my colleagues to be the school’s Teacher of the Year — which is such an honor. My students really embraced it and that’s what makes it even more special for me. Still, after we celebrated this news, I said something like, “We still have 10 minutes left in class!”
Q: What were the next steps in becoming the Duval County Teacher of the Year?
A: I was named one of 15 semi-finalists and then one of five finalists, all via Zoom this year. The five finalists all had to be interviewed, record themselves teaching in their classrooms (in lieu of a visit by the selection committee) and have our resumes evaluated before we went to the socially distanced EDDY Celebration in late January, where I was named Teacher of the Year. All of the finalists were such great candidates. I don’t really like being in the spotlight, but I realized that I needed to take on a role like an ambassador for my school and I do this willingly in gratitude. My career has been a wonderful path. I think I landed in the right place.
Photo courtesy Jim Schmitt
Jim Schmitt at the 2021 EDDY Award Ceremony.