Joe Pickell TOTW

Sixth-grade social-studies teacher Joe Pickell sets up in front of his two computers at Franklin STEAM Academy in Champaign.

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Joseph Pickell was a freshman at Elgin High School when he made the decision to become a teacher. It took him a few years after graduating from the University of Illinois to find his home at Franklin STEAM Academy, one as a substitute teacher and another as a preschool teacher at Next Generation, but after arriving at Franklin in 2004, he hasn’t left. This year has been especially busy for Pickell, who has taken on a leadership position in the Champaign Federation of Teachers and has his own children at home. That hasn’t stopped him from committing to his students. “We have been in utter awe of Joe and how he has balanced compassion, advocacy, professionalism, with his own teaching duties, and his ability to keep in communication with everyone during such a unique and difficult time in this profession,” Franklin principal Sara Sanders said.

“I don’t think he has ‘taken a break,’ since last March, all the while, having his own two children in Unit 4 Schools, who he is trying to support through this pandemic. Joe is valued and respected by all in our school community. Students love him because he is so creative, humorous, and tech-savvy. His colleagues love him because he supports them in instructional delivery, resources, and personal/professional support. Families love him because he is responsive, communicative, and cares deeply about their children.”

Joseph Pickell, Franklin STEAM Academy, 6th Grade, Social Studies

I find my work important because ... I feel the urge to write some great platitude of why my work is important, but those have been said so many times about professions like teaching that they’ve just become cliches. Sure, teaching is important in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t keep me showing up each day. My work is important in the small incremental changes I get to see in my students. They’re spending part of their life journey with me and I want it to be a part that leads to them being a better version of themselves.

I became a teacher because ... I thought I would be good at it (and could get better each year), I thought it would be fun, and I believed I would be doing something worthwhile.

My favorite/most unique lesson that I teach is ... My first year of teaching, I made a lesson based on a puzzle with missing pieces. Students predicted what was missing and then when we “found” the missing pieces and we could see if we were right or wrong. I’ve used this lesson each year as an ongoing analogy to everything we study. Every new thing we discover is a new puzzle piece. We have to see where it fits and we may have to adjust what we thought the big picture was going to be. It helps students understand how and why we go about changing our minds as we learn and grow.

My most fulfilling moment on the job was ... It’s not just one moment but many. On a regular basis, it’s great to see a student light up as they comprehend and understand an idea or concept whether it’s part of the curriculum or just a life skill. Long term, teaching has been fulfilling because I get to see former students grow up and take on the world. Whether it’s students finding me on Facebook or coming up to me at the store, it’s great to see who they’ve become. So if you ever see a former teacher, you should go up and say hi. They might stall on your name, but trust me, they know you and want to hear from you.

My favorite teacher and subject to study in school was ... I’ve had many excellent teachers over the years. If I’ve got to choose just one, it’d be Mr. Wallace. I was a freshman sitting in his World History class at Elgin High School when I decided I wanted to become a teacher. He was a few years from retirement, and was obviously still loving his work. I’d thought of teaching before, but seeing someone who enjoyed doing it for over 30 years made me want to do it even more.

I engage students during this strange time by ... any means possible. Remote teaching is challenging and weird, but many truths haven’t changed. Students need to know they belong and that they are cared for before they can learn. Honesty, humor and empathy help connect us in a regular year, and those can connect us through a Zoom call too.

If I weren’t a teacher, I would be ... in one of the trades. I would be a carpenter, electrician or plumber. At the end of the day of teaching, I feel that I’ve helped improve things. I think anyone in the trades that is creating and building must feel the same way.

— Anthony Zilis

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