Cory Sutherby is a full-body teacher.
The man whose license plate reads HOSS74 – in honor of the nickname he has had since he was a boy and the year in which he was born – looks a little like an offensive line coach and teaches a little like one too.
Indeed, as he works in his history classroom at Union High School, he prowls and paces. His arms move in small circles and big sweeping gestures. His eyebrows rise and fall, and his smile expands and contracts.
And all the while he is teaching. Asking questions, cajoling answers out of his sometimes-reluctant scholars and even rapping a lesson if need be.
Yes, the man many at Union High School affectionately call “SutherBeast” (it’s on his whiteboard in room 209 at Union) has been known to introduce instructive raps when he feels like that day’s lesson calls for it.
He smiles broadly when asked about the pedagogical nature of a rap.
“Music has always been a very important part of my life,” he said simply. “I associate many past memories and events with music.”
As an educator, he continued, it made sense to him to try to help the next generation get connected to past generations through music. And since rap and hip hop are the preferred musical genres for many of his students, rap is what he brings to the classroom.
Thus, on a spring day at Union recently, he brought the topic of juxtapositions to his scholars, first via the song “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holliday, with the lyrics on the screen and then via his own rap on justice and injustice.
Later he talked about some of what drives him as an educator.
“I like to think that I’m creative, positive, flexible, empathetic and funny,” he said. “So, using my sense of humor to connect with students is important. I try to find common interests with students, and these might be non-educational. I want to let scholars know that I care about them as people. Once I’ve established a rapport with them, I’m able to motivate them to achieve their academic goals.”
That rapport includes rap.
“I have a passion for African-American history, and I love to infuse as much of this into my history lessons as possible,” he said. “I also have a passion for writing history raps and performing them in my classes. This is a great way for me to connect with my students in an alternative way.”
Making those connections is what it’s all about, he added.
“When scholars tell me that I am one of their favorite teachers, it motivates me to keep the good days rolling and to try even harder to find extra motivation on tough days,” he said. “For some, their interest in me as a person and a teacher draws them in to learn more about history. I appreciate that.”
He also appreciates that his often-alternative approach to teaching has found a receptive home at Union with both the school’s scholars and its staff.
“First, I absolutely love the staff at Union,” he said. “Our administration is top-notch. They demonstrate humility and respect. We also have an awesome group of teachers who collaborate with one another well and give a lot of effort and encouragement toward motivating students to learn and achieve.”
On the scholar side of things, Sutherby added, Union contains some unique opportunities for at-risk scholars.
“We do face some difficulties with educating youth from an at-risk population,” he said. “But there may be a misconception floating around the area that Union scholars are troubled or very challenging to teach. This is not true. We truly have some amazing kids here who represent diverse perspectives, backgrounds and ways of relating to teachers. Our kids really benefit from finding positive adult role models in our building as mentors.”
Sutherby grew up in Columbiaville, a small town on the east side of the state, and in high school he played numerous sports with football being his favorite.
He earned a bachelor’s degree at Central Michigan University, where he also took an acting class that he still draws on when he teaches. And he admitted that when he first graduated from high school, he was a bit lost, attending two community colleges but not really knowing what he wanted to do with his life.
After meeting with a pastor, he decided to move away from Columbiaville to a big town in Mt. Pleasant and a big campus in Central Michigan.
It was, he said, a major milestone, a move he approached gingerly but is now glad he made.
At CMU, he realized that he really enjoyed helping older kids and teaching at the high school level became his dream job. He also was reaffirmed in his love for sports, so he dreamed of someday teaching and coaching and now has done both for two decades, including his work at Union and coaching JV football at Kent City and youth basketball for his son’s teams.
And, as his Union history students would attest, on most days he’s a teacher and a coach in his high school classroom, bringing an outsized passion for learning to his scholars as Mr. SutherBeast.