Shawn Sheehan: Head of the Class
Photos by Shannon Cornman
The morning I met Shawn Sheehan, he had just finished reading an article an his phone about whether it’s a good time to be a teacher. I asked the Norman public schools 2015 teacher of the year, “Well? Is it?”
“Of course it is,” Sheehan insisted. “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
If I’d met Sheehan in 2009, when he first arrived in Oklahoma, he might have given a different response to the same question; he had a journalism and public relations degree from Arizona State University and no job to go with it. At least that’s what he thought at the time. The right job had been there all along.
Congratulations on becoming Norman Public Schools Teacher of the Year! Does this make you a finalist for the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year?
Thank you! Yes, I am one of 12 finalists.
What led you into the teaching profession?
I really just happened into it. I was a military brat, and I always thought I’d go into the Air Force after college, but I had a medical issue that prevented me from doing what I’d always thought I’d do. I got my degree in journalism and public relations from Arizona State, and when I came to Norman in 2009, I didn’t have a job yet, so I thought I’d like to substitute teach for a while.
And you were a hit!
One principal told me he thought I was really doing some great things in the classes where I substituted and he encouraged me to be a teacher. By then, I’d also been a job coach for adults with learning differences and I thought, “Why not get on the front end of that and make a difference?” So I received a master’s degree in special education from OU.
I’m not crazy about the term “special education.”
Neither am I. In fact, I call it “specialized education.” Part of what we try to accomplish through a campaign I started called “Teach Like Me” is to remove the stigma that comes with labels and change perceptions about different students’ learning styles. It may still be called “special education,” but it’s very different than it was 20 – or even 10 – years ago. My students are still successful athletes, still cheerleaders and they still succeed in college; they just have bigger hurdles to overcome in the classroom.
Teaching comes with a few hurdles of its own.
It does – and I’m equally passionate about redefining the public perception of teaching. As a profession, it has a negative image, so why do people continue to choose a teaching career?
Your PR degree is starting to show. What are some tangible measures of success through the Teach Like Me campaign?
An increase in finding quality teachers and in retaining quality teachers would be great measures of success.
What do you think prepared you most for the classroom?
I was a server in a restaurant when I was younger – I learned how to deal with chaos and meet the needs of several demanding people at once. It was a great prep for teaching.
Who is your real-life hero?
My mom. I was the youngest of eight kids, and my mom did so much for us.
What lessons did your parents teach by example?
Attention to detail. Compassion. The importance of volunteering.
What do you hope people will never assume about you?
That teaching came naturally.
That’s going to surprise a lot of people, coming from the NPS Teacher of the Year.
I’d say the patience and compassion came naturally, but managing the constant work doesn’t. Luckily, I’ve had several excellent mentors at Norman High School.
What is a risk worth taking?
Devoting yourself entirely to something you believe in.
What do you value most in your friends?
Positivity. I think it’s so important to surround yourself with positive people.
Shawn Sheehan sounds Irish. But somehow …
Yeah, I was adopted from the Philippines into an Irish-American family when I was 4 days old.
Do you feel strongly about adoption?
I feel very strongly about it – I plan to adopt children one day.
Where do you see the Teach Like Me campaign a year, and five years, from now?
I hope we’ll secure more teacher discounts with retailers within a year. Within five years, I plan to have an app developed as a resource for teachers.
What are you most grateful for?
My parents who adopted me, which gave me the incredible opportunity to live in this country and to be surrounded by so many good people.
Created in 2013, the Teach Like Me Campaign (teachlikeme.org) is Sheehan’s undertaking but a true group effort, giving teachers a forum to share their triumphs and draw inspiration from each other; reminding the public how challenging and rewarding the profession can be and encouraging businesses who offer discounts for educators. As social campaigns go, it gets a gold star.