By Joe Welch
A middle school English teacher introduced me to an important maxim: “Character is who you are when nobody else is watching.”
We recited it each day in class, and it is a lesson that I have carried with me throughout my life and into my teaching career.
Now, in 2020, I think it needs a slight modification: “Resolve is who you are when everyone is watching.”
The eyes of the nation are on educators as we strive to meet the challenges presented by a global pandemic.
And we’re delivering — by showing our resolve and making a difference in the lives of the young men and women who will be the leaders of tomorrow.
COVID-19 has not made this easy. But it has motivated educators to find new ways to connect with our students.
As we celebrate American Education Week this Nov. 16-20, I want to share a few ways that my colleagues and I are doing just that.
During the summer, I was privileged to join a diverse group of educators in western Pennsylvania to collaborate with our local PBS Affiliate, WQED-TV.
Together, we produced high-quality lessons and activities that are now a resource to students lacking internet connections or access to computer technology at home. It is one important way that we are tackling the challenge of equity in our schools.
At the North Hills Middle School where I teach, my colleagues and I use our virtual instructional day each week to teach our classes live from various historic sites in Pennsylvania and beyond.
We’ve taught from the National Mall in Washington D.C. and Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Fayette County, the site of an early battle in the French and Indian War. We are making the world the classroom for our students and showing them that we will go the extra mile (literally) for them.
In the physical classroom, we’ve had to rethink how we do things to make sure students feel supported.
At the start of the school year, I stared out at my classroom of 30 desks and pondered what I could do to make it “feel” a bit fuller for students who must social distance for their safety. After a few trips to the local hardware store, I converted some posters of historical figures into large wooden cutouts to sit in desks between students.
Although my initial goal was to fill a physical void in the classroom, pretty soon, students were asking, “Who is Frederick? Who is Ulysses? Who is Harriet? And why are they important enough to sit next to me in class?” This sparked conversations about inclusion, the impact of history on our lives, and the difference that one person can make.
We’ve also strived, amidst the pandemic, to preserve authentic learning experiences for our students.
It is a tradition at North Hills Middle School to coordinate a mock election that mirrors the presidential election. We didn’t want our students to miss out on this opportunity because of the pandemic, so we got creative.
We arranged for mail-in ballots to be sent home to our virtual students. Student volunteer election organizers coordinated in-person voting for over 750 middle school students. Students were able to not only vote but experience the election process as if they were 18-year-olds voting for the first time.
By working together to make it happen, we improved the learning experience for students. It was such a success that even national media picked up on it!
Despite the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding this school year, I am energized by all that we have been able to do for our students so far. And I continue to be inspired by the passion and dedication of the tremendous educators in Pennsylvania’s schools.
While we hope that we can soon put this virus behind us, there is no doubt that by working together, we have grown stronger as educators and have proven, once again, that we will always have the resolve to do what is best for our students.
Joe Welch is an eighth grade social studies teacher at North Hills Middle School in Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania’s 2020 Teacher of the Year. He is also the 2018 History Teacher of the Year, named by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. You can follow him on Twitter @nhsdwelch.
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