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‘I Let My Guard Down’ To Connect With Students, Says PA’s 2020 Teacher Of The Year

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Joe Welch, center, works with students during an escape room-style lesson.

During a recent lesson, Joe Welch asked his eighth grade American History students to identify issues they want to change in America. The North Hills Middle School students list everything from gun control to climate change.

“So you want to make these changes, what do you do about it? What can you do about it in eighth grade?” he asks the students.

He moves to an escape-room style activity involving a series of puzzles about the Constitution that help students break open a locked box. Eventually one group successfully cracks the code and discovers that the prize is a stack of envelopes addressed to state senators and local representatives. His students then write letters about issues they’d like the lawmakers to prioritize.

Welch said his focus is always to shape empowered and civically engaged students. He likes to connect today’s legislative process to historical events and figures to get students to that point. He’s also always trying to find new ways to teach the content, which he says has served him well.

“I’m happy coming to work every day and I think that as long as that happens and I can be an effective teacher, this is what I want to be doing,” he said. “I really don’t want – and this is a fear of mine – to be the teacher that comes in knowing I’m going to do the exact same lesson plan from last year. I think that’s doing a disservice to students. But I think there’s also no joy in that. There’s no challenge in that as a teacher.”

Welch was named Pennsylvania’s teacher of the year in December. The honor recognizes outstanding educators nominated by students, peers and community members.

According to Welch, he thinks vulnerability makes him a great educator.

“I let my guard down all the time. I tell stories about my personal background. I think being willing to just be myself everyday … I think students see that I’m a real person,” he said.

He also says a background in theater has helped him be increasingly comfortable with reacting on the fly and engaging in creative lessons like the escape room-style one. Embracing cultural movements, too, has made his job easier. He said he thinks there has been a renewed focus on American history thanks to the Hamilton musical. The production also highlighted erasure and the need to think about whose stories aren’t being told. That’s something Welch is interested in confronting.

On the first day of school he asks his students to draw “what they feel American history is.” Out of 110 students, more than 80 this year drew George Washington, 20 drew Abraham Lincoln and only two drew women and two drew people of color.

“Then I prompt students I say ‘what are you telling me American history is as far as what you have learned? And who are we leaving out of the narrative here?’ And I think that’s the more important piece. Because if we are defining American history as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, of course they made some absolutely important contributions to our country and to our history, but there is so much more,” he said.

When teaching the Civil War, for example, Welch has students examine narratives from people enslaved and also enlisted. 

"This gives more of a clearer view of that event, while also incorporating many voices not often integrated into the larger Civil War narrative," he said.

As the state’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, Welch will spend this year traveling the state to meet with other educators to discuss best practice.