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Cover Story: Student PSEA - A Calling to Serve

Voice: May 2017

At Cornell Elementary, students are greeted by the library when they enter the school. Filling the first room on the right, the bright, creative space is brimming with books to spark young imaginations.

Now, thanks to Student PSEA’s 2017 Outreach to Teach project, students encounter a mural – a larger-than-life book, and pages filled with hundreds of names.

The students may never meet the faces behind these names, but the Student PSEA members who signed the wall care about their future, and about making a difference in young lives.

With more than 85 chapters at universities and colleges across Pennsylvania, Student PSEA has become one of the largest and most successful groups of its kind in the country.

Four pillars serve as the guide for activities of the pre-professional organization for aspiring educators – community service, political action and advocacy, professional development, and leadership and membership development.

These pillars are fulfilled through the servant model of leadership, followed by Student PSEA.

“It’s an obvious choice for aspiring educators,” said Ashley Muscarella, NEA Student Program chair and former Student PSEA president. “Members of Student PSEA embody servant leadership in their choice to dedicate their lives to a career of public service. Student PSEA members are servant leaders in their deliberate choice to improve education before even entering the field.”

Servant leadership is characterized by leading through influence, not power, something that is not lost on young adults who will someday have many children in their charge.

“It is important for us to learn now how we may best holistically support, develop, and love our students, and that includes community engagement through projects like Outreach to Teach,” Muscarella said.

Making a difference

Since 2007, Student PSEA members attending the organization’s annual conference and convention have had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children they will probably never meet.

Members of the PSEA Student Organizations Committee, composed of EA, ESP, and PSEA-Retired members, choose a school near the annual conference site that would benefit from the service of conference attendees. Past projects included painting murals and restocking libraries.

“Future, current, and retired educators come together to make Outreach to Teach a success,” said PSEA President Jerry Oleksiak. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work our members are doing for the children in the districts chosen for these service projects.”

Preparation for the project is a large task. From walking through the possible projects with administration and making decisions on what to accomplish, to raising the resources needed and completing hours of prep work in the weeks leading up to the main project, Student PSEA members are learning what it truly means to serve the needs of children outside the classroom.

A personal journey

Cornell Elementary/High School, a one-building school district outside of Pittsburgh in Coraopolis, was chosen for the 2017 Outreach to Teach site. Superintendent Aaron Thomas noted that many of the projects – such as painting the auditorium and hallways – would have taken multiple summers to complete with limited manpower and budget.

The project was especially rewarding for one particular PSEA Student Organizations Committee member. Doug Haskins, Avonworth EA president, is a 1997 graduate of the Cornell School District. After college and a brief teaching job in Maryland, he returned to Cornell and replaced his mentor. He taught there for nearly six years before leaving in 2010.

“When I received a job offer at another district, I faced one of the toughest decisions I have ever made,” Haskins said. “I left Cornell mostly because I wanted to experience something different. I have always felt a great deal of guilt leaving the students and my colleagues. Bringing the Outreach project to my alma mater and former workplace is part of the healing process.”

Haskins reached out to alumni and other former faculty members while coordinating the Outreach to Teach project. More than 20 people with ties to the community returned to assist Haskins and the more than 350 conference attendees in the labor of love.

Serving a greater need

The concept of servant leadership is one that ties well with the Outreach to Teach project.

The idea that a student’s education is influenced by so much more than what is happening in the classroom means that teachers serve in many roles, not just as educators. Through Outreach to Teach, aspiring educators improve the learning environment for students at the host sites.

“As educators, we have a will to teach children and to help them reach their fullest potential, no matter their ZIP code,” said Shelby Pepmeyer, 2016-17 Student PSEA president. “We are intentional with our actions, by providing appropriate instruction to our students and by going to school every day to provide them with the best education possible.”

Educators give their time outside of the classroom in many ways, and Student PSEA members are starting that trend before they even set foot into their classrooms.

“The program sets the tone that teachers lead by example,” Haskins said. “Whether participating in an outreach project as a student or volunteering to chaperone school dances as a faculty member, being involved helps to instill the idea that as educators what we do in our schools and community is as important as the content taught in classrooms.”

Cynthia Wittman is a member of PSEA-Retired and serves on the PSEA Student Organizations Committee. She agrees that the Outreach to Teach project embodies the servant leadership model the Student PSEA members emulate.

“It demonstrates that future educators are concerned with more than just the classroom aspect of being a teacher,” Wittman said. “So much happens outside of the classroom, and by creating a welcoming and warm atmosphere, the students realize that someone cares about the school.”

Influencing future leaders

Part of the servant leadership model is leading through inspiration. Because leaders are only in their positions for a short period of time as college students, Student PSEA looks to inspire future union leaders through the experience provided to pre-professional educators.

“Young teachers often want the chance to become involved in leadership positions in their schools, but may be unsure of how to do so,” said Dawna Vanderpool, Dubois Area EA vice president and PSEA Student Organizations Committee member. “Student PSEA is the perfect organization to develop these abilities. Aspiring educators ultimately and ideally will become seasoned teachers who lead PSEA. We all benefit from their involvement in Student PSEA.”

Lee Speers has been involved with the PSEA Student Organizations Committee for more than a decade. The Norristown Area EA president helped coordinate the first-ever Outreach to Teach project. He believes that Student PSEA provides future educators with a glimpse of the passion that can be found outside the classroom walls.

“Colleges give students the nuts and bolts – the science part – of teaching,” Speers said. “The art part of teaching – what makes teachers stay in teaching – is how you become involved in the school, the community, the faculty. That’s what keeps you in the business of education. And becoming a member of Student PSEA starts to build that network – to collaborate with others to see there are other things bigger than your classroom.”