The naming of a dozen finalists for 2020′s Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year has educators in the Central Bucks School District seeing double, with not one but two of its high school teachers on the prestigious list — a rare feat in a commonwealth with 500 districts and more than 3,200 public schools.
Leanne Jarossy, a math teacher at Central Bucks High School West, and Will Melvin, an English teacher at Central Bucks High School South, will be friendly rivals for the crown when the state winner — who then competes for 2020 National Teacher of Year — is announced in December. With nearly 18,500 students, Central Bucks, based in Doylestown, is Pennsylvania’s largest suburban school district.
Jarossy and Melvin were nominated by their building principals and others, and both were hailed for their efforts to teach students critical thinking and other skills beyond rote learning, and for their continued work with kids after the final school bell rings.
Jarossy, a 13-year veteran in the classroom, says she came to learn that teaching math to her kids at C.B. West is about much more than the numbers.
“One of my big areas of focus is not only on math but teaching critical skills, which are things like perseverance and communication,” Jarossy said. “It took me several years to figure this out as a teacher — that it’s not the math they’ll remember me for, or take away, but those day-to-day skills.”
West principal Tim Donovan hailed her classroom focus on those skills as well as collaboration and kindness, which makes Jarossy what he calls “a selfless leader that epitomizes all the qualities of a great teacher by focusing on each and every student and their individual needs.”
Melvin — who’s been teaching 10th- and 11th-grade English at C.B. South for 11 years — places a similar emphasis on teaching teens reasoning skills that will last long beyond the classroom.
“The ultimate challenge is, how do you make your content feel relevant in the 21st century to a new group of adolescents,” said Melvin, who often shuns traditional book reviews and asks students to write instead about their favorite music or restaurant.
But Melvin notes good teaching is not just substance but also style. In this age of Snapchat attention spans, he said, it’s important to not be boring — “you have to be funny, and self-deprecating. Self-depreciation goes a long with high schoolers.”
The key is doing the kind of work that makes other people take notice. Candidates for the annual statewide competition must be nominated by a fellow teacher, students, parents or their principal, as was the case for both Melvin and Jarossy.
Nicholas Blanch, the Pennsylvania Department of Education official who helps administer the program, said that in a typical year, about 300 teachers are nominated, but only about 180 choose to go through the involved application process. That’s followed by a telephone interview with Blanch that is evaluated by him and other educators from the state chapter of the National Teacher of the Year program.
The 12 finalists are judged largely on video of a typical class.
In a word, modestly.
“I’m embarrassed about it,” said Melvin, who said his students “busted my chops” about the competition when he told them a class would be recorded this week for the finals judging. He said he also thinks there are better teachers than him within his own family — specifically his wife, a first-grade teacher at Warwick Elementary in the district. He said grade school teachers are “laying the foundation.”
Jarossy said that just being nominated by a colleague and a parent as well as her principal “was very humbling … because I do work with an amazing staff.” Like many in teaching, she credits those who inspired her — specifically her sixth-grade teacher. “There was something about her, I just wanted to be her.”
Both Jarossy and Melvin spoke of the need to be engaging and relevant in a technology-driven world that’s very different than when they grew up — as well as the growing time demands placed upon modern teachers.
“With the internet and access for education, kids have access to information so quickly,” said Jarossy, adding “I’m a big proponent of, we don’t have to do things the same way we always did them.”
“So much is expected of teachers in 2019,” said Melvin, whose nomination also cited his after-class work advising the student council and the First LINK club, which he started. “When things go wrong, people look to education as sort of the culprit. I think that’s tough — there’s so many things going on that teachers need to do on a day-in-day-out basis to connect with their students that the other things are an impediment to that.”