PSEA: Educating our future

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PSEA members are working together to educate our future

PSEA’s 177,000 members – teachers, school nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school psychologists, and more – are proud to work in public education. And they’re dedicated to helping students learn. Every day, they enter their schools and classrooms ready to encourage, nurture, and excite their students – one mind at a time.

Tiffany's Story

Penn Manor students in Tiffany Zook’s family and consumer science class participated in the MRE Challenge, a 60-minute cooking competition that deconstructs pre-packaged MREs and transforms them into nutritious fine dining dishes.

“Teams were tasked with preparing a drink, appetizer, main dish, and dessert,” Zook said.

Local recruiter U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Dustin Jeardoe donated the MREs. He and U.S. Marine Corps Private First Class Kaylee Godshall unveiled the MREs and demonstrated how to prepare the freeze-dried food.

On competition day, each team received five MREs and an additional $10 grocery budget for supplemental ingredients. Social studies teacher Matthew Rayha and Staff Sgt. Jeardoe served as judges.

The final dishes included a whoopie pie made with MRE cookies and homemade peanut butter frosting, a beef and goulash MRE with sauce, and drinks made with fresh fruit and MRE powder. But it was one team’s dessert that set them apart.

“The winners combined M&M’s and an MRE chocolate protein powder to make a milkshake,” Zook said. “It was delicious. Everybody was on their feet and were super proud of themselves for the dishes they created.”

The competition gave students a new appreciation of military and culinary science while strengthening their skills in teamwork and food preparation.

“It created a lot of excitement and wonder in the classroom,” Zook said. “I just saw a lot of beaming faces on a lot of my students, and you could see their self-esteem went up a notch.”

Patty's Story

Patty Jackson, an English teacher in the Central York School District, is one of 40 published authors featured in the compendium “From a Certain Point of View: 40 Stories Celebrating 40 Years of ‘Return of the Jedi.’”

“The pitch was to watch ‘Return of the Jedi,’ choose a no-name character that had no history, and tell the story from their point of view,” Jackson said. “I decided to do this scout trooper who knocked Luke Skywalker off his bike.”

Noticing the underrepresentation of diversity in the franchise, Jackson made her character a Black man who had to work harder than others.

“I remember someone telling me that I needed to get over myself because there was no Africa in ‘Star Wars,’ so there didn’t need to be Black people,” Jackson said. “Representation matters, and it can have a profound impact on how children perceive themselves and their potential.”

Despite the pushback, Jackson stood her ground, and positive reactions from students reinforced the decision.

“A young man in my class realized the protagonist was Black,” Jackson said. “He came up to me and asked, ‘Miss, is this character really Black?’ When I confirmed he was, the student said, ‘I’m going to hug you.’”

“Most of these places that have these really valuable franchises, they don’t like making noise. I may have killed any chance of ever writing a ‘Star Wars’ story again, but that’s all right. I told what was real.”

Seth's Story

Seth Roper, a teacher at Carlisle High School, has facilitated an in-school grief and loss support group for students since 2009.  

“Carlisle SHINES stands for Support, Hope, Included, Non-Judgmental, Encouraging, and Strength,” Roper said.

Alongside his co-facilitator, Lia Fourlas, M.A., M.Ed., Roper guides students through 10 weeks of discussions and exercises designed to help members speak openly about their feelings and learn healthy coping mechanisms.

“Grief can be a very isolating feeling, and it can make people believe they’re alone,” Roper said. “But within our discussions, students realize that it’s not just them. Talking to each other gives them the support to get through it.”

A group community service project ends the 10-week session for students to see their personal growth while giving back.

“Helping others is another way of healing while sharing a message,” Roper said.

A group from 2022 chose to paint a mural on the Carlisle Antique Mall’s exterior. The mural depicts a pair of hands that form a heart surrounded by butterflies, a common symbol of relief and comfort, and the words “You are not alone.”

“We’ve had multiple kids who join but are not able to talk about their loss,” Roper said. “From the start of their journey in Carlisle SHINES to the end, they were able to openly talk about things they never imagined they would before.”

“It takes a lot of courage for them to share their stories, and it’s amazing to see.”

Andrea's Story

Andrea Bitner, an English language learner educator (EL) and Title 1 reading specialist in the Interboro School District, has built a strong community of EL students throughout her school, district, and community.

“As an EL teacher, you wear a lot of hats,” Bitner said. “You’re navigating not only students’ academic needs but their social needs, too.”

She started forging relationships at the building level by connecting elementary and middle school students who share a native language. She expanded those connections across the district, so every EL student could receive the same opportunity.

With help from a PSEA Innovative Teaching Grant and fellow EL teachers, Bitner transitioned her learning approach to the community with a pilot field trip where K-5 EL students practiced English. Her plan moving forward is to take groups of K-12 EL students to various local businesses to practice their language skills in a safe space among their peers.

“We are all 100 percent supporting each other, but Andrea goes that extra mile,” said Rosemary Haley, a fifth grade English and language arts teacher.

In 2021, Bitner published a book titled “Take Me Home” which chronicles the EL experience through the eyes of former students. Its success has grown into a raw, honest presentation she shares with educators nationwide on the experiences and challenges EL students face.

“It’s been really well received, and we’re really proud of it,” Bitner said. “And I’m just proud of my students.”

@jhelsel's Story

Under the hashtag, #TeachersOfTikTok, are two physical education teachers from Altoona Area Junior High School who share education joy under the TikTok handle @jhelsel.

“We like to highlight things that are positive in education,” said Jill Lane, athletic director and physical education teacher. “We can easily do that together with TikTok.”

Using popular trends and dances suggested by students, the teachers create video content after school. And it didn’t take long for their good attitude to become “TikTok famous.”

“One of our videos hit 1 million views and the account has grown tremendously ever since, partially because of our students,” said Jill Helsel, physical education teacher and owner of @jhelsel. “We never expected it to happen.”

Today @jhelsel sits at 219,000 followers and 11.5 million likes. They’re even influencing at the national level through a sponsorship with NEA to promote good things in education and the benefits of being a union member.

But what makes @jhelsel stand out is the positive impact they continue to make on students and education using social media.

“The feedback we receive reminds us that we help people outside of school by simply making their day with a video,” Helsel said.

“When teachers and support professionals are positive, it translates to students,” Lane said. “And that’s our goal with TikTok; having a good attitude and bringing positive vibes to kids.”

Brandyn's Story

Brandyn Miller, a business and computer science teacher in the Palmerton Area School District, teaches high school students on how to produce newscasts for the morning announcements as part of a Digital Media Productions class.

“Our school underwent remodeling that provided us with a newsroom studio and production room,” Miller said.

Students study the mechanics of the studio by rotating positions that mirror a standard newsroom setting such as an anchor, director, and editor. The class is supported by the Video Club which gathers additional footage of after-school events that is used in daily newscasts.

“They take on the entirety of every newscast,” he said. “From hunting down a newsworthy topic to editing the transition graphics, students own every step of the process.”

The hands-on experience students are receiving is opening doors to what the broadcast journalism field has to offer. Some students have already put their new skills to the test.

“Four of my digital media students participated in a Future Business Leaders of America broadcast journalism competition,” Miller said. “They were able to take the skills they learned from class and compete against their peers.”

“Watching them put stories together from start to finish is amazing,” Miller said. “I’m amazed to see how well they have done and what the class has learned together.”

Hawk Faculty United's Story

After years of grievances against the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) administration, faculty members formed Hawk Faculty United to explore unionization.

Amy Withrow, a full-time English instructor and union organizer, was one of the first to join the faculty-run committee.

“I knew very little about unions and I was very interested in learning more about it,” Withrow said. “A lot of our concerns were not heard. It created a very tense and uncomfortable situation.”

With over 40 years of unsuccessful attempts to unionize, Hawk Faculty United was committed to getting to “union yes” and selected PSEA to guide the organizing campaign.

“PSEA made it clear that this was about us, not about the union itself,” said Lewis Jones, an anthropology professor and union spokesperson. “They would be helping and guiding us, but in the end, it’s our union.”

HACC administration tried to delay the organizing effort by offering faculty raises and a greater voice in governance, while simultaneously working to stall the unionization process on the backend. The union-busting attempts only made Hawk Faculty United more determined to win.

In April of 2022, Hawk Faculty United voted in favor of unionizing. More than 800 HACC faculty joined PSEA.

 “PSEA staff have worked closely and tirelessly with HACC faculty against a union-busting administration,” said PSEA President Rich Askey. “And we look forward to continuing to fight for them in the years to come.”

PSEA's 2022 ESP of the Year

PSEA’s 2022 Dolores McCracken Education Support Professional of the Year Angela Vigna, a paraprofessional and local union president in the Leechburg Area School District, has been crucial to her students’ success for almost two decades.

“Even though our students aren’t our children, they really do mean the world to us,” she said. “We want to see them be as successful as possible, and we want nothing more than to see them flourish and enjoy their time with us. My heart is full of love and compassion for my students, and I will be forever grateful for the impact that they have had on my life over the last 19 years of working with them.”

Pennsylvania's 2023 Teacher of the Year

2023 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year Ryan Hardesty, a social studies teacher and local union president in the Blackhawk School District, is optimistic about the future of public education and how, together, educators will rise above any challenges that may come along the way.

“Despite the increased challenges and some very real low points, when I look at the teachers of the commonwealth, I remain hopeful,” he said. “I remain hopeful that we will continue to rise to meet this moment. I know that change is not easy, and it does not happen all at once. By working together as educators with all the other stakeholders involved, I believe we can make the changes necessary to provide all educators and districts with the resources and structures that they need to be effective vehicles for our students’ education.”

Kevin's Story

Kevin Gallagher, a math and computer science teacher, helped Keystone Oaks High School earn national recognition from the College Board for achieving high female representation in computer science in 2021, becoming one of only three Pennsylvania schools to have more than 50 percent female students in these classes.

Two years later, he is one of five educators nationwide to receive a 2023 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence for expanding access to computer science and statistics and boosting AP-level offerings in the school district.

“As our district’s director of the National Math and Science Initiative grant, my goal was to increase our AP numbers,” Gallagher said. “We went from around 60 students taking around 100 exams to nearly 150 students taking 300 exams on an annual basis.”

Gallagher was a disrupter. His work removed barriers that blocked students from taking AP-level courses without prerequisites and opened new opportunities for students to explore statistics and computer science.

“Through several changes to the master schedule and course realignment and additions, doors began to open for students to take fresh AP courses in other subjects,” he said. “Instead of students taking certain AP history classes, maybe now that was replaced with English, math, or science.”

Gallagher continues to be a strong advocate for exploring the world of data collection and analysis.

“Every student and teacher needs exposure to the world of data science, and I hope through my work that I have done my best to make that impact,” Gallagher said.

Bobblehead George's Story

Bobblehead George takes students on virtual learning tours

David Raymond, Mike Graham, and Eric Gimbi, eighth-grade teachers in the Northeastern York School District, began producing a series of elaborate educational videos for their students when they started teaching online because of the pandemic.

It started as a one-man operation filming videos on a cell phone. Now, these three teachers and a videographer take their love of teaching science, history, and social studies across Pennsylvania on a YouTube channel known as Bobblehead George.

“In history class we cover a lot of topics that, right off the bat, the students might not be interested in,” said Gimbi. “But if they watch a video on YouTube of us saying it, it seems to sink in a lot better for them.”

The video series titled “Lessons on the Road” explores American history landmarks, recreates historical recipes, and teaches their curriculum in unique ways.  

“I never in my life thought that I would be walking around in my stocking feet in George Washington’s house at 10 o’clock at night,” said Raymond. “I just never envisioned having the access to the things I have.”

Bobblehead George’s success has opened a new door to reaching students, not just in their own classrooms but around the world.

“This whole process has opened up all kinds of different avenues and connections that we never thought were possible,” Raymond said.

Michelle's Story

In-school store helps students in need

Michelle Eppinger delivered meals to Seneca Valley High School students in 2020 and wanted to continue helping them when they returned to in-person instruction. Her idea was to place donation bins throughout the district’s buildings for students to pick up items they needed, no questions asked.

It worked. Then she decided to take it to the next level, and that’s how the No Cost to Shop store came to be.

“I got the idea about collecting other things kids need,” Eppinger said. “I worked with our assistant principal and administration to start a real store for students to collect items for free.”

Her high school gave her a dedicated space, asked for donations from the community, and got  a $3,000 grant to start the store. Art students painted decorations and a technical education teacher donated a bench.

The No Cost to Shop store opened on Nov. 1, 2021. Vocational-education students run the store and gain retail experience by collecting donated items, stocking shelves, and maintaining the inventory. Students sign up for a private time to shop and choose an administrator or teacher to accompany them.

“One of our school counselors recently visited the store with a student,” Eppinger said. “The student found every item he needed. He even asked if he could take a pair of earrings for his mother as a Christmas gift.”

Eppinger is excited to see how the store has evolved.

“I want to make sure every student is comfortable,” she said. “I’m so proud of the way the store has turned out. We’re going to help a lot of kids for years to come.”

Emily's Story

Step Up student art project makes a powerful impact on community

Emily Nell, graduate of Upper Dauphin High School, came back to teach art and make an impact after spending 14 years as an independent artist working in schools and holding benefit auctions.

“When I came back, I didn’t see public art around,” she said. “I knew my students were the vessel for that.”

Nell formed the Step Up public art project to showcase her students’ skills, build partnerships, and raise money for a good cause.

“Our young people, they’re full of life; they’re full of talent. Why not use that to help others?” Nell said.

Seventeen student artists painted Converse sneakers in the style of a famous artist. Seventeen student authors wrote corresponding stories or poems expressing positive character traits. The shoes and stories were showcased together in local businesses on pedestals custom-built by Upper Dauphin’s cabinetry making class.

On May 16, every shoe and pedestal were sold during a live auction and red carpet gala, raising $10,575. All proceeds were donated to Lykens Valley Children’s Museum in Elizabethville.

In addition to the direct benefit to the museum, the museum director can now offer heavily discounted admission to families receiving SNAP benefits.

“Before our donation, they were zero percent to being a museum for all,” Nell said. “Now they’re 80 percent to becoming a museum for all.”

Nell’s passion for art inspired her students to use their creativity and work with their peers while giving back to the community.

Hear Nick's Story

Spanish teacher keeps students engaged online

Nick Coombs, a teacher in the Upper Darby School District, has always used a full-immersion approach to teaching his students Spanish. But when COVID-19 moved schools into virtual instruction, he found innovative ways to reach his kids online and make sure they were socially and emotionally engaged.

“When the pandemic happened, it was quite a change,” Coombs said. “So, I had to figure out ways to get the kids actively engaged. And the school district, along with PSEA, came up with a lot of professional development opportunities to help.”

Coombs created a lesson that allowed his students to take a virtual reality trip to Mexico. As part of the project, they were able to navigate the country online and use their senses to describe what they saw, draw pictures, and present what they discovered to the class.

Just as important, Coombs knew that his students were missing the emotional and social interactions that are essential to public education. So, he found ways to foster those kinds of connections even while his classes were online.

“What I did was make sure that I left opportunities to engage students as to how they were doing, how they were feeling, or what they did over the weekend,” he said. “I harnessed that into my lessons because I needed to have the kids socially and emotionally engaged.”

Coombs’ approach worked. And, now that more schools are reopening for in-person instruction, he’s confident that his students will pick up right where they left off and keep on learning.

Hear Eileen's Story

Third-grade teacher brings back pen pals

Eileen Seitz, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Bethlehem School District, decided to keep her students connected the old-fashioned way – with a Pen Pals program.

Almost immediately after schools closed last March, Seitz wrote and mailed letters to each of her students and included paper and a self-addressed stamped envelope so anyone who wanted could write back to her.
Her Pen Pals program was an instant hit, with 18 of her 21 students writing back.

“They shared all about what they were experiencing during this time with COVID-19, and how they were dealing at home with their siblings and managing the online work. So it was really, really special,” Seitz said. “I just wanted to let my kids know that I was thinking of them, and I would always be there for them.”

Not only did the project give kids something fun to look forward to that wasn’t screen-based, it also reinforced writing lessons from earlier in the year when Seitz taught her students how to write a friendly letter.
Seitz continues to interact with her students during online classes but said the Pen Pal project really helped bridge the gap in the uncertainty of those early months.

“I think it was also a nice way to stay in touch with the classroom because then when we did meet on Zoom we were talking about the letters that we were sending back and forth,” she said. “So it just gave students another way to stay engaged during a really difficult time.”

Hear Wendy's Story

School Nurses, COVID-19, and Going Above and Beyond to Keep School Safe

Wendy Robison, a school nurse in Western Beaver County School District, has been a leader in Beaver County’s efforts to keep schools safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her goal? To make sure “every child succeeds” – no matter what.

Working with school staff, medical professionals, and community leaders in her county, she has helped to provide comprehensive information and plans to school staff.

“I’ve learned more about the virus than I ever thought I could,” Robison said. “I’ve learned how valuable our public education system is and how much work everyone has done.”

When the pandemic began in the spring, Robison collaborated with her superintendent, reached out to all other districts in the county, and raided the supplies of masks, gowns, goggles, and gloves from science rooms, maintenance, and nursing offices to deliver them to a local hospital.

After that, Robison’s primary mission was to look at all of the information and evidence she could find about COVID-19 and help shape the best way to teach and serve kids – while reducing health risks.

“We’ve researched everything – evidence based practices,” she said. “And we chose things that were supported by research.”

She helped to create a vast folder of all the research she could find from different states, the CDC, the WHO, and the DOH and tried to fit that information into the educational system, working to look at the broad picture, and gathering as many people’s ideas as possible.

“We’ll get past this eventually, but it’s going to take everyone’s effort to get past it. The educational process is so important to the future.”

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PSEA produces an online video series that features Pennsylvania educators who are making a difference in the lives of students with creative or innovative educational programs.