NEWFOUNDLAND- The simple desire to do good, is the foundation of Michael Soskil's goal as an educator.
When Soskil was considering a major in college, he figured the best way to shape the future was by working with kids. Today, his intent has succeeded and to recognize his work, President Barrack Obama has named Soskil one of 102 math and science teachers in the country to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Soskil, who is the head teacher at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School, had to complete an intensive application process that began in 2011. Now, he is excited because it is the highest honor a math or science teacher can receive in the United States. As someone who is passionate about teaching math, Soskil says he can't imagine anything more thrilling.
The initial selection process was at the state level, where Soskil was one of two teachers selected from Pennsylvania. The 2012 awardees teach kindergarten through 6th grade. As an educator, Soskil says he helps to inspire kids to, "wonder and question and think critically about what they see in the world." Teaching itself, he says is not nearly as important as how the lessons are taught because the most important things can't be measured. He explains that too often, standards focus on test data and information that is measurable. Instead, he says it's the, "unmeasurable and being able to shape the future by helping kids," that's important.
Nominated by retired principal Dr. Nancy Simon, Soskil had to provide a 45 minute video of one of his lessons, a 15 page reflective paper on the lesson, three letters of recommendation, his resume and about 10 additional pages of supplementary materials. He submitted the materials and learned of his state standing a few months later. That, was exciting in itself, he says because he was named one of three top math teachers in Pennsylvania. There was a lot of waiting though, in part because of the government shutdown. But he learned of the presidential award in December. The process of putting the materials together, Soskil says can be compared to taking a three credit graduate course, but ultimately he says its, "very worthwhile," not because he won, but rather because he was able to look at himself teaching and having to reflect on everything. That, he says was, "great professional growth."
Having been selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators, Soskil says it's a, "little overwhelming and humbling." Soskil didn't learn of his winning from a phone call or letter in the mail. Instead, he received a tweet from a reporter at the Scranton Times congratulating him. With an idea of what it may be, he did a Google search and found the press release from the White House with his name.
Soskil hasn't been notified of a date when he will receive the award. But, he will go to Washington D.C. where there will be three days of educational and celebratory events where he will meet members of Congress and others. In the past, Soskil says there have been presenters from the National Oceanographic Society and meetings with professionals from NASA. He expects the days to be, "neat." Despite the celebrities and national figures that will be present, more than anyone else, Soskil says he is excited to meet the other winners. He explains that learning from other teachers has taught him so much through the years. Networking, Soskil says is a big part of what he does and he believes it is part of the reason why he is in the position he is.
Considering the time constraint, Soskil doesn't think there will be anytime to chat with President Obama about politics and so he would be happy just to shake his hand. Aside from the trip, Soskil will receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation which he says is, "fantastic." But really, it's the other parts of winning that he says are more important to him. He laughs that the award is great, but it's the opportunities that lie ahead that he really looks forward to.
Simon knew Soskil before he was a teacher because she was once his principal. Her reasoning for nominating him, she says is because he has always been, "very visionary," where he looked forward and tried to integrate technology into his lessons, which she says was very, "cutting edge with the math in the district." Simon says Soskil is different than other techers because he is not afraid to try something new. Rather than simply learning about the subject, she says Soskil actually tries the material first. Simon adds that she is really proud of Soskil.
A Wallenpaupack graduate, Soskil says he is, "blessed," to work in the same district he graduated from. The culture of learning and collaboration that exists at Wallenpaupack, Soskil says has influenced him as a teacher and he doesn't feel he could be where he is, if not for the teachers he works with.
The entire experience, Soskil says has been "humbling," because he didn't go into the profession for awards and so it was never expected. As a teacher he says, "you think about your students, about the difference you can make for them." Wining now he says is, "overwhelming a little bit and pretty amazing."