December 21, 2016

Global Teacher Prize finalist Michael Soskil named 2017 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year

Voice: May 2016  (updated Dec. 2016)

Michael Soskil is an elementary science teacher in the Wallenpaupack Area School District. Newfoundland, the rural, northeastern Pennsylvania town where his school is located, boasts one grocery store and one gas station.

Despite this, Soskil has made the world his classroom. Through his Distance Teaching Project at South Elementary School, he uses Skype to connect his students with others from countries across the globe. And now the world has recognized this innovative, inspiring teacher.

In March, Soskil was honored as a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize in Dubai. The award, in its second year, is often referred to as the "Nobel Prize for teaching,'' and bestows a $1 million prize to the winner.

In December, Soskil received additional honors when he was named the 2017 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. 

Elevating the teaching profession

The Global Teacher Prize recognizes some of the best teachers in the world. It is awarded by the Varkey Foundation, a charitable education foundation based in the Middle East.

"Sunny Varkey, who runs the foundation, decided that teachers weren't looked upon with the same kind of prestige that they should be," Soskil said. "They weren't treated as professionals around the world, based on the job they are doing and how they're making the world a better place. He decided to use his resources to do something about that. And he has created a movement to raise the prestige of the teaching profession."

Soskil, who is in his 19th year of teaching, was also a top 50 finalist in 2015.  The competition is intense - this year there were 8,000 applications from 148 different countries.

"I don't think anyone ever goes into teaching for the prestige or for the recognition," Soskil said. "I was honored to be nominated. One of the things that's really thrilling to me is that it happened to be my story that was on the front page of the newspapers, and that was personally exciting.  But more exciting to me was the fact that it was a positive education story that was getting out there on the front page of newspapers, that teachers were being seen as respected professionals."

Soskil has inspired his students and his peers through the passion he has for teaching. He plans to use this opportunity to pay it forward, and make sure colleagues across the country and around the world now get the spotlight for the amazing things they are doing in their classrooms.

He also has been heavily involved in PSEA, serving as a delegate to the House of Delegates, and also helping to organize certain activities for the Association's delegation at the NEA Representative Assembly.

"Being recognized on this level, you have a responsibility to give back to the profession," he said. "Now that my story has been told, I'm going to seek out other stories that need to be told, so that people know the exceptional job teachers do in shaping future generations."

Hometown hero

As a ninth-grade student in honors geometry at Wallenpaupack Area High School, Soskil made a mark on math teacher Colleen Connors.

"I was a student teacher," Connors said. "He was an energetic, enthusiastic learner who would think outside the box. He was a creative problem-solver."

When Soskil was offered a teaching job at his alma mater, Connors was thrilled. She believes his dedication to his hometown is evident in all he does.

"He coached the boys' junior high soccer team that my son was on," she said. "At that time, there wasn't a girls' soccer team and my daughters, along with their friends, wanted the opportunity to play at the high-school level. Mike became our first girls' varsity head soccer coach. He was instrumental in starting a program that has since grown. This is a perfect example of how Mike sees a need for something and takes action."

Soskil's passion for teaching is felt by many of his colleagues. He has created a Professional Learning Network in the district that has brought value to all educators - from his fellow STEM colleagues to the art director, Debbie Pulst.

"Whether it's informally over coffee, in the faculty room before school starts or offering professional learning opportunities for credit after school, Michael always seems to be on the cutting edge of beneficial change for education and he's willing to share with his colleagues," Pulst said. "In the last five years, of my 30 total, taking his classes and growing my own Professional Learning Network has completely changed my teaching for the better."

Soskil's enthusiasm is felt by his students as well, and his colleagues can attest to the impact he's had on them.

"My students look forward to having science," said Karianne Politowski, a fourth-grade teacher at South Elementary. "After a Skype call to a penguin rehabilitation center in South Africa, my students have started a campaign to reduce the amount of plastic they put into the garbage in order to help keep penguins safe. Instead of throwing away plastic straws and containers at lunch, they take them to the art room to be used for paint cups and stirrers."

Soskil's involvement with the Global Teacher Prize gives his students hope - and broadens their view of their own futures.

"Mr. Soskil's having been chosen as one of the top 10 teachers in the world has been an inspiration to them," Politowski said. "If he can be recognized on the world stage having grown up in this town, then they can too someday."

Passion with purpose

Soskil believes that every problem in the world has a solution locked inside the passions of our students.

 "Our job as teachers is allowing our kids to see the connections that their passions have to solving the world's problems," he said.

The service aspect of Soskil's teaching is powerful. Tools like Skype and the Internet make it easy to connect with others around the world, and provide students in this culturally isolated area with different points of view.

"Parents love the excitement that their children share when working on project-based learning with Mr. Soskil," said Tanya Cunningham, a fifth-grade teacher at North Intermediate School. "They appreciate the real-life, hands-on projects their students are so passionate about. Every parent I have spoken to is truly grateful for Mr. Soskil's energy and passion, and his willingness to try to change the world for the better. It is truly contagious!" 



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