By CRISTINA JANNEY
Thomas More Prep-Marian teacher Joe Hertel wants to mold his students to be responsible young men and women who will fight for what is right.
As an English teacher and avid lover of the American classics, he looks to heroes such as Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to show students examples of integrity.
Hertel, a teacher for 33 years at TMP, has been named the Hays Post Teacher of the Month for February. Hertel teaches English and coaches boy’s basketball at TMP.
In his many years of teaching, Hertel, 60, said he has come to love novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and American novelists such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. It is harder each year to entice students to read because of all the digital distractions, he said, and joked that, for his students, anything out of their lifetime does not exist.
On and off the court, Hertel said he hopes to build character in his students, and those classical American literary heroes are good role models.
“All of Steinbeck’s works are about the people on the bottom of the totem pole socioeconomically. In a way, I treat Steinbeck’s novels almost like a religion lesson,” he said, “because I think that is what we are called to do as Christians — as middle class or above Christians — to look out for those who don’t have anything. And that is what every Steinbeck book is about is people helping people. I think that is consistent with our TMP mission.”
Hertel’s students read “Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, and he related why he admires Hemingway’s characters.
“Ernest Hemingway, I really like him because all of his works, all of his novels, are about the testing and retesting of a man’s character— because I like sports so much, and I want my players to understand that competitive sports are like life. That’s Hemingway.”
Although his students aren’t assigned to read Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or “A Farewell to Arms,” he noted those novels are also about character.
“Those are about people who are tough mentally, emotionally,” he said. “On the symbolic thing, they are tough physically too, but that is not the point. The point is, how tough are you in your mind and in your heart?”
He said the literature relates back to what he loves about coaching.
“What I love about coaching is taking some immature, adolescent boys and through competition, discipline, teamwork and commitment, molding them into good, decent, Catholic, Christian men by the time they graduate from high school,” he said.
Some are better success stories than others; it is no guarantee. However, he said he has given it his all and encourages his players and students to do the same.
“I don’t care if we end up with more points on the scoreboard than the other team,” he said. “What I care about is that we took our inner being and character and laid it out there. The old cliche — give ‘er all up for the group.”
Coaching was what really drew Hertel into teaching. He played three sports in college and knew he didn’t want to sever his connection with athletics when he was done with college. He came from a family in which six of the nine children were teachers. It just seemed natural to follow suit.
Hertel received dual degrees in English and physical education from St. Mary of the Plains College of Dodge City and eventually a master’s degree in counseling from Fort Hays State University.
Although he has a love of literature, Hertel said he feels his primary responsibility as an English teacher is to prepare his students to be able to write in college or for whatever profession they choose.
“As much as I like American classics, my top priority as a teacher of the language is that kids exit my class as competent writers,” he said.
He did not attend parochial school as a youth, but a contact at his Catholic college helped him land an interview with Bishop Miege High School in the Kansas City area. He taught at Bishop Miege for five years before coming to TMP. His family was looking to come back to western Kansas when the job at TMP became available. Hertel grew up on a farm in Burdett, Kansas.
Hertel said his Catholic faith has been a large part of both his family and professional life. Both of his children graduated from TMP, and he tries to pass on the Catholic faith to his students.
“(Catholicism) has been huge on both sides of the family,” he said. “It is traditional and engrained. My wife and our kids and extended family were meant to be Catholic, and we are very proud of that.”
He said he feels very fortunate to have been able to teach at TMP.
“I got to work with some really good kids in basketball, and we got to win quite a few games,” he said. “And lastly, I got to meet thousands of young people — not any two of them alike. Some with struggles and some with the-sky’s-the-limit abilities, and I got to have a little bit of a hand in their development.”