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The Global Stage: Mike Soskil '97, G'09

The Global Stage: Mike Soskil '97, G'09
Mike Soskil teaches Wallenpaupack South Elementary School students in 2015.

BIG THINGS are possible, even in a small town. 

That’s something science teacher Mike Soskil ’97, G’09, Global Teacher Prize finalist, tries to teach his Wallenpaupack South Elementary School students, whether through science experiments, Skyping abroad or service. His commitment to broadening his students’ horizons is why he returned to Newfoundland, his hometown. 
“I wanted kids in my hometown to know how much they mattered and to know that they could dream big, even though they were from an area where there was quite a bit of poverty,” he said. 

A Big Deal 

When Soskil was chosen as a top 10 finalist for the Varkey Foundation’s $1 million prize — sometimes called the Nobel Peace Prize of education — he set an unprecedented community example. The prize is presented annually to “an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to [his/her] profession.” Here was a teacher from Northeastern Pennsylvania — inspired, energetic, curious — being recognized in a way teachers are often not. 

Now this head teacher is making it his mission to ensure other teachers get the recognition they deserve. Locally, he encourages fellow teachers to call the newspapers to discuss projects and talk openly about how they’re influencing students. He also networks with teachers through speaking engagements, conferences and Twitter. 

“Teachers do something great, and they say, ‘It’s not a big deal.’ Well, it is a big deal. And if other people knew about it, they’d think it was an amazingly big deal,” Soskil said. 

This year’s Global Teacher Prize wasn’t the first time he was recognized. He was a 2015 top 50 finalist for the prize and, in 2013, at the White House, he won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government for K-12 math and science teaching. He is also recognized as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, one of a handful who “represents the best of the best when it comes to using technology to reinforce critical 21st-century skills.” He is now a finalist for the 2017 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. 

Prior to teaching science during the 2015-2016 school year, Soskil served as a curriculum coach at his current school, brainstorming and implementing ways to make material more relevant to students. 

“We did everything from bringing in the chief bracketologist from USA Today to talk to our calculus students about how he uses calculus to develop his NCAA bracket to bringing in LeVar Burton from ‘Reading Rainbow’ to read his book to our first-graders,” he said. 

In March, Soskil sat in front of an audience of thousands, including his wife and mom, at the Global Teacher Prize ceremony in Dubai. He was awaiting the announcement of the winner, thinking, “What will I do if I win?” But he also considered, “What will I do if I don’t win?” The answer was the same: “I want to change the narrative for teachers and start telling the stories of the great things that are happening in education to inspire the kid who doesn’t know if he or she wants to be a teacher, or to inspire the teacher who is feeling beat down after years of teaching.” 

Soskil was grateful to have gotten to know his fellow finalists. “As much as I wanted to win, I also was rooting for each of them, because I knew they had amazing stories to tell and a great message for teachers of the world,” he said. 

Teaching in a Virtual World 

Soskil didn’t win the grand prize, but he went home “thrilled” for the winner, Hanan Al Aroub from Palestine, and with a deeper understanding that “students need to have autonomy over their learning in order to be truly engaged in the learning process.” 

“We know that kids brings their own passions to the classroom and their own unique perspective on things,” he said. “So we try to expose students to as many different, passionate people in the world … and varying points of view … as we can, through video conferencing.” 

In the past two years, Soskil and his students have connected via multimedia technology with more than 70 different countries, the international space station and Antarctica. Social innovators, national park rangers and scientists share their passions and help to supplement classroom learning.

These “virtual field trips” involve real-time questions and often lead students to want to delve deeper and “do more,” Soskil said. 

In fact, his students connected with children in Kansas and Greece to raise more than $12,000 for water filters to protect 3,000 against disease in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. It began when Soskil’s students also set up a “cultural exchange,” sharing songs and stories with the Kenyan students. The Wallenpaupack students even learned a little Swahili. 

(Photo caption: Soskil, third from right, celebrates on stage with his fellow Global Teacher prize finalists.)

A Message of Service 

Soskil learned this message of service, this sense of something “bigger than us,” from his mom, a longtime executive at the Red Cross, and he learned how to teach it from his time at The University of Scranton. 

“I believe that Scranton prepared me to be a teacher better than anyone else I know,” he said. “I feel like I stepped in the classroom with an understanding of what my role was beyond just delivering content to kids. I understood I was a source of inspiration and empowerment to my kids.” 

Soskil also tries to empower educators to do more than teach to the test. “We have to focus bigger than that,” he said. “We want kids to be successful global citizens and human beings; that’s the purpose of education.” 


conversation

DeMarzio: In thinking about professional networks of teachers, it makes me think, well, what does it mean to conduct teacher education? Is teacher education just preparation for a profession, or is it an ongoing activity in which philosophical reflection takes place?

Soskil: I think it should be the latter. Absolutely. We’re too focused on college and career-ready right now; it’s too narrow of a bowl. You could be perfectly ready for a career and have no skills that allow you to get enjoyment out of life, or to give back to others, or all of the things that make life worthwhile.

 

Read the whole conversation, in which Soskil and DeMarzio cover everything from teaching philosophy to advocacy, here.

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