WALLENPAUPACK - Michael Soskil believes opportunity, support and autonomy are the key to positive change.
When teachers provide those things, students have the "ability to change the world in meaningful ways" said Soskil, who is a science teacher at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School and has been named one of the top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize.
After implementing his philosophy through global collaboration and service learning projects that include, students raising funds for water filters in Africa, and other students adopting a penguin they named Glacier; Soskil said he feels his application of the projects, may be the reason he has been named one of the Top 10 educators in the world, by the Varkey Foundation.
When students have an emotional connection with the subject they are learning, it is then, Soskil said the information will translate into their long-term memory. Soskil chose to be a teacher because he "wanted to do good in the world" and by giving experiences to children that would offer them the opportunities, which means his goal is happening.
By connecting students to others around the world via Skype, Soskil who is a Wallenpaupack graduate, said has been a way to introduce students to others outside of the district. Skype has been essential, because aside from being free, it has brought a realm of experiences into the classroom, as students have talked with professionals at museums and students who can relate to what they are learning.
It was after seeing students connect with others through the global lessons and being exposed to real world problems, that they attempted to address, that Soskil said he realized his "passion for service learning" and including community projects into the curriculum.
When he became a teacher, Soskil knew he wanted to give children life skills that "would allow them to be successful in life" he said. As he taught, it was then that Soskil's "passion for letting kids solve problems" evolved. Seeing students realize their own power was special, because it kept their interest in the subject they were learning.
The success of his lessons continued, as students started to discover problems themselves. This allows the students to take "ownership" as their passion for learning grows, because they chose the problem to solve.
Previously named to “Top 50”
Being named to the top 10, even though he was named to the top 50 last year, Soskil said was "unexpected" because of the feats all of the other finalists have achieved in their careers, by "changing the world in amazing ways." To be recognized among them is an "honor," and to be in the top 10 is "pretty cool."
Soskil knew of his placement before it was announced by renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, which he said was "Wow!" Being sworn to confidentiality, Soskil noted was difficult, but if he revealed his placement, he would have been disqualified from the award that is considered the Noble Prize for teachers. He was able to tell his wife, however. Seeing Hawking announce the winner was a surprise, and that was exciting as he too is a science teacher, which led Soskil to start "totally geeking out," he laughs about.
Knowing the obstacles some of the other finalists face, because of the poverty that exists, Soskil said is "powerful" because those educators do not give up hope.
Through the projects that show the students they are "powerful," Soskil said he hopes students realize they can make a difference, if they use their learning to solve problems.
Sharing what he has gained through various lessons with other teachers is important, Soskil said and "good teachers are all thieves." He explained that, by sharing ideas the successes and failures of the classroom become known, and students learn more, as it offers them additional experiences.
Heading to Dubai
As a top 10 finalist, Soskil will head to Dubai where the winner with be announced in March. While there, he will meet winners from last year and the latest educators who have been recognized as the top 50 in the world during a summit, where the educators will discuss ways to empower teachers and see how they can influence change in the education system, to make learning better for kids, which is "exciting" Soskil said.
There were initially 8,000 applicants from 148 countries who applied for the award. Making this placement, and figuring the "why" he was chosen, is something Soskil said he has "struggled with personally" because of the "incredible" work so many others are doing. His conclusion is that, the "stars have aligned and planets have converged" to show his philosophy works, as he now has examples of the service projects successes.
Soskil learned of his placement via a Skype call, which he was "shocked" to receive, he said because it was unexpected, despite placing in the top 50 two years in a row. He explained that, although his message is strong and application was great, he questioned if it was enough to move people the same way others' work has affected him.
As a finalist and even if he wins, Soskil hopes to have an "influence in decision" making, so he can share his knowledge and address issues within the education system. Also, he will "advocate for things that are good for our students and teachers" he said.
Focusing on his students
If he wins, Soskil will receive $1 million. With that, he plans to use the money to promote education, but at this time, he is not completely sure how. While there are children with dreams to make a difference, the problem is that the possibility of their efforts can be hindered because of funding. And so, a foundation to support the students' projects, Soskil said is an idea as they will allow for "great change in the world" because of the students' passions. Through such a foundation, he would like to create "pockets of awesomeness" in places around the world, where opportunities weren't as easily possible.
Being recognized for the impact he has had on students, is "special and humbling" Soskil said because it shows that from the students' projects, that what he is passionate about has resonated outside of the school.
The best part of the job, Soskil said is the "kids" and seeing their love of learning. If he wins, Soskil will be required to teach for five more years. He plans to continue at the South School, because he wants to "empower kids in my hometown." He concluded that, spending the rest of his career as a science teacher in Newfoundland would be great, because it is what he loves, and "whatever else comes on top if that, is just a cherry on top."