After earning a degree in songwriting from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2006, Harrisonburg native John Hostetter ’11 moved to Tucson, Arizona. He spent two years playing guitar in a bluegrass band, then joined a rock band called Harlem, moved to Austin, Texas, and started to get recognized nationally.
“I lived [in Austin] for a summer, and a bunch of things happened all at once,” Hostetter said. “Harlem got signed to a record label. And right as soon as that happened I decided that the rock-and-roll lifestyle was not for me…. We went all over the United States playing shows, and I said, ‘This is not the kind of lifestyle that I can live.’”
So Hostetter returned to his hometown and approached Cathy Smeltzer Erb, chair of the undergraduate teacher education program at Eastern Mennonite University, about gaining a degree in English education.
“When he first explored the option of pursuing the program, he didn’t have either English or education as his major. So he was kind of starting over, after already having the undergrad degree,” Smeltzer Erb said.
“And what so inspired me from the very beginning, which I think speaks highly of his character,” she continued, “was the way in which he interacted with peers who were several years younger, in age, and several years younger in development as teachers. He just navigated that classroom with such integrity, such interest, such grace.”
This spring, Hostetter was honored as one of five Teachers of the Year for the Staunton (Va.) City Schools. His peers selected him to represent Shelburne Middle School, where he is a 6th-grade language arts teacher.
“I’ve been playing music since middle school,” said Hostetter, whose mother, Louise ’79, was recently named chair of EMU’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2017-18. “When I graduated high school, I think I knew in the back of my mind that I would be a teacher eventually, but Berklee was kind of my way to prevent that from happening right away, because music was my first love.”
Raised in a Mennonite family and educated at Eastern Mennonite School, Hostetter developed early on a sense of social responsibility that influenced his decision to become a teacher.
“I think that probably a lot of my calling has to do with my Anabaptist heritage, the whole idea of serving the community, serving others,” Hostetter said.
“I want [my students] to develop a love for reading and a love for learning and discovery,” said Hostetter, who occasionally uses his vintage ‘73 Epiphone electric guitar to incorporate music into a lesson. “When I meet a student at the beginning of the year who doesn’t necessarily like reading, or isn’t very excited about language arts, if I can foster some kind of change in that disposition, I think that’s incredibly rewarding – because the habits that they make in 6th grade are usually the ones that they take with them for the rest of their academic careers.”
Last summer, Hostetter married Staunton 4th grade teacher, Nicole Barbano Hostetter. who was also one of the five teachers recognized as Teacher of the Year for Staunton City Schools. She was chosen from the faculty of Bessie Weller Elementary School.
The two met at a Staunton bakery three years ago, shortly before teacher orientation began.
“We were both first-year teachers and it was definitely luck that we were in the same place at the same time,” Nicole said. “We were both coming from different experiences, and I think that making the transition to teaching together was such a good experience for us to have. We really supported each other that first year and we continue to do that now.”
Smeltzer Erb attributes John Hostetter’s success in the classroom to his deep passion for learning to teach over time, and his respect for middle-schoolers and colleagues alike.
“For many students, the classroom is perhaps the only safe place in their day,” Smeltzer Erb said. “It’s the place where somebody like John can truly care about them as individuals.”
As one of just two 6th grade English teachers in Staunton, Hostetter’s job connects him to the community.
“Shelburne is wonderful because I get to know half the children who are in Staunton City schools,” Hostetter said. “When my wife and I are walking through the park, I mean, everybody knows us …. And because you’re teaching, and you’re spending seven hours a day with these kids, you get to know the parents pretty well, and I think it does provide a service. I think that public education is an extension of the community.”
Hostetter hasn’t abandoned music. He has “too many” guitars, a home recording studio and plays guitar in a local band named “Elephant Child.”
“I’ve got my guitar in the classroom, and they think that’s the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “And I try to goof around on occasion, and sometimes I’ll play my guitar, and they love that. But it’s not every day that I get to actually sit and sing to them.
“I’m going to dress up like Johnny Cash here in the next couple weeks, for a history lesson.”
A third individual selected as Staunton Teacher of the Year, Dixon Educational Center art teacher Gina Gaines, is also an EMU alum, having taken classes in the late 1970s.