As the 2018 National History Teacher of the Year, North Hills eighth-grade social studies teacher Joe Welch has some rather unconventional advice for fellow history educators: Take an acting class.
“Ultimately, history is a story and that’s the best way to interact with a story.”
It’s innovative ideas like these that have led the 33-year-old South Fayette native to be named the youngest winner of the award.
Students in Welch’s classes make graphic novels and animations and use iPads to record interviews for their oral history projects, giving them a voice to share these stories with the world. But it’s not just about using technology, which he sees as a useful tool but not for every project. Classes also role play skits and work with primary sources.
Hollywood has mastered the art of dropping viewers into a story so they can see what the characters feel.
“We need to do the same thing,” Welch said of history teachers.
Welch said the whole application and award process has given him the chance to look back on his 12-year career at North Hills and said it’s been incredibly overwhelming. He was nominated by two fellow North Hills educators, English teacher Vicki Truchan and history teacher Larry Dorenkamp.
“I was so excited to share that news with them,” he said of when he’d been notified he won. They were the first people he told, aside from his wife.
Knowing that you’ve gained the respect of coworkers that feel so highly about your work that they take the time to nominate you for an award is extremely rewarding, Welch said.
Welch encourages teachers to be willing to try something new, and don’t be afraid to let it fall flat. Students will appreciate the effort and “willingness to be dynamic and captivating.”
His love of history began early. His grandmother moved in with his parents when he was born, and with two working parents, he spent much of his youth with her.
She would tell him tales of her life, such as basic training for World War II. She and her husband were both veterans. She stayed informed of current events, watching both national and local news, which cultivated his view that what was happening around him was important.
He always knew he wanted to be a teacher. His father spent 32 years as an educator, and his two older siblings entered the profession. It wasn’t until high school at South Fayette that he decided he wanted to be a history teacher.
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with what you know,” he tells his students.
It can be hard for a middle school student to connect to a prolific figure like George Washington but reading journals from his time before the presidency can show that he struggled and faced challenges. Those experiences make him more relatable and students can insert themselves into the story.
The competition is sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Welch will be honored at a ceremony at the Yale Club in New York on Oct. 10 and will have the opportunity to bring along two former students. He will be presented his award and $10,000 prize by Edward Ayers, president emeritus at the University of Richmond and a historian that specializes in the Civil War. Welch admitted that he was “very nervous about meeting” someone so prolific in his field.
The past five winners will also attend, and Welch is looking forward to connecting with other educators.
Welch lives in South Fayette with his wife, Sarah, and their two young children. He said his wife is incredibly supportive and willing to care for their kids as he stays at school late working.
“This is as much her award as it is mine, and personally, I don’t tell her that enough.”