By Hailey Stiehl
Students flooded the halls of Middle Creek High School searching for their first-period class on the first day of the new school year. About 30 students made their way into creative writing class. When they entered the dark classroom, the students looked around apprehensively, confused by their teacher’s apparent absence from the room.
Then they spotted someone in the back corner of the room, perched on a table and posing like Spider-Man. It was their teacher, Mr. Josh Matteau.
Students looked to each other for answers, not finding any. They stifled their nervous laughter at the situation. All the while, their spiderlike teacher just stared at them wordlessly.
Their eyes began to wander around the still dark room as they slowly found their seats and noticed that the classroom was covered in posters of Spider-Man. Figurines of the superhero hung from the flag, sat on the whiteboard and were scattered around on tables.
As the shrill bell signaled that classes had begun, Mr. Matteau leaped from his table, walked over to flip the lights on and turned to his new class, uttering a simple phrase to begin the journey that would change some of their writing forever.
“Write me something good.”
He walked back to his desk, cluttered with more Spider-Man figurines, and didn’t say another word. Students looked to one another once more for any clarification, slowly pulling out notebooks and pencils. Music began to play softly throughout the classroom as students put their pencils to paper and started to free write.
That was how a new class of Middle Creek students began their journeys with the wonderfully strange Mr. Matteau.
Brianna Tucci hasn’t taken a class with Mr. Matteau since her freshman year of high school, but now, as a senior in college, she still vividly remembers her time with the Spider-Man-obsessed teacher.
Entering her first class of high school, Tucci was expecting to be met with anything but a grown man in the back corner of a classroom posed like a superhero. Yet, the lessons that Matteau presented to her and the rest of her class linger in her writing years later.
“The lessons he used to teach us about how to become a better writer were, for the most part, so incredibly strange that you wanted to pay attention,” said Tucci. “I didn’t think that some creative writing elective I had decided to take would end up teaching me things that I still think about and use in my writing today.”
Matteau didn’t want to teach for a living. He wanted to write. But when the opportunity to teach was presented to him, he decided to teach something he was passionate about, as he knew he liked helping writers become better at sharing their thoughts with the world.
“I love to see how raw a student’s emotions can get when they write them down,” said Matteau. “So that was my ultimate goal when I got into teaching, was to help students figure out how to do that well.”
The Baltimore native studied English and education during his time in college. Immediately after, he joined the Army to pay off his student loans. He began his teaching career after his time in the military, arriving at Middle Creek about a decade ago. The rest is history.
Matteau’s methods of teaching are described by most of his students as incredibly unconventional. But according to Matteau, that’s the beauty of the strangeness.
“Creative writing isn’t like traditional writing and shouldn’t be taught like that,” said Matteau. “I don’t like to just sit there and lecture my students. Frankly, that’s boring.”
One afternoon a few years ago, Matteau rounded up his class and sent them outside. He paired them up and handed each pair a blindfold.
Matteau’s class had been focusing on using details in writing, and he was planning on teaching his students to become better at using their words to describe scenes to readers. His lesson was slightly more unusual than a presentation, but he was hoping it would resonate better.
“He sent us outside that afternoon to take turns guiding each other around and sharing what we were seeing using our words,” said Emily Andersen, a student in his class. “We couldn’t physically show our partners around because they were blindfolded, and we couldn’t touch them, so we had to rely on descriptive language to make sure they knew where they were going and what was around them.”
Andersen said the unconventional method of the lesson made it more impactful and meaningful than a lecture.
“A true mentor”
For Will Selph, another former student, Mr. Matteau wasn’t just a goofy writing teacher, but a true mentor in his writing career. Selph enrolled in Matteau’s upper-level creative writing course after taking the introduction class.
In the upper-level class, each student was responsible for creating a portfolio of work, including a screenplay. Selph had an idea for a screenplay and after some words of encouragement from Matteau, he ran with the idea.
“That screenplay that I worked on had been one of my favorite things I had written up until that point,” said Selph. “I got Mr. Matteau’s feedback on the screenplay, and to hear him say that it was one of the greatest things a student had ever given him completely changed my outlook on my writing. It was the confidence boost he knew I needed.”
Every teacher has to have their “why” of teaching. It’s not an easy job, the pay isn’t great and no one has ever thought that working with high school kids was a breeze. For Matteau, it’s all about seeing the work that his students turn in and the progress they make as writers.
“The day that a student delivers a piece of writing to me is the best day of class,” said Matteau. “I look forward to that moment with every new student I have the pleasure of teaching.”
The Spider-Man-obsessed creative writing instructor has provided more than a few laughs to his students over his teaching career. How can students not start to giggle when a grown man dressed in his favorite superhero outfit is trying to teach you the basics of writing?
But beyond the laughs and the unconventional lesson plans, the wonderfully strange Josh Matteau has left meaningful impacts on many of his students’ lives and writing. And that’s one of the only things you can hope for as a teacher.
Edited by Sara Raja