Michael Skomba, BHP Teacher Leader, Somerset County Teacher of the Year
New Jersey, USA
A note from the author: One of things I find most rewarding about teaching Big History is the course’s ability to not only differentiate, but also its ability to raise the bar for students of all backgrounds. I believe that the “de-siloing” of disciplines in BHP provides students with an authentically well-rounded liberal arts education. BHP is the twenty-first century “one room schoolhouse” that knows no limits.
BHP allows students to take ownership of their learning experience and build out both their skill set and understanding of the Universe. It doesn’t matter if they’re a “good kid” or a “bad kid.” Implicit bias is real, and the lowered expectations that attach themselves to certain biases (like being a “bad kid”) are even more real. I have personally seen students that have struggled with labels exceed expectations in my BHP classroom. When student discourse is weaponized in this manner, students find ways to be successful. While in traditional courses they might be conditioned to game the system or be discouraged, BHP’s project-based learning (PBL), driving questions, and abstract framework gives students every reason to be successful. They find excuses to win. I like to see my kids win.
The following is a transcript from a speech I made at the Somerset County Teacher of the Year breakfast in June 2018.
Good morning. I’m Mike Skomba. I am a social studies teacher at Somerville High School. I am the [Somerset] County Teacher of the Year, and I am a member of the 2017 Central Jersey Group Three Championship Football Team at Somerville. I promised my football guys I would shout them out—they deserve it.
I would like to start by thanking everyone at the County—Dr. Jinks, Melissa Stager, Mariana, Pat, and Evelyn…Sharon Bodnarchuk and all the gracious people at Balfour. The fact that we have this time and place to celebrate excellent educators is amazing, and the awards donated by Balfour puts an exclamation point on this great day.
This breakfast is a wonderful gesture. In a profession where people give so much, I believe we really appreciate it when we are given something.
I am going to be a millennial and start by talking about myself, but I will finish by bragging about my kids.
My remarks are short and will revolve around the central theme of “finding and tending to your fire.”
I have heard a lot lately about teacher retention and teacher burnout and I have never seen it—I have never seen a fellow teacher rise and fall in the profession. My only experience with teacher burnout is when I tilt my coffee cup for the last time in the morning, but I am often rekindled when the office Keurig kicks on after lunch.
But I think having a fire or passion to tend to is important when you’re an educator. In my opinion, too much time is spent on what we’re doing and not enough time is spent on the why. We are always willing to come early, stay late, or do whatever it takes, but we don’t talk enough about the why.
I remember sitting in one of my early education classes and my professor—great teacher—was sharing anecdotal stories about things to say when interviewing. And she stopped with this, the most important thing: share the fact that you have always wanted to be a teacher. You have a passion, a fire for educating young people. Everyone in the class agreed and started sharing stories about lining up dolls to play school or teaching the other kids in the neighborhood.
I remember that at that moment I felt itchy. The room stopped—I said “Uh…what?” in my head. I hadn’t realized I wanted to go to college until we lost to Carteret in the first round of the playoffs in 2004, and I wanted to still play the game.
I felt weird—I felt like I hadn’t done the reading or got caught with a pop quiz. For the rest of the class, I searched for my story. I couldn’t find it. Did I have to be good at school to become a teacher? I hope not.
I’m about to talk about the “bad kids.” Do we have any reformed bad kids in this room? Please raise your hand…
Well, I kept thinking about it, remembering how the synonymous term for passion, the fire, kept coming back up. All I could think about was the fire I started on a school bus. True story.
My teachers at Branchburg Central Middle School planned this awesome field trip for us. Yes, I am a local boy. I grew up on the other side of this town, in Dixie, also known as Neshanic Station.
Our seventh-grade class went to Point Pleasant, studied the marine life, and even had time for funnel cake. It was too perfect—and I had issues. I decided that I was going to take books of matches and light them all at the same time on the bus ride home.
The Boy Scout leader who kicked me out the year before for fighting at a meeting at the North Branch Firehouse would have been proud of this fire. Luckily, I was agreeable enough to listen to the teacher and stomp out the fire before anyone got hurt.
My teachers and admin spent their limited time putting together this awesome field trip and I ruined their day. When I got out of Branchburg Central—Central Lockup—those teachers and admin didn’t act like normal human beings. They acted like educators. They spent more time with me, not less. How counterintuitive.
If you have listened to me drone on, I haven’t been talking about my fire. I have been talking about my teachers’, admin’s, and guidance counselor’s fire. They should have been mad, they should have labeled me like other people had done in the past, but instead they supported me.
There are more severe stories out there, much more incredible stories of overcoming odds, but I believe my story is something that a lot of us can relate to in Somerset County. I was a kid without a real plan, but people saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself.
My middle school teachers got me going in the right direction and my high school teachers and coaches carried the baton. I can’t thank them enough. They helped me realize a future I would have never imagined. I was not the “bad kid” to them. I was just a kid.
Do you have a student who pushes your buttons or the buttons of your colleagues? Do you have a student who acts out? Do you have a student who lights fires on buses? Could that student be standing at a podium in a room like this one day? I would go out on a limb and say, “yes.” In a culture that’s obsessed with labels, focus on positive language and positive mindsets. Be the difference for one of these kids.
I found my “why” behind an experience and a moment pushed thinking. I found it behind acts of caring and mentorship from my educator role models. Your “why” may be drastically different, but I would like to use this platform to encourage you to audit your “why.” Make sure you have the latest iOS update. Otherwise, this profession can turn into Tuesdays rolling into Thursdays that roll into Tuesdays, period to period and September to June, before you know it. The motions can block out the emotions and this room has way too much to give to these young people to let themselves or others fall into that mindset.
Great—I just closed the educational achievement gap. We’re all done.
But not that you have your “why”all set. Now it’s time to put it into action. Is enough time spent on the ‘how’ in an education? Your “how” has changed since you have been nominated Teacher of the Year or Educational Specialist of the Year. Based on my own experience, this title might not mean much to you, but it means a lot to others. You’re an educational leader. Leverage that new-found respect and let your voice be heard.
Go to bat for that kid that needs you, share your best practices, and advocate for your students. This profession can be egalitarian and educators can tend to avoid rocking the boat. The perception can sometimes be that if you step up, you will step out and excommunicate yourself. I think that’s a dangerous misconception. I think being recognized means that you’re a leader and your capacity for impact is greater.
I believe that this is the perfect time in your career to step up. Now is the time to pitch that passion project you have always wanted to do, to try that new approach to old problems, now’s the time to take risks.
In the letter I wrote in the program, I quoted Michael Jordan. He is said to live by the motto, “I either win or I learn.” Don’t leave any opportunities on the table this year. You have been identified as a teacher leader—now lead. You were nominated through a fair and equal process. Take advantage of this opportunity to positively impact student outcomes.
We did a program on Friday that changed my perspective on the way I teach the Vietnam War. We honored a Somerville grad that never came back. He went MIA in Cambodia in 1968.
We allotted two-and-a-half hours for this program. You can’t go to ShopRite and stand in the checkout line without seeing people on their phones. You agree? We’re in this culture that is obsessed with our devices. Half of you guys are probably on your phones right now trying to entertain yourselves while you have to listen to me…
A lot of these kids who others might call “bad kids” were locked in during this entire presentation. They even walked up to these veterans at the intermission and talked to these Vietnam veterans and they were lecturing them about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and if they thought the presidents had good enough reason to go to Vietnam. These veterans are patient and gracious with these students—and it was just awesome to see these students engage and take ownership of their education.
I believe we need to reserve our judgement—implicit bias is a thing—focus on the kids who need us the most and be the difference in their lives.
Cover image: Video still from Speaking of Teaching, Conversations with the 2017-18 NJ County Teachers of the Year, Michael Skomba, courtesy New Jersey Education Association.