Q&A with Mike Soskil ’97, G’09

Mike Soskil ’97, G’09, Global Teacher Prize finalist and science teacher at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School and Darryl DeMarzio, chair of The University of Scranton's Education Department, discuss everything from teaching philosophy to advocacy.

From left: Mike Soskil ’97, G’09, Darryl DeMarzio, chair of the University’s Education Department
From left: Mike Soskil ’97, G’09, Darryl DeMarzio, chair of the University’s Education Department

DeMarzio: First of all, congratulations. I got to read a newspaper article about you and the Global Teacher Prize, and we talked about it as a department. We all appreciated the mention that you gave to the University and what it meant to have a Jesuit background in your education.

Soskil: It was foundational in why I do what I do. I can honestly say – and this is not hyperbole or me telling you because you’re here – but I believe that Scranton prepared me to be a teacher better than anyone else I know. 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.

DeMarzio: So, my area of scholarly interest is the philosophy of education. My research was on what I like to call “the ethics of teaching,” which is not about “How do teachers solve moral dilemmas,” but “How is teaching an answer to that existential question, ‘How should I live?’ ”

Soskil: That’s why I became a teacher. I wanted to do something that was beyond myself.

DeMarzio: Is there a sense with No Child Left Behind, and the reshaping of the role of teacher, that students aren’t necessarily seeing the teacher as a human being? And they aren’t saying, “I want to be like that. I want to be a teacher?”

Soskil: I don’t think it’s quite as abstract as that. So, we know from neuroscience that kids have to have an emotional connection with content in order to learn. The limbic system has to be activated. When No Child Left Behind hit, the role of the teacher went from being an artist, who could bring those experiences alive, to someone who was trying to bring up test scores and manage data. So, some students have never seen the teacher as the artist. They’ve never seen the empowered teacher who is getting inspiration. They’ve never seen the teacher as the difference-maker, because the teacher hasn’t been able to be. Those of us who have been in the profession long enough to remember what it was like before are yearning to get that back.

DeMarzio: Do you see yourself as an advocate for teachers?

Soskil: Absolutely. I think that’s the most exciting part out of all this. I’m a big believer that we should not be competitive in education. I think that a lot of the policies that we have had teacher against teacher, school against school, state against state. … We’ve lost the networking that should be going on while we’re sharing best practice.

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.

We have to focus bigger than that and say we want kids to be successful global citizens and human beings; that’s what the purpose of education is. Then they’re going to end up being ready for college and career.

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