The award-winning Shaker Heights High School student news organization

The Shakerite

The award-winning Shaker Heights High School student news organization

The Shakerite

The award-winning Shaker Heights High School student news organization

The Shakerite

Inspired and Inspiring

Long-term substitute teacher Spencer Sowards uplifts students
Olivia Cavallo
Michael Better, a junior, and freshman Natalie Better enjoy a conversation with substitute teacher Spencer Sowards near the high school main entrance May 29. Natalie said Sowards often asks her about her sport, figure skating.

Ask any Shaker Heights High School student if they’ve heard of substitute teacher Spencer Sowards, and chances are, they’ll have something positive to say.

Sowards is a long-term substitute who’s been filling in for absent SHHS teachers since October 2022. “My favorite part has been the ability to connect with students,” Sowards said. He said he focuses on building authentic relationships with students and emphasizes the importance of remembering their names.

Sowards said that he relates to students who don’t fit into the school system academically or socially. He sees himself in them, he said, because a teacher demeaned him when he was in middle school. “It made me feel so insignificant, and from that point on, I thought I was stupid,” he said. “I allowed myself to be told who I was by many people.”

Sowards didn’t always want to become a teacher. After becoming a Texas all-state musician in high school, he pursued a degree in vocal performance at the University of Houston and sang in the Dallas Opera. He transferred to the University of North Texas two years later because of difficulties passing music theory class.

He also planned to get married and didn’t want a musical career that required travel for most of the year. He graduated from UNT with a Bachelor of Integrative Studies in history, political science and music.

Moving on from music was hard. “When all of who you are is about one thing, that can be very traumatizing when you leave,” Sowards said. He went on to Dallas College, where history professor Jessica Mckinzie-Waldrop inspired him to become a teacher.

She said that she feels honored that Sowards credits her with his decision to study and teach history. “He very much cared about his learning, which is a rarity. So many students are focused on just getting A’s,” said Mckinzie-Waldrop. “On campus, he befriended everybody that he met.”

Sowards taught AP Human Geography and U.S. History in Texas for two years before coming to Shaker Heights. He said he relocated because of the region’s lower cost of living and proximity to family members who reside in the area.

This district stands out from others because of students’ and teachers’ ability to have difficult conversations, Sowards said. “That type of culture isn’t just created overnight. Shaker has a history of working towards having harder conversations,” he said.

Sowards said the tenure of teachers and diversity of the student body distinguish Shaker, and that in his previous teaching jobs, communication between teachers and administration was weaker. “I know every student doesn’t feel like they’re listened to,” Sowards said. But in Shaker, “students being listened to is a lot more prevalent than I’ve experienced at other places,” he said.

Substitute teachers play a special role in building relationships with students because their schedules aren’t packed with grading assignments and creating lesson plans, Sowards said. “As a sub, you get to really connect with every student in the school,” he said.

Spencer Sowards (Alyson Garfield)

“I feel extremely loved, appreciated and respected most all of the time,” he said.

Sowards has gained a similar reputation among district students. Sophomore Abby Hahnenburg said that he substituted in her Spanish 3 and Language and Literature classes. “I think he’s a really kind person who cares a lot about what he’s teaching. Even if he’s just a substitute for a class, he tries to understand the topic,” Hahnenburg said. “He’s more involved than other substitutes.”

Sophomore Luke Coleman said that when Sowards substituted for his American history class, he gave them an engaging lesson about the aftermath of World War II. “We really learned a lot that day,” Coleman said.

In addition to being an engaging teacher, Sowards shows interest in his students’ lives. Freshman Natalie Better said that he regularly asks her about her sport, figure skating. “I told him a story at the beginning of the year that’s kind of personal, and he’s always checking in on me. He can tell if I’m down,” Better said.

Last year, Sowards brought one of his classes homemade snickerdoodles, which launched an ongoing tradition of baking for students at least once a quarter. “School can be daunting sometimes. Sometimes a little cookie is nice,” Sowards said.

Sowards also stands out by using his musical skill in lessons. “If you have him as a sub, he just sings for you,” junior Sofia Lopresti said. “Everybody looks through the glass of the door when he starts singing.”

Sowards is currently a long-term substitute in the Social Studies department. He teaches AP Government and Criminology. He said that he’s especially excited about Criminology because it’s a subject he hasn’t taught before.

Administrative assistant Tiara Gregg, who coordinates substitute coverage at the high school, said that Sowards stands out because of his reliability. “We know if we run into a jam, and he’s got a free period, he’s more than willing to pick up a class,” Gregg said.

“He always came in with positive energy,” Foreign Language Department Chairwoman Kimberly Ponce De Leon said. “He goes above and beyond to make sure that students are learning.”

Sowards says that the current generation of high schoolers are empathetic, which gives him hope for the future. He said, “Your generation is passionate about a lot of things, and if focused in the right direction, can be one of the most influential generations that this country has experienced.”

Comment using your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL or Hotmail account


Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

Comment above using your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL or Hotmail account. If you don't have an account with any of these websites, you can comment below with your full name and a valid email address.
All The Shakerite Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *