The National History Teacher of the Year 2018 is Joe Welch

Meet Joseph Welch, 2018 National History Teacher of the Year

Joseph Welch is a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher at North Hills Middle School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has been the curriculum chair and project advisor for Project Connect 1:1 Initiative, a sponsor of the National History Day Program for Regional Students, and the director of the North Hills DC Trip Program. 

What was your initial reaction upon hearing that you were the national winner? 
I was shocked to be honest. My hands were shaking. I try to present myself as a calm and cool person on the outside, but I could not do that this time. I saw a call from New York, New York, on my phone during a prep period, and I just could not believe it. (I actually got an alert on my watch that my heart rate was jumping!) I could not wait to tell my wife, who, throughout my teaching career, has become accustomed to calls and texts that I am going to be coming home late to work on something or often patiently listens to me bounce lesson ideas off her. I was so excited to share the news with my parents, who have been so supportive, as well as other teachers that I’ve worked so closely with. It made me reflect on how lucky I’ve been to have teachers, organizations, and, most importantly, so many awesome students and parents in my school that have been so receptive to everything that we try in my classroom. 

How would you describe your teaching style?
I would hope to describe my teaching style as dynamic. I think my students quickly learn to expect the unexpected in my class, and that I will do whatever I can do to connect history to their lives. I was fortunate to have two transformational history teachers in high school, Don Sekelik and Bill Parton, both with their own unique styles and both unafraid to push the expectation of what a traditional history class should look like. Sometimes music is the medium of a lesson, on some days I may break out costumes, and some days a powerful primary source may elicit emotion from students. Personal stories are so important to understanding history and to inserting yourself into a story. There’s an adage in education that people remember how you make them feel. I consider that to be true about my students and the historical events or figures they learn about. Combining this philosophy and my view that students need to be creators, I aim to put students in the position to create products that insert them and their backgrounds into a narrative. As a popular musical that you may have heard of notes, “when you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.”  

Do you have a favorite moment from teaching?
In September of 2017, we were fortunate enough to collaborate with PBS’s local affiliate, WQED, to host a Vietnam War Community Roundtable in conjunction with the release of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War documentary series. In addition to a community discussion with local Vietnam War veterans, the community heard from many students who researched and honored Vietnam War POWs from around the Pittsburgh area. It was a wonderful night to respect the sacrifices made by many individuals, to reflect on the history of the conflict, and to collaborate with the community to educate our students. Our student participants were each provided with a POW/MIA bracelet of the Vietnam War Veteran that they presented and honored.
 
Tell us one fun historical fact about the town you live in or grew up in. 
I grew up just south of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in South Fayette Township, named after the Marquis de Lafayette. The neighborhood streets I grew up on in South Fayette are also based on our nation’s past, with street names like Stuart, Grant, Jackson, Sherman, Lee, Cannongate, and Battleridge.
 
What was the last great history book you read?
Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America by Stephen Knott and Tony Williams.
 
What is your favorite historical site or museum?
I love to visit Point State Park in Pittsburgh, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers as they come together to form the Ohio. This site represents so much to me personally and historically. From Washington’s earliest treks through there into the Ohio Valley to Pittsburgh’s role in the development of America’s economy as an industrial powerhouse, it represents continued transformation and improvement. 
 
If you could travel back in time and meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?
As a child, I idolized Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably due to my grandmother living with my family and sharing stories of her own childhood. As a high school student, I thought I would like to meet Robert Kennedy or Adlai Stevenson. And, early in my college years, John Adams became a favorite. But, at the risk of sounding like I have recency or pop culture bias: Alexander Hamilton. Independent of the hit musical, his life represents something that every American can connect to. Whether looking at his childhood challenges, personal struggles, political thoughts, economic principles, or work ethic, there would be plenty to talk about over dinner with the treasury secretary.
 
What is your favorite historical film or series?
Despite being very different styles of series, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War and HBO’s John Adams are both high on my list. 
 
Do your students have a favorite historical topic or era?
The French and Indian War and the American Revolution are both favorites for many. With Pittsburgh’s local ties to the French and Indian War, it is understandable that students fall in love with learning about that conflict. When they realize the streets of their town are some of the same ones that were the sites of America-altering (and world-altering) events, it, with no pun intended, hits home.

How do you feel history and civics connect right now?
I feel that history and civics have always been intertwined. On one hand, I feel that our younger generations have a more inclusive version or understanding of American history than ever before. However, it is also concerning that our society seems to be in a period of twisting historical events to fit a particular agenda or political narrative to sway government action. The students that I teach inspire me to think that our youngest generation will have the ability to reverse this trend. They are engaged in their communities. The students that I teach want to understand our past; they just need the inspiration to do it and the opportunities to get involved with their leaders, civics and history-based organizations, and our government.

When we look to history, we realize that, despite some dark periods, our nation has continued to move in the right direction of being a more inclusive society, recognizing the contributions of all groups to our past. No matter your feelings on the current state of government in the United States, most people would agree that a true understanding of our history is needed to understand who we are as a nation. History should not be leveraged to cause divisiveness or to win a political argument, but rather used as a tool to understand who we are as a nation and who we want to be in the future.

What advice would you give to young people, in high school or college, who may be considering a career in education but are unsure?
It’s worth it, I promise. As a teacher, I really think that I laugh and smile every day. Students need dedicated teachers. They need people who will make a positive impact on their lives and teachers who will inspire them and validate their dreams and abilities. And, if you do decide to go into education, find people that inspire you after you get the job. Continue to grow.

How does being named National History Teacher of the Year make you feel about your teaching so far and aspirationally?
It challenges me to get better, to continue to grow, to learn, to live up to the expectation of such a prestigious award. It validates philosophies of getting students to create history and for them to interject their own interpretations of events, movements, and individuals that make up the American narrative. There are many facets of my teaching that I would like to continue to improve and partnerships I would like to explore, and the application process for this award has been both self-reflective and inspirational. It’s my goal to continue to innovate and push the envelope in my classroom and to be a leader in building and advocate for social studies and history education in my state and nationwide. In our current society, I think that is more important than ever before.