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This article was written by Joseph Welch, 2020 Pennsylvania teacher of the year. Welch is a middle school American history teacher in the North Hills School District, Allegheny County.
After growing up in a household in which my father was a public school teacher, looking up to my older siblings as mentors as they entered into teaching careers, and having over a decade of teaching experience myself, I thought that I had learned a great deal about education, both as a student and as a teacher.
I get to work with colleagues each day who are dynamic teachers, have been supported by forward-thinking administrators, and observed different trends in education. I taught in different grade levels, attended and presented at conferences, went to graduate school, connected with a vibrant professional learning network, and earned my National Board Certification. Nonetheless, it was a new perspective that reinforced what I thought I knew about quality teaching.
A few months ago, my daughter, who is in first grade, came home and was so excited to tell me about the upcoming science and invention fair at her school. She wanted to participate and do “something with space.” She loves science, loves reading about Mae Jemison, and loves to create her own inventions out of random materials in our house.
So, here she was, a 6-year-old, creating her own rockets out of materials found throughout the house: felt, cardboard, wrapping paper, and more. She could not wait to share what she learned. I observed a shy 6-year-old talking to people of all ages that she never met about how she measured and conducted her own experiments.
Right in front of my face, my own philosophy on education was being reinforced. Emotion, solving problems, personal narratives, human connection, and student choice combining into one effort. This is best summarized in an obscure quote from the Broadway hit, “Hamilton!,’’ but as a history teacher, it rings so very true: “When you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game, but you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.’’
This is what highlights what is so empowering about education. Our students want to show off their work. They crave to be emotionally engaged in their work. They inherently want to connect with people, and yes, they want to solve problems that can bring all of these pieces together no matter our own content area. There are opportunities to solve problems, and, in doing so, expose our students to a world beyond the written lines of a textbook or curriculum guide.
There are diverse problems waiting to be solved; stories to be shared; and voices to amplify. By doing this, we shift education away from “me, me, me” to “us, us, us.” Sure, knowing how to spell molasses, knowing the nucleotide pairings of DNA, or analyzing and supporting why Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution are all important in each respective content area. But, if a child does not have the opportunity to value challenging themselves to try something new, and know how to value other people and perspectives, then, how can we expect them to value learning?
When you are investing your own emotion into a task or project, time tends to get away from you. When you are looking to solve problems from a perspective unlike yours, you analyze things in ways previously
It is inspiring that we have so many teachers in Pennsylvania putting their students in these positions. From students at South Fayette High School creating videos to help combat the opioid epidemic, to elementary aged students at Avonworth Primary Center seeing the need to promote kindness with their now trademarked #bethekindkid movement, to middle school students at Redbank Valley selecting their own community-based projects that promote civic activism.
If we make mistakes or it does not go as planned, it’s okay. You’re going to go home, you’re going to regroup, and you’re going to think of something even better the next day. So, let’s go for it. Take a risk, be dynamic, continue to learn, and put our students in the environments that connect and inspire curiosity.
If we put our students in these positions that connect them with others, challenge previous ways of thinking, and foster social-emotional investment, then we truly will have skin in the game, as we work to all have a win of continuing to transform education to meet the current and future needs and lives of our students and our global society.