‘Blessed and lucky guy’ honored for excellence

A photo of Matt HamiltonMEA member Matt Hamilton believes his willingness to take risks spurs great teaching, so the fact it also generates occasional failures doesn’t stop him. “I’m just a regular teacher who’s trying new things, so it’s not perfect every day by any means,” he says.

It was a leap of faith 16 years ago – just five years into his middle school teaching career at East Jordan Public Schools in Charlevoix County – which led to Hamilton’s signature achievement among many remarkable accomplishments over the past two decades: a program called Shoe Club.

In addition to teaching world history, video production and yearbook, Hamilton created and runs the voluntary program for middle school members and high school mentors to learn empathy, life skills and leadership; plan and carry out community service efforts; and be inspired to dream.

Members of Shoe Club have completed many projects over the years, but when COVID hit in 2020 and things got weird, Hamilton went big. Amid the challenges of the pandemic’s first year, members of the club completed the largest student-led project in East Jordan schools’ history.

They raised $70,000 to install a 30 kW solar array on the middle-high school’s roof – and didn’t stop there. In the few years since, two more enormous projects followed in its wake.

“I can only describe these projects as magical from start to finish,” he said. “It starts with an idea, and then we make a plan, and then we execute that plan. The kids are amazing, this community is amazing, my administration and colleagues are amazing, and my family is very supportive.

“I’m telling you – I’m a blessed and lucky guy!”

For his vision and dedication to student learning and success, Hamilton received the MEA Educational Excellence Award in a ceremony at the MEA Winter Conference in March.

In addition to Hamilton’s commitment to excellence, “His kind heartedness is felt throughout the school and his smile lights up almost any dim situation,” said Nathan Fleshman, president of the East Jordan Education Association, who nominated Hamilton for the award.

“Matt is someone who is always willing to put in the extra effort to make someone’s day brighter,” Fleshman wrote in the nomination.

Shoe Club grew out of an experience from 2008, early in his career, Hamilton said. A motivational speaker appeared at an assembly to say everyone has value and no one knows what others are going through merely judging from appearances.

“In part of his talk, he brought out a bag of shoes, and he would hold up a shoe and say things like, ‘This girl was a straight-A student, got a basketball scholarship to a Division I college. On the outside everything looked great, but she was cutting herself because her dad wasn’t involved in her life.’”

In discussion after, Hamilton and his students agreed: the presentation was powerful. Then in the following days, his students began showing up before school, at lunch, after school. “They were like, ‘Hey, can I talk to you, Hamilton?’ And they were opening up and sharing their struggles with me.”

Their stories kept him awake at night for two weeks, he said. “This was in March. I realized I’d been sitting with these kids for – what? – seven months? They were coming to my class with a smile on their face, and I was finally learning that behind the smile there’s a lot going on.”

Hamilton decided to start Shoe Club, a place where kids could learn their value, build self confidence, and develop into leaders. He would require kids who wanted to join to read a couple of books on those subjects, write a paper, and submit 10 life goals.

Initially he hoped three to five kids would sign up in those weeks between March and the end of that school year, but 27 kids joined by June, “so I knew I was on to something.”

A picture of a cabinet of shoes
The Shoe Club in East Jordan has collected hundreds of shoes from famous people and students alike to promote empathy and understanding.

As part of the project, Hamilton and the students gather shoes from famous people and East Jordan schoolkids alike for a collection now grown to more than 200 pairs from athletes, scientists, entertainers, inventors, explorers and leaders. View all at shoeclub.org/shoe-museum.

The list includes autographed sneakers from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan; signed red pumps from Dolly Parton; ski boots from Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin; ballet slippers from professional dancer Misty Copeland; and dress shoes from cell phone inventor Martin Cooper.

“Every time I get a shoe, I get to share that person’s story with my students,” Hamilton said, adding he rotates the footwear displayed on a high shelf in his classroom and in a new lighted display case.

A Cadillac native, Hamilton became a teacher because he loves people and wanted to impact the world.

He makes a difference every day in his classroom by making history come alive. Hamilton brings in speakers to his history classes and uses Virtual Reality goggles and “fake field trips” – dramatic stories he tells with the lights off in which he populates the world of the past with his students.

And every year by Thanksgiving he gives every student a nickname. One boy is “Sock” because he’s a thinker who does well in class discussions held in the Socratic method. A boy who likes fishing is named Jitterbug after a lure. A Taylor Swift fan whose name starts with K becomes K-Swizzle.

“All the kids know it coming into my classroom in seventh grade, so I have fifth and sixth graders who tell me they can’t wait to get their nickname. It becomes a big deal, but it’s really just building relationships and letting kids know they matter and they’re unique and special.”

After the success of the huge solar project amid the pandemic, Shoe Club students kept the momentum going the next year by helping to enhance a gardening program at the elementary school. They raised $75,000 to buy fencing, a hoop house and shed, and the next year assisted in making it all operational.

This year an ambitious new project is under way. Dubbed the Honor and Service project, Shoe Club is raising $130,000 to enhance the 100-year-old GAR Park, named after a Civil War fraternal organization called Grand Army of the Republic.

A photo of Matt Hamilton and students
Matt Hamilton (top, left) and middle school members of Shoe Club — assisted by high school mentors — completed three of the largest student‑led service project in school district history. Hamilton won MEA’s Educational Excellence Award in March.

Students also organized the school’s first Veterans Day Assembly last November in which veterans and students spoke and the band played next to the honor guard and flags from the military branches. “It was super powerful and emotional,” Hamilton said.

Now they’re putting together a book from surveys and interviews the students conducted with local veterans, and they’re raising another $30,000 to take club members on a field trip this summer to Gettysburg after learning about the Civil War.

The kids have become expert fundraisers – writing grants and delivering presentations to local businesses, organizations and groups who help to fund their projects. However, Hamilton stresses that Shoe Club’s focus is not on raising money but on raising great humans, and he doesn’t do it alone.

Volunteers from the region – active and retired professionals – act as expert mentors to the students, and his family and school community are always there with support.

“I have amazing kids willing to jump in and try stuff, and I have amazing community members willing to give time, money and energy to make success happen, so it’s a huge thing that goes way beyond me. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to sit back and watch magic happen.”

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