“If I had to quickly summarize, it’s been really just a career that I’ve looked forward to continue growing and will do so in the future.”
“Not only did it lead to that historical conversation, it was also another pathway, as I said earlier, to get students to smile in a time that had a lot of uncertainty.”
“And I tell students, it’s not what you know it’s what you can do with what you know. How can you communicate your thoughts to maybe somebody that doesn’t agree with you, to somebody that doesn’t understand you?”
“I think many teachers, our gas levels are sometimes around E. But it became this way to refill ourselves.”
“When we come out of this post-COVID world, we’re going to hit the ground running. And I don’t really mean that with teacher speak, I really do mean that we can come out of this with an opportunity to take these positives and move forward.”
“…equity is now such a piece that has come to the forefront when I am delivering whatever type of lesson it is.”
Q: Can you first start by telling us a little bit about your career in teaching?
A: Absolutely. It’s hard to believe how fast time does fly. I always still consider myself a young teacher but I’m in my 14th year of teaching here in North Hills, so I’m now middle of the pack if I had to put that out there. But really, I’ve spent my entire career teaching social studies here at North Hills Middle School. Actually, we started off as a junior high so we’ve seen that evolution from the junior high experience to the middle school. I don’t want to call it a movement but the reawakening of the middle school experience.
And throughout my entire career, I’ve really been blessed to have supportive administration, supportive school boards, really supportive colleagues that have put me in positions to continue to grow and continue to learn and not just learn from my colleagues but also to be able to give back and participate in trainings and developments, not just in-house in district but also seeking out colleagues from all around Pennsylvania and really all throughout the United States and the world. So if I had to quickly summarize, it’s been really just a career that I’ve looked forward to continue growing and will do so in the future.
Q: That’s great. Obviously you said you’ve been teaching for 14 years but this school year has been anything but traditional, but it seems that you view it as a motivating factor to change things up. Can you tell us a little bit about the attention you’re getting for some of the creative ways to fill your classrooms empty seats while students are learning from home?
A: Oh, certainly, this year is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And I think in many ways it’s a cliché but in many ways obviously it’s true, and it’s been stated time and time again. And I know myself and my colleagues every year, we’re looking to change things up. How can we improve? And this year’s really no different, it’s just coming in with that mindset of how can we spur more student conversations? How can we do things a little bit better than last year? How can we be more equitable than last year? And so, walking into this school year, looking around it really from a physical standpoint — obviously with physical distancing and social distancing and having to have kids spread out — I knew that I was not going to have my full classes in and that’s why I had the idea really thinking about, “Well, how can I make students want to smile? How can we make them physically feel like this is a… I don’t want to say a normal classroom, but a normal classroom experiences as much as possible.”
But also, I open my class every school year with a simple question, as a history teacher, I ask them, “What does American history look like to you?” And I ask students at the start of the year, “Can you draw this? Draw what you think American history is.” And that always leads to some great conversations about what is and what isn’t American history or how we think of it. And I thought that by putting some craftsmanship together here and putting some cardboard cutouts and some images of American icons.
For that matter people that they don’t know who it is that’s sitting next to them in my seats, it would accomplish multiple things more so than just the physical standpoint of, “Hey, there’s somebody in my seat, so I can’t sit here. Who’s Frederick D? Why is he sitting next to me? I know Abraham Lincoln, he must be this popular guy but do they have some relationship?” And it really has spurred that conversation in my classroom throughout the entire year. I did this back in August, “Okay, why are these people significant? Don’t just accept that American history is only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, what about all of these other people? And then who else can we add to this conversation?” So it’s really been a gift, that they call it a gift that keeps on giving, it really has been a contributing factor throughout the year.
Q: So you’ve physically got these historical characters sitting there and what a great, prompter of discussion.
A: Admittedly, when the students first came in the first week of school, I think they were a little bit puzzled, “What is going on here?” Because they may have seen it at sporting events. But I did have a little fun as well. I had some different administrators and different staff members from around the district. So not only did it lead to that historical conversation, it was also another pathway, as I said earlier, to get students to smile in a time that had a lot of uncertainty.
Q: Yeah, absolutely. That’s for sure needed. So you’ve talked a bit about the students’ reaction when they first came into classroom and the types of conversation that it sparked. And so, do you see a difference in teaching the curriculum this way over years past or would this just fall into the category of that, each year looking for a new way to teach and that year-over-year evolution?
A: I certainly think that it’s as you said, a year-after-year evolution or revolution however we would want to call it. But I think bringing these cardboard cutouts, it was a small gesture that I could make or a small piece but it can miss the overall philosophy that the students they want to engage with history, they want to engage with any curriculum, whether it’s a math class or a science class, they want to feel part of it and immersed in it and really want to have that ability to ask questions of, “Why are we learning this? Why am I sitting next to Frederick Douglas or why is it significant?” But the cardboard cutouts as I said, it was a small piece to that. But just going with this entire philosophy of, how can I. And I tell students, it’s not what you know it’s what you can do with what you know. How can you communicate your thoughts to maybe somebody that doesn’t agree with you, to somebody that doesn’t understand you?
And so, all of this just builds up to that entire philosophy of how can you communicate and do it effectively. And that’s what we’ve had to do throughout this entire year as far as thinking outside the box or thinking creatively to still allow students to use their voice and to ask questions and to participate in the entire school year obviously. And to do so as another added opportunity, how can we do that equitably? And so if we call it an evolution yes, but COVID certainly has caused us to expedite that evolution in many ways.
Q: Yeah, absolutely. I think in so many respects. What are some other ways that you’ve changed your approach to instruction throughout this year of remote teaching?
A: Just like so many schools in Pennsylvania, we’ve had a little remote, we’ve had a little hybrid, we’ve had a little in-person and we don’t know what’s coming next. And ultimately, I’m a firm believer in many of my own learnings, in the power of place. That I want to get students on-site so that they can learn by being places now. With our own model that we’ve had here at North Hills school district, pretty much every Wednesday we’ve had a virtual day and rather than look at that as, this is something that’s prohibitive, “Now, what am I going to do on this Wednesday? Am I just going to… Obviously I don’t want to have students do a worksheet or something along those lines. How can I still be engaging here and let them get to something that maybe they wouldn’t normally have experienced?”
So every Wednesday, really throughout the fall, myself and two other colleagues that I teach with in eighth grade are both of my American history colleagues. We started to think, “Can we go around? Pittsburgh is a pretty historic city.” And one of the things that we learn about unfortunately, many of our students, they haven’t been to some of these places that are local to them. Maybe they’re five miles down the road or maybe they’ve been there and they haven’t experienced it yet. So that’s where we started to have this idea of can we start taking these virtual, I don’t want to call them field trips, but road shows. Allowing students and we started off, when we learned about the French and Indian war, we started by going to Fort Duquesne which is really at the crux of the three rivers in Pittsburgh.
And then we started to branch out of, “Okay, what’s next?” Then students started saying, “Where are you going next Wednesday?” And it became really this…I think many teachers, our gas levels are sometimes around E. But it became this way to refill ourselves of, “Okay. Yeah, they like this. This is great. This is allowing them to experience something.” So that’s when we started to go out to Ligonier, to Fort Necessity.
And then we thought, “Okay, what’s next? Let’s go to Washington, DC.” And we started going to different places around not only Western Pennsylvania but the entire east coast. And we had some additional plans here before some travel restrictions went into place. I know we were looking forward to spending a weekend or at least going up on a Tuesday night to Philadelphia to be able to go to Independence Hall. So we have some things… Hopefully, if the numbers start to go our way, we can continue bringing those experiences to students. That’s just one way that we’ve looked to engage our students and really bring some light out of a negative situation.
Q: Yeah. I don’t know, that might become so popular. You might be called upon to do that even when the students returned to in-person. It’s a way to almost accomplish, as you say, maybe you don’t call it a field trip but on-site teaching, something of that nature. That could be something that sticks. That sounds really fun for both you and the students. So how about connecting with fellow teachers? In what ways have you made connections with fellow teachers during this pandemic and particularly around some of these inventive approaches that you’ve been using?
A: That’s a great question. Looking back to, even just last spring, I think many teachers felt a term that I’ve seen time and time again was Groundhog Day. Okay. We keep doing the same things over and over and it feels almost like you’re walking in quicksand. How can we collaborate to move forward? And what really has happened is because of that collaboration — and I mentioned earlier, that our gas tanks sometimes get a little in your E but how can you refill it? And I mentioned, students are inspiring, but also just looking around the solutions that other teachers have offered and getting that encouragement. And often for me, it’s through my own professional learning networks, through organizations that I’m involved in. And I know so many teachers are on Twitter and other social media platforms inspiring each other and saying, “Here’s what’s working for you.” Even just asking the question, “What can I do with this lesson? How can I improve this lesson? and being willing.
And I think this is across the board for so many teachers, not just in Pennsylvania but obviously throughout the world. But having that humility to say, “Okay, I might not have the best idea here but how can I improve it?” And it’s been really inspiring. And one organization that has really impacted me and network of teachers that I’m involved with, it’s called the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. We saw a need not only to respond and support each other, but we were able to put up a pop-up history school together in the spring for students that may have had seen their history classes, maybe only meeting two days a week. And then from there it grew into, how can we support other teachers? And we had teacher seminars over the summer where we had historians and LEAD scholars from different organizations at different schools throughout prestigious universities that we were able to collaborate with.
And I’m looking forward to in the spring, getting back we have another pop-up history school coming back. And this kind of fuel outside of the regular school day, and I keep referring to that term because that’s what it is. I think we’re all looking for that continued inspiration and looking for those networks of other teachers of what’s working, what’s not working, how can we improve? That’s just one example of it. And I think we’re all, for lack of better terms, surviving in many ways but also, we can do that and still continue to learn and continue to push our borders here of what we’re comfortable with. So that way, when we come out of this post-COVID world, we’re going to hit the ground running. And I don’t really mean that with teacher speak, I really do mean that we can come out of this with an opportunity to take these positives and move forward.
Q: Yeah. And if you had to think about some of what you’ve learned over this past year, some of these new methods you’ve explored and the new ways that you’ve engaged both teachers and students, is there anything that you think you definitely want to hang on to and incorporate even going forward when things resume normalcy?
A: Oh, definitely. And I think the overarching word is equity. I think that this entire experience is not only from a district level, state level but just individual decisions that are made every single day of how I’m approaching a lesson, equity is now such a piece that has come to the forefront when I am delivering whatever type of lesson it is. Is it accessible to every student? Again, using the term “equitable,” am I doing the right things to be flexible to the needs of every student? This experience has given all of us an opportunity to pause as busy as it’s been.
And I know everybody has busy schedules but looking into our own lessons and looking into our own systems and thinking, “How are we going to do this moving forward?” Because we can’t just go back to how things were because it’s the same inequitable system. So, are we catering the needs to every student to get them what they need? And I think that’s what’s going to stick with me. Because I now analyze and sometimes overanalyze almost to a point of paralysis. Is every decision I’m making good for everybody?
Joe Welch, an American History teacher from suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, currently serves as the 2020-21 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and was previously honored as 2019 National Middle Level Educator of the Year and Pennsylvania Social Studies Teacher of the Year. He is also recognized as a Gilder Lehrman Institute Master Teacher and was recognized as Gilder Lehrman’s National History Teacher of the Year in 2018. An Apple Distinguished Educator and National Board Certified Teacher, Joe is a strong believer in bringing diverse stories, personal emotions and community connections into his lessons as well as fostering excitement for quality and engaging educational opportunities.