September/October 2019 Issue
August 25, 2019

How one Cohoes educator inspired his student to teach

Author: By Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United
cohoes take a look at teaching
Caption: John McKnight is entering his senior year at SUNY Cortland. The future physical education teacher draws inspiration from his eighth grade social studies teacher Chris Michael, left. Photo by Becky Miller.

When the ‘right path’ leads back to the classroom

Chris Michael wants to be remembered for more than names and dates when students move on from his eighth grade social studies class at Cohoes Middle School near Albany.

“I want them to remember me as a caring human being who listened to them, shared life advice and tried to send them down the right path in life,” said Michael.

“Anything else is a bonus.”

Former student John McKnight is one of Michael’s success stories. His life had started sliding off track following his parent’s divorce when he was in elementary school. Although his single-parent father did the best he could, long work hours, and tight finances, took a toll.

McKnight found himself drifting.

He watched people close to him lose their lives to drug addiction, started hanging out with the wrong crowd and school suspensions followed. “I had to grow up really fast,” he said.

“I would go and talk to Mr. Michael and he helped me view things in a positive way and, to this day, that’s still the way I am … he showed me that he cared,” said McKnight. “I didn’t have a lot of good in my life, but he was like an older brother, that extra person there to guide me.”

At eighth grade graduation, McKnight and a group of his friends dressed alike and took a picture with Michael. McKnight also wrote him a thank you letter. “I teared up reading it,” Michael said, noting that letters like that are why he went into teaching.

“It’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had,” said the Cohoes Teachers Association member. Although he’d considered a career in education in high school, he’d worked in journalism and a family business before becoming a teacher at 28.

McKnight and his friends sought Michael out again for a photo at their high school graduation. “We wanted something to remember where we came from,” McKnight said. “He played a big role in how we grew up.”



Cohoes Middle School teacher Chris Michael celebrates his students’ graduation from eighth grade... and high school. Photos provided. From left in both photos: Josh Giller, Jordan West, Jacob Bowen, John McKnight and Ryan Sencer. McKnight is now studying to be a teacher himself.

After completing his freshman year at SUNY Cortland, and dissatisfied with an athletic training major, McKnight did some soul searching.

He thought back to what helped shape him into the man he is. He realized it was teachers like Michael.

“I never thought I would be a teacher … but now I try to remember all that I learned from him,” he said. “Maybe I can help students become who they’re going to be.”

This fall, McKnight starts his senior year majoring in physical education.

He looks forward to getting kids moving every day. He also looks forward to stability.

“Becoming a teacher, I know that I’ll be secure, which is really important,” he said noting that having food on the table each night wasn’t always a guarantee growing up.

He knows that Michael’s influence will guide him throughout his career. “He’s a good role model,” said McKnight. “When I’m a teacher, I want my students to respect me, but I also want them to feel like they can come to me with a problem. I never realized, until I looked back on it, how much of an impact you can have on a child’s life.”

The admiration is mutual. At the start of every school year, Michael talks to his incoming students about McKnight’s determination to succeed.

“I’m beyond proud of him,” he said. “He’s going to be an amazing teacher.”

Take a Look at Teaching

NYSUT launched its Take A Look at Teaching initiative in the 2018–19 school year to strengthen teacher recruitment efforts and elevate the profession as a whole.

The effort features campus conversations, and regional summits for students and educators hosted by P–12 and higher education locals across the state.

Another series of summits will be held this school year. Locations include Long Island, Tarrytown, Capital Region and Southern Tier. For more information, visit