“Kids need someone they trust, someone who they know is looking out for them. And for so many kids, he’s that person. He’s the reason they want to come to school.”
Principal Donnie Hopper
John Ball, who teaches U.S. History at Oasis Middle School, is terrific at lip-synching.
At a recent Halloween show that the faculty put on for their students, Ball danced around the gym floor, waving to his fans and lip-synching the words to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way,” while his fans, a crowd of grinning middle schoolers, jumped up and down, shouting along and waving homemade signs: “You go Mr. Ball!”, “Sing it, Mr. B.,” and “We love Mr. Ball!”
Of course, Ball’s dance moves and lip-synching chops are not the reason thirty-eight—yes, thirty-eight—of Ball’s Lee County, Florida, students nominated him for the Honored National Teaching Award. In testimonial after testimonial, Ball’s students describe a teacher who not only makes learning about U.S. history fun, but who cares about them as people. This means he’s always checking in with them. He gets even the most reluctant students talking. He goes out of his way, even under the toughest of circumstances, like the pandemic, to make sure each of his students is doing okay.
In the words of Oasis Principal Donnie Hopper, “His connection to the kids is number one.” Whether he’s on stage making them laugh, sending them a quick email to check in, or organizing a community park clean-up, Hopper says, he’s always got his students’ best interests at heart.
Hopper would know. He and Ball worked together earlier in their careers, and when Hopper became principal of Oasis Middle School in 2016, he immediately thought of Ball. He reached out to see if Ball would join him at Oasis and was delighted when Ball said yes.
“Kids need somebody,” Hopper says, “someone they trust, someone who they know is looking out for them. And for so many kids, he’s that person. He’s the reason they want to come to school.”
Ball didn’t always aspire to be a teacher, but he always appreciated them. His original teacher, he says, was his father, a history buff who loved visiting interesting, historically relevant spots around New England, where the Ball family lived. At the time, Ball didn’t always embrace his dad’s itineraries. He wanted to go to Disney, like his friends’ families, instead of Colonial Williamsburg, Mystic, Connecticut, and Jamestown, Virginia—some of the spots the Balls traveled to in the family’s RV. His father’s enthusiasm for history was contagious, though, and soon enough Ball had caught the history bug.
Then, as a fifth grader in Rhode Island, he was fortunate to have another life-altering teacher: Mrs. Robertson, for U.S. History. Not only did she cement a lifelong love of history in him, but after fifth grade, when his family moved to Florida, she knew how sad he was to leave, and had the whole class write him letters so he’d know they were thinking about him, which helped him feel less lonely in his new home. He would never forget what a difference her kindness made. “I want to do that,” he remembers thinking. He wanted to help people, even if he wasn’t sure yet what that meant.
“They just want to be heard, valued, respected—we all do.”
He stayed in touch with Mrs. Robertson. When he graduated from high school, bound for the University of Florida, she bought a plane ticket and showed up at his graduation with a Florida Gators t-shirt and a Cross pen, which meant “the world” to him.
He started at the University of Florida as a pharmacology major but eventually decided he wanted to be a teacher. He’s been at it for twenty-three years now and hasn’t looked back. This is great news for his students, many of whom describe Ball as “the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
What distinguishes Ball, perhaps more than anything, is the genuine interest he takes in his students. He sees each one as a whole person, every day, and prioritizes making personal connections with them. He is tireless in reaching out to check in with them, either as a group or individually, in person, by email, text, phone—whatever it takes.
This was far easier before the pandemic, when he could get to know his students face-to-face. Back then, his classroom was something of a haven, a place where harried middle schoolers could let down their guard.
“My classroom is a safe zone,” Ball says. “I’m accepting of all.”
Every few weeks, for example, on Friday afternoons, he’d ask the class to “circle up.” He’d dim the lights, put a YouTube campfire on the computer screen, and while it crackled away, the students would pass around a “speaking ball,” taking turns talking about how they were doing. Some of the “campfires” were lighthearted, while others were deeply personal.
“They just want to be heard, valued, respected—we all do,” Ball says.
“Once you have trust, you have relationships. The learning will follow.”
The whole class swore to keep their Friday conversations confidential—they trusted Ball, and as an extension of that, they trusted each other. Teaching successfully, in Ball’s view, is all about building this kind of trust. “Once you have trust,” he says, explaining his teaching philosophy, “you have relationships. The learning will follow.”
His students bear this out. They describe working hard for him, and never wanting to let him down. They talk about how he gives them repeated chances to succeed, and how he makes learning fun, posting “cool” facts and photos to his Twitter account—kids eating ice cream from newly invented cones in 1904, or FDR building a model ship. A couple of years ago, thinking his students needed a little extra inspiration, he started “Motivational Mondays,” “Wisdom Wednesdays,” and more recently, “Thankful Thursdays”—posting quotes like, “Some people want it to happen, others wish it would happen, others make it happen,” from Michael Jordan, and, “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are,” from Fred Rogers, to Google Classroom and Twitter.
And he never, ever, stops checking in.
This got a lot harder last year, when Oasis Middle School teachers took on the Herculean task of teaching remotely and in person, simultaneously. This was something they’d never done—no one had—and it was extremely challenging, especially at first. One of the hardest aspects of the situation was that Ball had never even met some of the students he was teaching—a real blow to someone who thrives on personal connection. He describes himself as “a guy without a playbook.”
Somehow, though, he managed—“juggling it all masterfully,” according to Principle Hopper. In the words of one of Ball’s students, “He was one of my only support systems at school, and I will be forever grateful.” She was really struggling, so Ball handed heart-shaped pieces of paper out to the class, and they all wrote her encouraging letters. “I will always keep those and remember that.” She goes on to describe how Ball gave her two special bracelets, one to wear and one to give to a friend, and how much that small reminder that he cared about her helped. Another student recounts how he called her mother’s cell phone and left a message, saying how proud he was of her daughter’s hard work. Yet another student says, simply, “In his classroom, [Ball] makes the sadness go away.”
“My classroom is a safe zone. I’m accepting of all.”
Ball’s big heart and generous spirit extend beyond the walls of Oasis Middle School and into the community, too. Last year, during the lockdown, he would drive by a nursing home every day, and think about how hard it must be for the residents. So he rallied his troops—Oasis Middle School students and their families—raising funds to buy wish-list items (Sudoku books, stuffed animals, picture frames) for fifty residents to lift their spirits and help them through. Since he sees his students as whole people, he believes it’s important for them to care about their community, including but not limited to their school, and he has also organized park clean-ups, a fundraiser for the American Cancer society, and currently, letter-writing to the elderly.
He is energetic and upbeat, and his positive attitude and sense of humor can make what he does look easy. It’s not. Some days are hard, he admits, particularly during the pandemic. He calls 2020-21 the most difficult year of his teaching career. What kept him going? His students. A kind word or email or note could turn his whole day around. He treasures those. He keeps every email and letter he’s ever received (and certainly there are many, after twenty-three years) in a box, and when he’s having a tough day, or feeling discouraged, he’ll take the box out and read.
Ball also credits his school with helping him persevere. The support he receives from his principal, the administration, and the greater Oasis Middle School community, including the parents, is “huge,” he says. “They’re amazing. There’s no better place I could be.”
Ball loves what he does, and hopes to inspire others to become teachers, too. His advice for those considering it: first and foremost, you’ve got to be passionate about your subject. If you’re not, “The kids are bright, they’re sharp, they’ll know.” But if you are passionate, he says, and you work hard to earn their trust, they’ll work hard for you in return. Patience is essential, too. “It takes time. The first years can be hard. But it’s worth it.” And his last bit of wisdom? “Keep a sense of humor, always. A sense of humor is key.”
Ball lost his own his first, great teacher—his father—to cancer three years ago, but he still thinks about him, and everything he learned from him, all the time. He also thinks about Mrs. Robertson, the fifth-grade teacher who inspired him so much. In fact, he says, winning the Honored award made him want to reach out, and he looked her up. She’s 84, still living in Rhode Island, and he’s planning on sending her a card to let her know, once again, what a difference she made in his life. Because, he says, “It always feels good to be appreciated.”
Photos by Brian Tietz
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