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It’s no surprise that Jonathan Bickel went into teaching.

“I’ve been surrounded by great teaching my entire life,” Bickel, a 1991 graduate of Conrad Weiser High School and a 1995 graduate of Penn State, told LebTown. “Teaching is in my blood.”

His wife teaches fifth grade in Cornwall-Lebanon School District, he said. Both of his parents were teachers – his mother taught family and consumer science in Eastern Lebanon County School District, and his father taught vocational agriculture in Northern Lebanon. Both of his in-laws were teachers, too, he added, and “at Conrad Weiser, “I had great teachers who influenced my path.”

So all of those influential teachers in Bickel’s orbit must be proud to learn that he – an English and yearbook journalism teacher at ELCO High School, right across the hall from where his mother used to teach – has been named one of 12 educators finalists in the field of nominees to be the 2024 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.

“I was extremely surprised” at the news, Bickel said. “I was very shocked. There are so many great educators in my school alone that are doing incredible things – I didn’t expect it at all. I’m very humbled by the selection.

“You do your best. You try to instill lessons, but you don’t always know that you’re getting through to the students. Getting this accolade means a lot.”

Celebrating excellence

The list of finalists was released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on May 14.

“Pennsylvania commends these excellent educators for their commitment to their schools, students, and communities — and there is no better time to celebrate them than during Teacher Appreciation Week,” Acting Secretary of Education Dr. Khalid N. Mumin said in a statement. “Engaged and enthusiastic teachers inspire their students to reach infinite possibilities of success, and can quite literally impact learners for life.”

Each year, the Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year program recognizes excellence in teaching by honoring K-12 teachers in public education “who have made outstanding academic contributions to Pennsylvania’s school-aged children,” the press release says.

The 12 finalists are selected from applicants and recognized in Harrisburg each fall. Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year will be announced at a state awards ceremony in December, the release notes, and will represent the commonwealth at various national, regional, and local functions culminating in the National Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House.

Besides Bickel, the finalists are: Anthony Angelini of Conewago Valley School District, Brittney Bell of Carmichaels Area School District, Ashlie Crosson of Mifflin County School District, Benjamin Hoffman of Kutztown Area School District, Rachel Kalberer of Norwin School District, Heather Kilgore of Chester County Intermediate Unit, Stephanie Machmer of Jersey Shore Area School District, Aspen Mock of Forest Hills School District, Justin Ward of Laurel Highlands School District, Sharon Williams of Rose Tree Media School District and Sally Ann Wojcik of School District of Philadelphia.

Image tweeted by ELCO superintendent Julia Vicente announcing Jonathan Bickel as a 2024 finalist for Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year. (Provided photo)

ELCO district superintendent Julia Vicente said in an email to LebTown that Bickel has taught English at the high school since August 1995. Besides teaching, she said, he was the assistant Student Council adviser from 1995 to 2000, school newspaper adviser from 1995 to 1997, yearbook adviser from 1996 to present, yearbook photographer from 2015 to present, and senior class adviser in 2021 and 2022.

She noted that the ELCO school board in May offered “many accolades and congratulatory comments” for his selection as a Teacher of the Year finalist.

“We are so excited for you and proud of this accomplishment!” Vicente said in an email to Bickel. “You are most deserving of this recognition!”

Getting noticed

Bickel grew up on a farm about 3 miles east of Mount Aetna, close to the Berks County line. He lives in Myerstown now, he said, about 5 minutes away from ELCO High School.

He was hired by ELCO right out of college, he said, and is closing the book on his 28th year of teaching.

His daughter graduated from ELCO last year, Bickel noted.

“It was awesome, I was able to teach my daughter,” he said, adding that she was part of his yearbook staff and took his advanced English class.

Although Bickel doesn’t like to toot his own horn, he conceded that two of his projects helped to set him apart.

One is the Veterans History Project, which he and a group of colleagues at ELCO devised about 15 years ago.

The project involves students in Bickel’s ninth-grade honors English class. Each student is asked to find a veteran in the local community – it can be a family member, Bickel noted – and completes a biographical data sheet on that veteran. Based on the information collected, he said, the students write a research paper and come up with interview questions, then record a 30-minute interview with their veteran. The work culminates in a biographical narrative and a 5- to 10-minute multimedia presentation on each vet.

Students and the veterans they interviewed, if able, are given a tour of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which adds the interviews to its own Veterans History Project collection.

“Since we’ve been doing it, starting in 2008 or 2009, we’ve interviewed over 200 veterans,” Bickel said. “It’s permanently housed in the Library of Congress. Of course, we also keep a copy here at the school.”

Jonathan Bickel speaks with the Veterans History Project director Monica Mohindra at the Library of Congress during a field trip on April 21 with several veterans and ELCO students in the auditorium. (Provided photo)

Vicente also lauded Bickel’s work on the Veterans History Project.

“What he has done with the Veteran’s History Project is amazing and it has touched the lives of many!,” Vicente said.

The second project that might have earned Bickel notice is his success with the school yearbook.

Bickel teaches three yearbook journalism classes, giving his students hands-on experience in writing, photography, design and management.

“The kids work super hard,” he said. “I’m really proud of the work my students are doing.”

The yearbook has won multiple state and national awards, he said, including being named best yearbook in Pennsylvania for the past six years and being recognized in 2021 by the National Scholastic Press Association as one of the top yearbooks in the country.

Relevance and themes

Bickel said he chose English as his focus for several reasons.

“I have always loved literature. I always enjoyed public speaking,” he said. Also, he said, he grew up active in FFA competitions and had roles in his own high school’s plays and musicals. Teaching English, he explained, “is just a continuation of the things I enjoyed.”

He brings that enthusiasm to the classroom, whether that means helping students to connect “those universal situations” that are going on in their lives with the timeless themes of William Shakespeare, or exploring the still-relevant themes of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” by roleplaying a mock trial for the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley.

Bickel also has his own theories as to what makes a good teacher.

“No. 1 is connection,” he said. “I think we’ve really seen that over course of the pandemic. We did everything we could to teach online, but we were missing the face-to-face interaction with our students, which is so important. … You can’t teach a student if you don’t make a connection with them.”

He also said he believes in “leading by example” – for example, taking photos for the yearbook beside his student photographers.

“Having a relationship with students is huge,” Bickel said. “I definitely need to get their perspective. I like to learn from my students. Group interaction is so important.”

Again, he said, it’s easy to bring current issues in line with literary themes. For instance, reading “Romeo & Juliet” can lead to a conversation about “the proper way to for a young man to talk to a young lady that he finds kind of cute.”

It’s all about “generating conversations, making them laugh, making them feel relevant,” Bickel explained. That means getting to know his students’ interests – one of his current students is a Scout, for example, and another is a dancer – and bringing those interests into the classroom discussion.

Ultimately, Bickel said, he owes much of his success to his workplace environment and the people with whom he works.

“ELCO has been a tremendous place to work. It’s a great place to teach,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I would have been a finalist for Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year without the wonderful students we have in the district, the wonderful teachers and administrators.

“There are so many great positive things going on here. I hope this brings some attention to the district.”

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Tom Knapp

Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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