NEW PALESTINE — The inside of Fred Fox’s English class looks more like a coffee shop than a place for eighth grade students to labor over learning reading and writing skills. With large, soft chairs to chill in along with high tables for groups of students to gather and talk, the atmosphere is conducive for hard learning.

Low playing piano music fills the air and every wall is lined with books and posters of famous people imploring students to “read.” That’s because reading and writing are Fox’s thing. Fox has been a English teacher at New Palestine Junior High School (NPJHS) for 31 years. His teaching journey began in 1993 when NPJHS was called Doe Creek Middle School. He plans to end his career in a few short weeks when he retires at the end of the current school year.

Fox, 59, didn’t start out in education, but eventually found his life’s calling after spending time in Washington D.C. doing hotel management work for the United States Army as a civilian.

“While we loved living there, I knew that type of work wasn’t something I wanted to do forever,” Fox said.

Fox, who comes from a family of educators, moved to the New Palestine area as a child. After graduating from New Palestine High School, he got a degree in hotel management from Purdue University before going to work in Washington D.C. That’s where he and his wife Tammy, who is also from Hancock County, decided to head back to New Palestine. That allowed Fox to focus on getting his teaching certification.

“That took me a couple of years,” Fox said.

Fox has been known to be a demanding teacher who has helped thousands of young teenage students tackle the hardest part of learning — how to structure a sentence while also helping local kids earn some of the top English scores in the state on standardized testing.

The decision to step down from his life’s work wasn’t an easy one Fox said, but it was a decision he felt was time to make.

“I’ve always said I really want to go at the top of my game, and I don’t know that I’m still at the top of my game, but I know I’m not at the bottom,” Fox said. “I think as a teacher if you think you are at the top, you’re probably not.”

Fox, who still gets excited to talk about ways to help students fall in love with reading, said even after three decades of teaching English there are still ways to improve the classroom for students.

“We often hear that eighth-grade English is the hardest, but kids have to learn how to write,” Fox said.

One of the reasons he’s stayed in education for as long as he has is because he loves teaching and working with kids.

“We’ve got good kids here,” Fox said. “Some of them can be a little ornery, but they’re good kids who keep things going at a fast pace, and they’re so funny so I’m going to miss them, but I’m ready for what is next.”

Fox noted he and his wife, who is also about to retire, plan to travel, have some fun and just enjoy hanging out with family and friends.

“I don’t want to work through my retirement age,” Fox said.

In addition to teaching for over three decades, Fox has always volunteered for extracurricular activities, helping the junior high kids put on plays and musical performances. He also served for many years as one of the union reps for the teachers negotiating contracts.

“If you want to talk low points, I believe it was back in 2009, 2010 when we had to do all that RIFing of educators,” Fox said. “That was really tough, but in all honesty we’re kind of at a low point in teaching now due to the fact teaching is just not very valued. For me, that just doesn’t make sense because what is of more value than your own children.”

Fox would like to see school district officials encourage teachers who are in the middle of their teaching careers with better pay and other incentives so those middle-aged teachers will stay in education and not have to leave for better pay elsewhere.

“Compensation is just not in step and that means you’re not going to attract the best people,” Fox said. “People going into education now days, it’s so low and unfortunately that is where education is.”

That view is one of the reason’s Fox was so successful as an educator — he has a true passion for teaching despite how difficult he said it can truly be.

One of Fox’s biggest goals as an educator was to make sure his eighth grade students head into high school knowing how to write a paper.

“That’s been my goal. I don’t want them to be afraid of it,” Fox said. “Kids need to know how to structure a sentence.”

While he said there is nothing like seeing a young teenager expand their knowledge through books, he unfortunately had some students throughout the years who just didn’t enjoy reading and that, he said, is a true heartbreak for any English teacher.

“I’m still hoping for those kids that maybe we planted a seed,” Fox said.

Fox says it is going to be an adjustment in life becoming a “former junior high English teacher” due to the fact he’ll have to learn how to read books not geared toward young teenagers.

“I’m all about reading, but I have not read an adult book in 31 years,” Fox said with a laugh. “I only read young adult literature because of the kids and, in all honesty, young adult literature is awesome because it’s clean and fun.”

Fox noted he’s been fortunate to be surrounded by great educators in the English department at NPJHS who are all on the same page and that made his job more enjoyable. However, he wasn’t completely thrilled to hear next year English and math classes will be shortened from 75 minutes to around 45 minutes so officials can increase Unified Arts.

“The state says we have to teach civics now,” Fox said. “On the plus side, our school is adding a science teacher and a social studies teacher.”

The best part about all the new news, Fox said, is he doesn’t have to stress or worry about it anymore and can simply sit back, relax and have faith in district officials to lead education into the next phase.

“I just want to make sure in moving forward kids will have the time to learn about English and sentence structure,” Fox said. “Kids need to know what a simple sentence is, a compound sentence is … You have to be able to read writing.”

Fox laughed and said he couldn’t help but express the importance of teaching junior high English and how much it means to the base of a solid education for students before noting just how much he’s going to miss the students and the classroom.