Bay Port math teacher calls it a career after 38 years of teaching
By Heather Graves
HOWARD-SUAMICO – Recently retired Bay Port High School math teacher – Joe Van Erem – is not your “average Joe.”
De Pere native Van Erem dedicated his entire working career to helping shape the next generation as a middle and high school math teacher.
The passion to help others, he said, was instilled in him at a young age by his parents.
“(My siblings and I) hit the jackpot with our parents, and I say that to people all the time,” he said. “I know that some people have tough, tough family situations. We hit the jackpot. We have just the most amazing mom and dad you could have ever had.”
Van Erem said growing up in east De Pere, helping others was like second nature.
“My father was a firefighter and a paramedic with the De Pere Fire Departmentd, and I grew up watching dad fight fires and take care of people that are in dangerous situations,” he said. “As a regular thing, it was very normal for us to be on the scene of a fire watching dad work.”
The eldest of four children, Van Erem said he was the first in his family to ever attend college.
“I never imagined I’d ever go to college, because nobody in my family had ever gone to college,” he said. “We didn’t know how that works. I just figured I’ll probably be a firefighter like my dad or in accounting like my mom.”
Van Erem said it was thanks to positive guidance he received in high school that made college seem like a potential path for him.
“It was a school counselor who came to me and said, ‘you know, you have really good numbers, you should be going to college.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ Because of their persistence and because of their encouragement, I sent one application to St. Norbert College, because it was in the same town that I grew up in, and they accepted me.”
Unsure what career path he wanted to take, Van Erem said he entered his freshman year of college with three thoughts.
“When I went there, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my family did not know what college was like,” he said. “I was either going to be a computer programmer, because I thought computers are pretty cool, or I was going to be a math teacher, because I thought that looked like something I would enjoy. Or I was going to be an accountant like mom.”
Van Erem said he finished his undergraduate with a major in math and a minor in computer science.
“So I took all those classes,” he said. “I actually did an internship in computer science. Loved the work, but I didn’t like cubicle life. I like talking with people. I like helping people. And as much as I liked the programming, I liked being able to interact with people. So, I have a degree in math. I have a degree in computer science, and I went and got my master’s degree in mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.”
Van Erem said he started his teaching career in a small district in rural Minnesota.
“I started my teaching career in a small town in Minnesota called Lewiston,” he said. “They have only two buildings – one for K-6 and one for 7-12. So, I worked with seventh-graders through seniors every day, and it was awesome.”
By what he said could only be described as fate, in 1989, Van Erem found himself back in Wisconsin in the Howard-Suamico School District.
“I never saw that coming – moving back to my hometown,” he said. “One of the things in the interview was, ‘oh, there’s a little downfall to your job,’ and I said, ‘what’s the downfall.’ And they said ‘you have to drive to the middle school and teach the middle school kids that are ready for high school math,’ and I said, ‘I love middle schoolers.’ And I literally did that for 20 years, until there was a change in philosophy. I was able to take the middle schoolers and really help them see their potential.”
Van Erem said the best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to help students understand something they normally can’t.
“Howard-Suamico is a great school district and Howard-Suamico is a great area and people are sticking around,” he said, “so your influence goes farther than you ever imagined and you have this privilege to help people out.”
Though looking back on his teaching career and seeing many positives, Van Erem admits it came with challenges too.
“In 2019 I almost gave up the career,” he said. “It was so hard. There were major changes that were made in how we do things, and I didn’t know if I could make it.”
Van Erem said he looked to his faith and spent each day being thankful for his job, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“They sent us home and told us to teach any way we could,” he said, “and I found my footing again.”
Van Erem said the next couple years were difficult, but he felt the need to continue teaching math, at least for a few more years.
“I said at the end of 2021, ‘I’m gonna go back for one more,’” he said. “And my retirement – people were kind of baffled by it all, but I said the next year is gonna be harder and it was. The 2021-22 school year was the hardest of the three.”
Van Erem said much of this year had to do with getting things back on track – with academics and social interaction.
“We had to really work hard this year to help people understand ‘how do you work in the community again? How do you make this happen again?’” he said. “And so it was delightful to see the growth in the kids, not just in their math skills, but in their social skills. I’m not saying it’s all perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than it was when we started the year.”
Calling it a career at the end of the 2021-22 school year, Van Erem said it was time he passed the baton.
“I can comfortably say I can hand it off to somebody (else),” he said. “I will miss this job a lot, but I feel like I gave you kids who are ready to work with you, and you can take it from here. So that was why I waited til this year to retire.”
Van Erem said so far, retirement doesn’t look much different than his life the past 20 years.
“My wife Pam and I both use our summertime as our ministry time,” he said. “We’ve been working at camps since we were 16 years old. So, that’s more than 40 years now. We’ve been working at camps all summer long, so we don’t normally stay in the Green Bay area. We get on the road and wherever God leads us, we go. So this summer kind of feels like every summer so far.”
Van Erem said come fall, when everybody goes back to school, “we’re gonna hook up our camper and we’re gonna disappear for a little while.”
“We are going to visit our kids, and instead of staying a day or two, we’re gonna stay a week or two,” he said.
Van Erem said he and his wife Pam are about to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary.
The pair have three daughters and four granddaughters.
Van Erem said he’s also looking forward to dabbling in a few projects he hasn’t had time to do.
“It used to be that I could teach and do something,” he said. “However, the last three years have been so hard as a teacher during this COVID period that I would teach and that’s all I could get accomplished in the day. There just wasn’t enough time, energy or ability to do more. And so now I can start doing some of those things.”
As far as advice for future generations of teachers, Van Erem said to set high standards.
“For yourself and for the students,” he said. “It’s really easy to lower the standards, and that feels okay, but if you keep the standards high, they will achieve high, too. There were years where nobody failed my classes, not because I lowered the standards, but they rose up to it.”
Van Erem said love of the job is also important.
“Love your job and the people around you,” he said. “I had the pleasure of being on some wonderful teams, and we couldn’t have done what we did without everybody on the team.”