Blog Post by PTAC Board Member Jake Miller
Last month the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) held a series of regional stakeholder convenings for educational partners in preliminary discussions about Chapter 49 in Title 22 of the Pennsylvania Code, the state regulations pertaining to educator preparation and certification in Pennsylvania.
Several members of the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee (PTAC) attended these meetings in order to learn from other education stakeholders in the Commonwealth and to provide the vital perspective of classroom teachers in these discussions.
The PTAC members in attendance used their expertise in the field to zero in on and provide narrative to three core issues: addressing the current teacher shortage in Pennsylvania, improving diversity in our teaching force, and ensuring that our new teachers enter the profession well-prepared to help our students succeed.
ADDRESSING THE TEACHING SHORTAGE
Kelly Dougherty, an elementary teacher in Southern Lehigh and PTAC member, reports the Chapter 49 conference revealed a quiet crisis creeping across Pennsylvania school districts. Pre-retirement teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers, and their empty classrooms are being filled with less-qualified educators. The pre-retirement attrition rate has increased drastically; 66% of teacher attrition is pre-retirement loss, which is startling. But the attrition rate is just part of the complex and multi-faceted issue of teacher shortages. Ryan Saunders, a Policy Advisor of the Learning Policy Institute, shared some statistics during the Chapter 49 conference which crystalised the dire situation of the teacher shortage. According to Saunders’ statistics, teacher preparation enrollment has dropped 35% from 2009 to 2014. This drop in enrollment means there are too few teachers to fill these abandoned positions. To fill these positions, the state grants emergency certification to candidates who have not completed a teacher preparation program, which means less-qualified individuals are replacing highly-qualified educators. “Unfortunately,” says Dougherty, “the highest concentration of pre-attrition loss and emergency certification occur in urban districts, a situation which increases the inequity gap among Pennsylvania schools. Districts with the greatest need for highly-qualified teachers are settling for less-qualified instructors and larger class sizes.”
IMPROVING DIVERSITY IN THE PROFESSION
There’s a desperate lack of diversity in our classrooms, and the Chapter 49 meeting highlighted such, says Jake Miller, Cumberland Valley history teacher and PTAC board member. Though nearly 20% of the Commonwealth is minority, only 6% of its teachers match that description, which is in stark contrast to neighboring New York and Maryland, both of whom are diverse and have diverse teaching populations. “Focusing on such an effort to recruit a diverse range of teachers has a three-fold effect,” says Miller. “First, many teachers of color are drawn to districts of color, and that’s where the highest need for the vacancy vacuum is greatest; second, teachers of color can serve as role models for students of color; third, teachers of color can help break the barrier in diversity in mostly white districts (which are taught by mostly white students).”
Karey Killian, an elementary librarian in Milton and PTAC member, noted that teams of diverse stakeholders at the meeting quickly identified common themes in their discussions. “These themes included a need for increased focus on mental health of both students and adults in our schools, discussions of alternative pathways to teacher certification, and the potential impact of teacher apprenticeship programs,” she says.
ENSURING NEW TEACHERS ARE WELL PREPARED
According to Sara Jones, a Titusville social studies teacher and PTAC member, “when I entered the teaching profession 20+ years ago, educators were expected to create lesson plans, plan and deliver instruction, assess student learning, and manage student discipline. This seemed like a full plate and I honestly did not feel that my teacher candidate training program did a great job in preparing me for the realities of being a teacher. At that time, secondary teacher training programs focused primarily on content courses and until student teaching semester, there was very little interaction with students or in schools.”
“Over the next 23 years, the workload changed dramatically. However, being in the classroom meant that it kind of crept up on me,” said Jones. “Each year new responsibilities have been added yet nothing has been taken away and no more time has been added. Not only are educators tasked with helping students navigate the changes the 21st century has brought, with a focus on higher order skills, lifelong learning habits, and incorporating technology, we are also expected to complete additional administrative tasks, deal with more and more students who have experienced trauma, and provide more customized learning and problem based experiences. All while worrying about how we and our schools will be “scored” on these elements, plus things we cannot control.”
“While teacher candidates are much better prepared by the time they reach their student teaching experience today , they are also inundated with stories in the media about teachers walking out of the classroom to rally for a living wage, teachers that have to work multiple jobs to provide for their families, and teachers being expected to do more and more with less and less. How can we expect young people choosing career paths as college students to choose education when teachers more often than not are not seen as the professionals they are,” said Jones.
“Teaching in a small rural school district in NWPA, student teachers have never been in abundance. However we have always had one or two in most buildings each semester. This number has decreased dramatically in the last few years. We are now lucky to see one per building, per year. And the last two student teachers that have been in my classroom were totally shocked that they would have to do so much work outside the school day and that other aspects of their lives would be impacted by this expectation,” according to Jones. “At the Chapter 49 Stakeholders’ Meeting, the discussion surrounding increasing student teaching to up to a year was lively. While having more time to learn classroom management and content expertise is certainly valuable, does it outweigh the cost of additional time spent in college or seasoned educators losing an entire year with their students as the assist a student teacher.”
The Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee is committed to creating a direct pipeline between teachers and education decision makers in Pennsylvania. The narratives that Kelly, Karey, Jake, Sara, and the other PTAC members involved in this arena were able to provide undoubtedly helped other stakeholders understand the practical implication of the policies they were considering.
The issues we are facing in our commonwealth are complex and will require nuanced solutions. We are excited that PTAC teachers were able to take the first steps at these meetings in helping shape those solutions.
Blog Post by Jolene Barron, PTAC Member
As summer winds down, and a new school year peeks around the corner, I can’t help but be filled with a sense of excitement, and even a bit of trepidation, about what this new school year will hold.
Even though I’ve been teaching for nineteen years, I always get a bit nervous at the beginning of a new school year. It’s not about the content, or my colleagues, or even my district...for me, it’s always about the students and what kind of relationships we will share.
A few short months ago, I said goodbye to a group of children with whom I had bonded deeply. We learned together, we laughed and we cried together, but more than anything, I developed a unique relationship with each and every student in my class. Some of the relationships came naturally, but for quite a few, we had to work hard for many months to grow something meaningful.
No matter how difficult it may seem at times, the most important goal I have each year is to develop a relationship of kindness and respect with every child in my classroom.
Even though I am not a gardener, developing these relationships with my students always reminds me of the stages of plant growth. Our students come to us as seedlings. It is up to teachers to give those seedlings exactly what they need in just the right amount in order for them to thrive and grow. There are so many qualities our students need each day, but what I have found is that the needs of each student are often quite different.
Some students need a whole lot of kindness and empathy, while others need structure and high expectations. Some will thrive with praise, while others will shrivel in the spotlight. Some students bring so much baggage into the classroom, that they will require a great deal of patience and tenacity in order to break through their tough outer shells.
It is not always easy to determine what each student needs, but if teachers take the time to work through the possibilities, eventually, we will find exactly what each student needs in order to take root and flourish.
As students begin to feel comfortable, and they know that their teachers care about them, they begin to sprout. At times the growth is slow and steady. Sometimes you may question if any growth is occurring at all, but it is during those times that the roots are taking hold.
Students are seen taking risks, believing in their own abilities, and demonstrating confidence that wasn’t there earlier in the year. Students begin persevering in tasks that are hard, not necessarily because they want to, but because they know their teachers believe they are capable. You start hearing student conversations and are surprised to hear your words echoed in their own.
These are the times when you realize that your seedlings are starting to bloom as a result of the relationships that you started building with them on day one.
For me, the most important part of being a teacher is not about covering content.
I am confident enough in my skills and abilities as a teacher to know that the content will be taught, but that isn’t the main focus in my classroom. I am focused on teaching my students to be better, kinder human beings, and to send them out into the world a better person than they were when they arrived.
It is almost impossible to achieve that goal without first developing good relationships.
So, as we begin a new year with a new group of students, please remember to take the time to nurture your seedlings and grow strong relationships.
I can promise that if you do so, you will have a great year with an amazing display of blooms at the end of the year!
Blog post by Dr. Joe Harmon, PTAC Member
Due to lack of opportunity, youth in rural areas of America are not as civically engaged as their suburban and urban peers.
I feel the burden of this conclusion by Kawashima-Ginsberg and Sullivan in their study published in The Conversation. They further dubbed rural areas of America “civic deserts.” The youth in these areas are less likely to be involved in civic opportunities or volunteering.
We cannot have a thriving democracy without civic engagement from all parts of our country.
I am an 8th grade civics in rural Pennsylvania. The responsibility to engage my students in civic action weighs on me daily.
Last summer I was introduced to the work of Dr. Peter Levine from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In one of his talks, he asked a simple question.
“What should we do?”
These four words have become a driving force and a mantra for my teaching. Something needs to be done, and teachers like me have the opportunity to help our students see the importance of involvement. I am committed to ensuring that my students turn our little part of rural Pennsylvania into an oasis of civic engagement.
Last fall I launched a new civic engagement project.
Students researched and brainstormed issues of importance at local, state, national, and global levels. Issues such as poverty, terrorism, bullying, and environmental concerns were listed by students. I challenged them to identify how issues such as these could be addressed at the various levels.
Then, I asked them to develop a plan of action and a pitch to their classmates to convince others to get involved in addressing their issue.
They were figuring out their own, “What should we do?”
My goal was for students to take action on an issue of choice and see themselves of agents of change despite their age. You don’t need to be an adult to have a positive impact on your community.
Students were asked to carry out at least two acts of civic engagement based on their plans - once in the fall semester, and once in the spring.
The impact that my students had was astounding.
The local bike trail was scoured for litter several times, while a nearby roadway was cleared of 500 lbs of trash. Students volunteered with their churches, packing blessing bags for underprivileged students. They built refugee gardens in an urban neighborhood. Many volunteered with organizations such as the nearby animal shelter and the community food pantry. There were collection drives for the local cancer center, a toy drive for community children in need, and a plastic bag drive to create mats for those living homeless. Students attended borough council meetings and school board meetings. They wrote letters to the President of the United States about national affairs and to their high school principal in hopes of changing the dress code policy. When it snowed students walked their neighborhood to shovel the driveways of elderly community members.
Two projects were especially impactful. One group of students helped revitalize a blighted cemetery that held the remains of several Civil War veterans. Their work was featured by a local news outlet. Another group developed a districtwide Twitter hashtag (#weareredbankvalley), which was used to build school culture and raise hundreds of dollars to benefit their 8th grade class.
At the conclusion of the project students blogged about their experience, reflecting on these questions:
One of the most important aspects of this project for me, as a teacher, was to develop intrinsic motivation in my students as civic activists. For this reason, I was careful not to assign extra credit or bonus points to their project. In order to recognize the efforts of those who were interested in going beyond the project’s scope, I allowed those who participated in more than the required number of actions the opportunity to opt out of a civic issues paper that is normally required in my class. Many students chose this path of extra civic participation despite the fact that no points or grade were attached.
As I have reflected on my original goal of increasing civic engagement in our rural area and how to improve this project in the future, I have come to the conclusion that student input is key. Even though they are on summer break, many of those who have worked so hard this year to make their community a better place have been eager to provide advice on helping next year’s class.
We still have a long way to go in helping our rural students have the same opportunities for civic engagement as their suburban and urban peers. I hope that the work of my students shows that when given that opportunity, students in rural areas can change their world for the better.
Blog Post by Colleen Connors, PTAC Member
Forty years after they last came together as a group, my uncle’s students gathered to pay their respects at his viewing.
They had seen his obituary in the newspaper. It read, “Donald B. Veix, 85 years young, beloved husband for 61 years, served in the US Army, discovered his passion for teaching, and shared his love for literature.”
It was that love which my uncle shared that compelled his former students to contact each other, march into the funeral parlor as a group to pay their last respects, and share their stories with the family. Many shared that that they did not like school and that they had considered dropping out of school until they took my Uncle’s class. His passion for teaching and love of learning became the reason they went to school every day.
After the funeral, my cousin turned to me wearing a sad expression.
“Look at me! I’m just a businessman. What kind of impression do I make? Who is going to remember me?”
Like many of us in attendance that day, my cousin was moved by the lasting impact of my uncle’s passion for teaching and love for his students, even decades after he left the classroom.
My uncle was always approachable, had a great sense of humor, and used every tool at his disposal to reach his students. Forty years later they recalled how he incorporated art, music, history, and theater into his lessons.
What other profession has this kind of impact?
A teacher can touch lives and leave lasting memories, but increasingly too many teachers are paying a toll that seems to outweigh the benefits.
We are losing teachers at alarming rates. Many areas in our Commonwealth and across the country are facing teacher shortages. Too many high school students refuse to even consider the profession, and many veteran teachers are worn out.
A couple of years ago, I received an email from a former student which read:
”I have always seen myself going into the field of education, and because of that, I have been discouraged by others. Everyone says there are no jobs and the pay isn't enough, which is probably true. I look at people like you though, and see that there are many other valid reasons to teach. I could be wrong, but I'd like to believe that you teach because you enjoy seeing us grow. I could always see how happy you were to notice improvement and how disappointed you were when we didn't do our best. You want success for your students sometimes even more than we want it for ourselves, and I truly admire that. Unfortunately, I haven't really had many teachers who inspire me to teach, but you have through your selflessness and kindness. Thank you for all of the time and energy you have put into my education.”
While I was very grateful for the email, I was sad to hear that teachers are not even promoting their own profession.
Maybe it is because many are tired of fighting the same battles that my uncle had to fight 40 years ago.
We are still fighting for fair compensation. In many places, teachers can’t afford to live in the communities where they teach. Many have to take second and third jobs just to make ends meet. Many struggle to pay back the student loans they had to take out in order to get their degree and teaching certificate.
Most people don’t see the amount of work teachers put in before and after the school day. I will never forget something my dad said to me as I sat on his couch grading papers on a Sunday.
“Colleen, do you know what your problem is? You go to work and at work you create work, and then go home and do the work that you created at work.”
That quote defined most of what I do in a nutshell. He was referring to the endless number of unpaid hours I spend grading papers, preparing lessons, or helping students outside of the contracted school day. These are the things we do unconditionally because they are best for our students.
There are hundreds of reasons to teach beyond a paycheck, but teachers struggle to remember them because the demands placed upon us keep multiplying. Many of those demands have nothing to do with the reasons we chose to teach. Teachers are more likely to feel like they are fulfilling their purpose when their energy is focused on helping students learn and develop as successful adults.
As I was leaving school today, another teacher shared a serious safety concern that needed to be addressed immediately. With the number of school shootings on the rise, teachers now have to worry about protecting their students and themselves. This was not part of my job description when I became an educator. I never imagined that active shooter drills would become a necessary part of my professional development.
Leaving the education profession or discouraging our youth from entering the profession will not help improve it. If teachers don’t encourage some of our best and brightest students to become educators, who will be teaching our youth? Rediscovering a passion for teaching and sharing a love for learning will have an impact on students that will last for decades. Sharing our stories with the media and being an advocate for education will have an impact on our communities and our policy makers. Promoting the education profession will improve it and help teachers earn the respect that other professionals like doctors and lawyers receive.
There is power in numbers and if every teacher became an advocate of the profession it would reduce the pressure of the external negative forces each individual educator feels.
Ultimately, teaching is the most rewarding profession.
Remember my cousin’s words:
“What kind of an impression are you going to make, and who is going to remember you?”
Blog Post by Anthony Grisillo, PTAC Member
Twelve hours after celebrating with a former student who had qualified for the national finals in the Reebok CrossFit Games I learned that another student had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.
This is one of the great challenges of teaching.
This emotional roller coaster takes a toll on you. It keeps you up at night reflecting on why you teach and constantly makes you look for better ways to reach and help all of your students.
In 2014, a study shared that people without children consistently live a happier life than those with children. The study also shared that parents actually experience higher highs and lower lows than people without children. Parents have extreme elation when they see their children succeed and be happy, while they also have more stress and fear when they see their children depressed or dealing with difficulty.
I remember reading this study and thinking that it probably relates to teaching.
Teaching is full of ups and downs. There are days when I finish teaching and I think to myself, “I’ve got this. I’m a rockstar, a superhero, an educator changing lives. Nothing can stop me now.” I go home, sing and dance with my family. I am king of the world.
Then I return to the same classroom, in the same building, the very next day and nothing goes right. “I am the world’s worst teacher. What am I doing wrong? Why are kids unable to understand what I am trying to teach?”
That dichotomy doesn’t stop with teaching. I think many professions can be fraught with feelings of inadequacy and superhuman success. But teaching is different—there is an intense emotional investment.
Teachers are a lot like parents. We are elated when we see our students persevere and succeed. We celebrate all of their achievements, honor their accomplishments, and praise their persistence.
But then there is also the flip side. Our hearts ache when we learn of tragedy and disappointment that our students endure. I am not only referring to academic struggles. Those struggles are often the easiest for teachers to handle.
I am referring to those events and situations we can’t control. I’m referring to the moments in too many of our students’ lives that make them feel worthless: the family dysfunction; the unavoidable tragedy robbing them of their childhood; the unattainable expectations of parents who confuse unreachable goals with ambition.
These moments weigh on us. Teachers love their students like they are their own children. Their pain becomes our pain.
I don’t want to imply that teaching is filled with sadness. It is not. The joys definitely outnumber the pains. The successful people that my students have gone on to become fill me with great pride and satisfaction.
Recently for Teacher Appreciation Week, I asked my former students on Facebook to share with me how they were doing. Their stories brought tears to my eyes, not because of disappointment, but rather for all the incredible things they are doing.
In the 1989 movie Parenthood, the character played by Helen Shaw says, “...when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn't like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
This is teaching. Just like parenting, it is like a roller coaster. It is not easy, but it is worth it.
Blog post by Kelly Dougherty, PTAC Member
“I would never want my child to become a teacher.”
This phrase hits me like a sucker punch to the heart. It is one of the saddest statements I hear, and I hear it much too often. I cannot explain logically why teaching is the greatest profession, especially when outside forces with agendas cast our profession in such an unfavorable light.
So, I am not going to explain it logically at all. The things that bring us the greatest joys in life usually aren’t logical.
Instead, I’m going to share the joys of teaching with irrational abandon and unreasonable sentiment.
If your child finds joy in befriending the lonely new kid at lunch, in rescuing house spiders, in spending a cold morning helping an elderly neighbor shovel a snowy sidewalk, and in making tiny but significant differences in her small world, then a teaching career might bring her a lifetime of unquantifiable, completely illogical joy.
These are the qualities we want in our children. Happiness doesn’t come from chasing money, prestige, status.
Helping others. Spreading love. Sharing inspiration. Teaching is one of the few professions that allow these particular personal fulfillments in such a rich way.
Teaching is not a path to fame and fortune. You likely won’t hear about the child who grows up, finds a teaching position in a school where he’s needed, creates an inviting, safe classroom for his students and spends his evenings preparing exciting lessons. You won’t hear about her when she designs global projects for her students and connects them to experts and children in faraway places. You won’t hear about her students’ charity drives and his students’ movie festival. And, there is a reason you won’t hear about these teachers.
They are not unique in this profession. They are the teachers who silently close their doors against the outside noise, and quietly do amazing things for their students. Teachers, as a group, are terrible self-promoters. Most people drawn to this profession are not interested in becoming celebrity teachers or in gaining a big Twitter following. They shine at what they do because teaching kids gives them joy and purpose.
These amazing teachers are not the exception. They stay quiet because they don’t believe what they do in their classrooms is noteworthy. Chances are, they are surrounded by equally amazing teacher colleagues who also are also hesitant to share the incredible things happening in their classrooms.
How do I know any of this? In my elementary school, I teach among the most dedicated and talented teachers. None of them are famous, although they are local celebrities in the eyes of their adoring students and school families. They are too humble to brag about themselves, so I will do it for them.
My school’s art teacher inspires her primary-aged students to stretch beyond their limits and grow as artists. She spent months preparing a school-wide art festival for families to enjoy the students’ showcased artwork. EVERY student was featured in this festival, and many parents expressed the positive effect it had on their children’s self-esteem. But you won’t read about this teacher in the newspaper or see much of her work on Twitter, but she is one of the many gems in my school.
Our kindergarten teachers turn their classrooms into hibernation dens, jungles, and gingerbread houses. Their students put on elaborate shows and start the important journey of becoming readers. All three of these teachers stay long hours into the evening, creating hands-on activities for their wee ones. You won’t hear about these three teachers on the news or see much of their work on Instagram, but the parents in our community love them like family.
Our first-grade teachers are miracle-workers at helping children become confident readers - a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. The second-grade teachers create opportunities for students to pioneer technology through project-based lessons and inspire their students to become writers. The third-grade teachers create media projects, transform their classrooms with flexible seating, and encourage their kids to become math wizards.
Our Spanish Immersion teachers spend hours translating materials, teach lessons exclusively in Spanish to English-speaking students and create classrooms of bilingual students who excel on standardized tests year after year. The instructional assistants in our schools teach intervention groups, volunteer at school events, and organize community outreach programs during the holidays.
My school’s physical education teacher designs and runs an annual school-wide Field Day event, the music teacher creates and directs multiple musicals a year, our librarian organizes author visits and community events, and our enrichment teacher and tech facilitator design breakout projects and create daily school newscasts.
Our Reading Specialist unlocks literacy for kids and is a national expert in her field. Our principal, a former teacher, creates service-learning opportunities, knows every student by name, and makes house visits to families. Our guidance counselor, our Math/MTSS teacher, our ESL teacher, our learning support teacher and every one of our staff members knock it out of the park on a daily basis…but you have never heard of them.
You may never know the names of these teachers, but their names are known by the children they joyfully inspire, love, and give so much of themselves each day.
Someday, you may hear a child - perhaps even your own - tell you that she wants to be a teacher. You will get to choose whether to give encouragement or rejection.
If you believe that we need more people who give of themselves to make the lives of others better and who are committed to making the world a better place, you’ll know what to do.
Because that child who is asking the question may very well end up joining the multitude of teachers who anonymously make a difference in the lives of so many.
Your words of support may help her or him decide to join the world’s most important profession.
As we teachers know so well, sometimes a kind word at the right time can change someone’s world.
by Sara Jones, PTAC Member
It was hard for me to find the time and energy to write this blog post. Each of us only has so much energy, and like many teachers at this time of year, I’m running on fumes.
We find the energy for the things that are important. But, there are always sacrifices.
We find energy to make sure all of our students’ needs are met.
We work to make sure each child’s emotional and physical needs are met so that they can learn. Then, we work to make sure their academic needs or met. As our students have become more needy, we have to expend more energy to give them what they need.
Sometimes we steal energy from our own families to give to our students. We know they love us, and we hope they’ll forgive us. Sometimes we steal energy from ourselves. We sacrifice a little of our own physical and mental health so that our students are OK. Sometimes we sacrifice too much.
I often reflect on all of this. Each day I race against the clock to get everything on my to do list done before finally heading home hours after students have left. As a high school social studies teacher I try to steal minutes to plan lessons that will be relevant and engaging for my students, grade assignments that students have completed, and stay current with new technology that can enhance my curriculum. There never seems to be enough time to do all of that while still teaching the content of my courses, allowing students to understand how the world is interconnected, and helping them recognize and remedy misconceptions.
My day begins at least and hour before the first bell of the morning and several hours after the last bell of the afternoon. And because I am always looking for ways to become better at what I do, I often spend weekends and always spend at least part of my summer on professional development opportunities that I seek out.
I’m not complaining. I’m happy to do what needs to be done for my students to be successful. It’s why I became a teacher. I love my job and I love my students.
But, the longer I have been in the classroom, the more I have been asked to spend energy on things that don’t really help my students. I’m frustrated. My students deserve better.
My students deserve the best me. They deserve my energy to be focused on them and their needs instead of assessments that rank and sort them, but don’t help them learn. They deserve my energy to be focused on them instead of new initiatives, mandates, and procedures that will be forgotten by next year. They deserve my energy to be on them instead of completing paperwork that will be spend more time being filed in a drawer than being read.
My students deserve an education system that allows me to spend my energy on them.
Some claim teachers are not using their time effectively. Those of us in American schools know that we need more time to do our job effectively. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, US teachers spend more time in front of students than teachers in any other country in the world.
Like most of the teachers I know, I am very good at what I do. Imagine how much better we could all be.
Imagine if I had more time and energy to collaborate with those other teachers to share our best practices and work together to create amazing lessons. Imagine if we had the time to give immediate and meaningful feedback on all the assignments our students are working on. Imagine if we had time to read current research about how children learn and books about how to be better teachers - not just during the summer, but all year so that we could immediately put what we learn into practice. Imagine if our policy makers decided to prioritize the mental and physical health of teachers so that they could be better for their students.
Imagine how much our students would benefit.
Imagine how much better their education would be.
by Kimberly Riviere, PTAC Member
When I was 16, an opportunity to travel abroad opened my eyes, heart and mind to the world. Today, as a French teacher, I aspire to open my students’ eyes, hearts and minds to the vast world in which they live.
We know that global awareness is an important 21st century skill, but how do we provide opportunities for students to gain this critical cultural awareness?
Traveling abroad has always been a powerful way to accomplish this goal. Traveling to France and Quebec with students has been instrumental in providing my students with a new lens to view the world. Engaging with local people, sampling their foods, visiting their cultural heritage sites has always shown my students that our similarities are greater than our differences. Each trip lights a spark for travel and cultural understanding for students fortunate enough to participate, but each trip only reaches about 30 students.
Knowing the strong impact of these travel experiences not only on myself, but also on my students, I wondered how these abroad experiences could impact even more children. The answer: technology.
Trips which once impacted about 30 students, now reach hundreds of students in my district. Students back at school can follow along with the trips through daily travel blogs complete with photos, videos and even virtual reality experiences of everything from sites visited to foods tasted.
Students in my classroom used inexpensive Google cardboard Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to experience parts of the trip like never before. They can almost have the experience of being atop the Eiffel Tower, on a boat off the coast of Southern France, or in the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec City.
VR allows students to experience features of the trip virtually, but the greatest excitement came from video conferencing during the trip. For the first time last year while in France with 25 high school students, we used FaceTime to connect live with district French students back at home in Pennsylvania. I turned over my smartphone and a pair of earbuds to students on the trip, and magic happened.
The traveling students became cultural ambassadors and took our district middle and high school students on live tours of our French partner high school, through quaint villages in Provence, and even through a centuries-old olive tree grove. Those who were fortunate enough to be on the trip guided and shared, while the videoconference was projected in classrooms back home. Students in Pennsylvania were able to ask questions about Francophone culture and history; they could ask their traveling classmates about what it is like to be abroad, how much their language skills had improved, and any other questions that piqued their curiosity.
I stood back and watched my students on both sides of the Atlantic engage simultaneously. I have to admit that it gave me goosebumps.
During our March 2018 trip to Quebec, students teleconferenced again. However, this time I was determined to extend the impact of live distance learning to even more students. As a result, I reached out to Anthony Grisillo, a colleague in my school district for help.
My traveling students used Google Hangouts to call into Mr. Grisillo’s library at the Glenwood Elementary School. I turned over my smartphone and pair of earbuds to my students and once again I saw the magic of live global connection. From the top of Mount Royal, two Glenwood alumna, current sophomores in high school, shared 3 clues about their location with the elementary students. The 4th graders spent some time researching and succeeded in figuring out that my sophomores were in Montreal. With Montreal’s skyline as the backdrop, the high school students were able to answer questions from the elementary students and most importantly, inspire them to get out and explore their world.
Traveling cultivates an appreciation for what we do and what we have, but it also opens our imagination to other possibilities, providing us with another lens to view our world. While there is no true substitute for the first hand experience that travel provides, technology promises to give students a taste of the travel experience in ways that weren’t possible before. For many of our students there are two main obstacles to travel abroad: financial restrictions and/or a fear of the unknown. Technology now permits our students to get a taste of that experience without incurring fees nor fears.
Thanks to technology, our students can now connect live and inspire their classmates from half a world away. Vive la technologie!
by Jayda Pugliese, PTAC Member
At its simplest, “STEM” education is where children learn real-world lessons by applying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that connect school, community, and industry. Many teachers typically recognize their passion for STEM education prior to entering the teaching profession; however, my journey to becoming a STEM educator was different than most.
In 2009, I began my career in North Philadelphia as a middle school special education teacher. I always believed that teaching students with disabilities was my calling, because I myself have a disability. I am profoundly hearing-impaired. Throughout college, I focused on building myself into an effective special educator; practicing the art of IEP writing and reading special education law, because I absolutely “knew” that this was what I wanted to do with my life. This mindset was developed through my own struggles in school. I always felt one step behind my peers, academically and socially. As a special education teacher, I would now have the opportunity to be the change I needed when I was a child.
In 2011, my principal needed me to temporarily fill a 7th and 8th grade mathematics teacher vacancy. This position wasn’t my first choice, but I agreed to take it. I knew our school was out of options. Ten teachers had previously taken this position and resigned within a few months because of the challenges it posed.
Over the course of those four months, I struggled. Yet, I was determined to succeed giving those middle school students opportunities to see mathematics differently. In the process, I learned something about myself I hadn’t expected; I love STEM education. The experience changed me. It made me realize that I should utilize my talents where I feel most passionate. By August 2015, I decided leave special education to teach 5th grade Mathematics and Science in a public school in South Philadelphia.
Being relatively new to the STEM world, I was not entirely sure how to approach STEM instruction at first. As a special educator, I always built lessons that allowed students to make real world connections to the core content. I approached the general education setting with a similar focus. In developing projects for my students that allowed them to serve others, they began to see the curriculum as a means to connect to the world outside school. Students were able to see how school lessons could benefit their school, their community, and their world.
Service learning provides students with opportunities to apply knowledge in practical situations. They develop skills while seeing the way learning in school can be applied to help others. They see the relevance in their learning. These projects increase student self-confidence, personal responsibility, and foster valuable workplace skills and habits.
My focus on providing this type of opportunity to children has become the core of how I teach. This school year, my students partnered with the nonprofit organization, Pawsthetics, which helps provide prosthetics for animals in need. Using the 3D Printers in our classroom, the children in my classes were able to design, print, build, test and donate a usable prosthetic for a bulldog in Connecticut. Last school year, students designed and printed a prosthetic hand for a four-year-old girl who was born with a deformity. Her family otherwise would not have been able to afford this device.
My classes also explored social entrepreneurship by using 3D printers to create ornaments that were sold as fundraisers for local and international charities. In each of these cases, all of my students; even my special education students and English Language Learners, are developing the critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity skills that will be vital in their careers. Even more importantly, they are building capacity to be empathic, caring individuals.
Working with new technologies does not guarantee a successful STEM learning experience. In fact, many educators often seem to consider STEM from a perspective in which success in science and mathematics is increasingly important, and technology and engineering are only integrated when appropriate. When teachers begin to divide STEM into individuals subjects it ceases to be true “STEM” learning. Multi-disciplinary integration is key.
There is still no clear consensus among educators on the definition for STEM. However, there are several recurring competencies which are widely accepted as being developed through STEM education. Some of those include developing critical-thinking skills, generating real-world connections to content, and practical use of 21st century skills.
Building these competencies requires a shift in how we teach. Teachers need to move from the more traditional approach of direct instruction to a hands-on, constructivist approach. I have found the following classroom strategies to be helpful in fostering these skills:
Here are some ways that you can get started in using STEM and service learning to develop 21st Century skills and competencies in your students:
1.) Start Small and Plan Big. Start with your students. Have conversations with them. Learn about their passions, about the problems they see in their world from their point of view. From these conversations, try and locate something small in the community which your students can participate. Planning and communicating is key. As teachers, we are the ones that need to figure out how these projects are able to connect to instruction. Whether you are teaching measurement, simple machines, coding, or soft communication skills, there are always learning opportunities which exist when involving the community that can connect to the common core standards. Once you have identified a problem together, invite them to be change-makers. Help them realize that what they believe and what they say matters.
2.) Build Empathy. Ensure students fully understand the purpose for their project. Some key questions to ask are, “Why is this project important?” and “How is this project positively impacting others?” If our goal is to build empathy in our students and to help them see the issue from others’ points of view. Help them realize and believe in their capacity to contribute to the community.
3.) Ideate through Collaboration. Allow students opportunities to come up with lots of ideas they believe will help solve the given problem. Some will be feasible, and some will not. It is important that every student believes their voice is being heard and valued. During this period of brainstorming, have students sort through the ideas to identify which can be used to create solutions to the problem. Help them think critically about each possible solution without imposing your opinions about them. If they start to believe this is a teacher-driven project they will lose ownership over the learning.
4.) Failure is a Learning Opportunity. Not all service-learning projects are going to work the first time. When conducting these lessons, there is always a chance that failure will occur. Maybe your students are unable to construct the irrigation system they wanted to in their community garden. Maybe your students designed something on the 3D printer and it came out unusable. Maybe your students helped build a community structure, but it quickly disassembles. Failure is a normal part of the design process. It allows us to examine our ideas and to make them better. Model for children that failure is a learning opportunity. It is one of the most important skills you can give them.
5.) Involve the Community. My most successful service-learning projects have been successful because I have involved community members, experts, organizations, and charities. Be resourceful and use connections to give your students as many opportunities for success as possible. Use social media accounts like Twitter to reach out to those who may be able to help your students. You will find many willing experts and teachers who would love to discuss your service-learning lesson ideas.
by Jake Miller, PTAC Member
I’m a proud graduate of Panther Valley High School, which a website labeled the “6th worst district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Nestled in the brown belt, coal region of our state, it has suffered economic and social turmoil for decades now. That said, I don’t care one bit about what that website says, the teachers there saved my life. My friends who still teach there are continuing to save lives, day after day. To you, these teachers are just names in a blog, but to me, they are individuals whose actions have tattooed themselves to the way I work, think, and care about others.
Beginning in elementary school, my 2nd grade teacher started the process of saving me. This is the year my parents divorced, and one of my earliest memories is them walking into my room to deliver the news. I remember sobbing so much that it hurt and I couldn’t cry any more – but that’s an anomaly for that year, as the rest of the time I recall only positive feelings in that classroom: playing Heads-Up, 7-Up, loving advanced math problems, acting out skits, and figuring out that I one day wanted to be a teacher. Mr. Rossino and I are still friends 28 years later, as he influenced me to become a sports official.
When I moved districts the following year, I faced a hell that knew no limits. Transitioning at the new school was problematic at best, and a group of students colluded to ensure that I didn’t have any friends that first year. That third grade teacher did little to help, and when I placed glasses on my face, I became the target for most of my peers’ disdain. I was enveloped in a circle of sadness until that teacher faced health problems and we welcomed Ms. Lapos, our substitute for the remainder of the school year. She turned the culture of the class around and helped pair me up with a few friends who I still have to this day.
As my time at elementary school came to an end, I was tested for both gifted and reading support. Mrs. Kennedy, the reading specialist at the time, learned both of those areas were connected, and I suffered from dyslexia. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t differentiate the letters from one another. She taught me how to speed read, and she turned a handicap of mine into an asset.
I took this new skill to middle school, where I met probably the best-connected team of teachers one could ever meet. My math teacher, Mrs. McKee, happened to be my step-aunt, and she fostered a love of the subject that still persists to this day. My science (Mrs. Zubek) and geography teachers (Mrs. Balliet) had this shared bond between them that was so determinant on proficiency before it was used as a commonplace word, that they pulled students at any and all times to ensure that they knew their periodic tables, maps of Central America, and more. They helped all my peers and me succeed in our new setting, and that established success throughout middle school.
Moving to the high school, the influence of my teachers became all that more important. As I began to change my friends, my decisions started to go downhill really quickly. I quit all the sports I belonged to and started using drugs and drinking. We would spend the evenings doing things we thought were funny, but, now hindsight highlights how we were merely knuckleheads and delinquents. It was my teachers in 10th grade and later that turned me around. I still remember the conversation Mr. Morgans and I shared; he told me that I was intelligent in his class without even trying, and that my life might mean something if I took it more seriously. I took his elective classes the following year, and I can still remember the feelings I had as he praised me for being both the finest public speaker he’s ever had, and how he entered my creative writing and poetry into the Scholastic Writing Awards, which I won. He built up this broken young man enough to think that he could go to college, and he took me on college visits with him and his son.
Mr. Hoffman, my math teacher in 10th grade instituted much of the same success in me. After passing 9th grade math by tenths of a point, he upended my bad-boy image and made me feel like a math savant. After earning 100s in all the marking periods, he took it upon himself to teach me how to ace the math component of the SAT, which I did. He also pushed to have our very first AP calculus class, which he taught and I gladly enrolled in, earning my first college credit in my senior year. When I nominated him for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, this tough guy pulled me into his class to ask, "what in God’s name are you doing?”
I told him that he needed props where props were due.
My senior year English teacher was the most recent Panther Valley teacher who influenced me a great deal. As we read texts, I began to see myself in them, and the characters’ struggles became my own. I can’t tell you how many minutes we spent outside of class talking about the texts, and her positive support pulled me away from my friends and full bore into being an academic and life-long reader. When I told her she influenced me to be an English teacher, but how I was worried there wouldn’t be jobs in the depressed market, I’ll never forget how easily Mrs. Turrano told me “there will always be a market for great teachers – and you’ll be a great teacher someday.”
Most of my friends from high school didn’t turnout as well as I did. Some became teenage fathers. Some ended up in jail. Some dropped out. Some felt trapped in their lives. Most did drugs and continued to get in trouble. But I made it. And that’s because of my teachers saved my life, something they’re still doing to this day.