Joe Welch explains his philosophy on teaching with a simple story: He was walking along a Delaware beach this past summer with his daughter Julia, then 6, who was searching for seashells to put into the bucket he carried.
“She picks up one shell and shows it to me and I remember saying, ‘That one has a hole in it. Why do you want that one?’ And she said, ‘Well, I can make an ornament out of it.’ Another one was broken, and she said, ‘I can make something out of it.’ She kept putting these shells in, even a dirty one. ‘That one’s still beautiful,’ she said.
“And just like that, she put it all into perspective,” says Joe, also father to 4-year-old Noah. “Everybody comes with their own story. How often do you get that situation where somebody doesn’t need help to be made into something better?”
Welch, of North Hills Middle School, is Pennsylvania’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, nominated by fellow history teacher Larry Dorenkamp. A teacher in the North Hills School District for 13 years, Welch has a knack for engaging students in the classroom and on field trips, nudging them to learn by relating history to their lives, and making them care about the world around them.
He’s in it 24/7, practicing lesson plans at home after school, often trying out ideas by rapping, which amuses his kids and his wife, Sarah. Last year, Joe was named National History Teacher of the Year.
He exemplifies the school district’s motto of “pride, tradition and excellence,” says Superintendent Patrick J. Mannarino. “This is an amazing accomplishment for Welch, and we thank him for representing our district with pride and for all he does for our students.”
Welch humbly credits others — his father, Tom, who taught at North Hills before him, and Dorenkamp, a friend with whom he texts daily to test out ideas — with inspiring him to teach and helping him to grow in his career. He talks animatedly about his job, as if it really isn’t a job but more a way to connect with people when they’re young and, hopefully, as their life goes on.
“People ask what this award means to me,” he says. “It’s a testament to the great people I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and continue to work with, every day. [Teaching] is, without a doubt, such an invigorating and inspiring experience. You don’t know the impact you’re going to have, from a day-to-day standpoint, but also long-term. It’s so fulfilling to have a previous student come back and let you know that you made them feel positive about themselves, or inspired them to take a career path, or even that you just made some difference in their life.”
On the day he spoke with us, Welch took his class to the Carnegie Library in Oakland to explore microfilm as part of an oral history project. The kids are putting together a documentary to show how history impacts everyone’s lives. They can interview anyone they choose. Some students talked with a local person, but others looked beyond Pittsburgh, choosing to Skype or FaceTime with a Holocaust survivor or a witness to the first post-apartheid election in South Africa.
Through the project, the students are learning much more than how to tap community resources, use the microfilm machine or produce a short documentary. Welch quotes a line from the musical “Hamilton” to illustrate it: “If you have skin in the game, you stay in the game, but you don’t get a win unless you play in it.”
“It’s learning how to talk to people, and how to listen to other people’s experiences and to empathize. That’s a skill that’s underrated and usable throughout their lives,” he says. “They’re learning to read people’s emotions. … We had a student interview someone who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and he broke down during that interview. It promotes understanding.”
North Hills teaches history sequentially, presenting eighth-graders with early American history, starting with European exploration at Jamestown, Va., and through the years to Reconstruction. In ninth grade, they continue on through the Cold War years.
“When you look at our content, it could be difficult on the surface to have a kid connect with it. ‘What was life like in 1609 in Jamestown and why should I care about that?’” Welch says. “Yes, fashion changes, technology changes, there’s so many things that change — but what’s the common theme? One, they involve people and two, every person has an emotion, whether it’s George Washington as a 21-year-old going through Western Pennsylvania and making many mistakes, or you. They think, ‘Hey, I make mistakes, too.’”
What works for one group of students one year might not work the next time, though. Welch acknowledges that students have their own personal or family issues they might bring into the classroom. Reaching them as individuals is the primary goal.
“When you close the [classroom] door, you have a relationship with that kid,” he says. “If you understand that everybody comes with their own story and challenges, you recognize that and move forward: ‘There is a goal and you’re going to accomplish it.’ For one student, that may be completely different than another student.”
He’s cognizant that students need more than what history books provide so that they get a fuller picture of historical figures and definitions of early America.
Welch hopes that more people will choose to become teachers. Pennsylvania follows a national trend in dealing with a teacher shortage. The state used to license more than 14,000 new teachers annually, but Pennsylvania Department of Education officials say the number of education majors has dropped 55 percent since 1996 and the number of new teaching certificates issued has fallen 71 percent since 2009.
And even with achievements that have earned him honors, Welch has his own goals — of not becoming complacent as a teacher, and of recognizing what students need as individuals.
“I want to push myself to continue to grow and learn and be humble that I don’t know everything,” he says. “I do not want to be somebody who’s not willing to be dynamic and change things up.”