CRANBERRY TWP — A fourth-grade teacher at Haine Elementary School is a finalist in the 2020 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year competition.
Paolo Tolomeo is one of a dozen teachers chosen for finalist recognition and, ultimately, represents more than 122,000 teachers across the Commonwealth.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education will announce the 2020 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year in a special awards ceremony in December 2019.
“In the meantime, I'll consider myself a winner,” Tolomeo said.
Anyone can nominate a teacher for the award, and Tolomeo was nominated by two families of students in his class. He then needed to write a reflective essay about what he does in the classroom, his teaching philosophies and his accomplishments. From there, it was narrowed down to the semifinals, which required nominees to have phone interviews. They were given four questions to prepare and two improvisational questions and were scored with a rubric.
Now the top 12 of the state will have to videotape a lesson and write a reflection on that to be scored as well.
Tolomeo, who has been teaching for 13 years, said he was “very surprised” hearing the news.
“I had never been nominated before,” he said. “You come into your job everyday, and you try to do what's best for your kids.”
Tolomeo joked that he asked if having two nominations would increase his chances of winning — which he was told it would not. He said he was most proud of “the fact that they went through the trouble.”
“It was an honor,” he said. “I'm pretty lucky to have a great group of kids and supportive families as well.”
Tolomeo said a main focus of his teaching philosophy and of his essay is “finding individualized instruction for the kids.”
“I can't stand in the front of my room and teach one lesson to the whole class,” he said. “It's working with small groups, individuals kids, to gain access to the material.”
At the beginning of the year, he said he works with students to find out their interests and likes and incorporate them into the lesson plan. Tolomeo offers his students options for what activities they can do to learn the material and said he even has kids who do more than one.
“A lot of kids have done extra work with that,” he said. “We call them our 'side quests.'”
Tolomeo said this increases the students' interest in the material and lets them know that their teachers “truly care about them and that we're not just here doing a job.”
“At the end of the day, I'm trying to convince them that what I'm teaching is valuable,” he said. “I have to make sure they're pushing themselves.”
The competition, hosted by the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National State Teacher of the Year Organization, began in 1952 and honors public excellence in teaching.
Haine Elementary School Principal Kristen White said Tolomeo “creates a positive classroom community that is built on trust, inclusion of all diversity and high expectations for both learning and behavior.”
“Children in his classroom are encouraged to take risks in a non-threatening environment which supports learning, encourages resiliency and reinforces the pillars of mindfulness,” White said. “Students are expected to work in collaboration through the day, and high levels of engagement are simply the norm.”
Tolomeo has taught in the Seneca Valley School District for 10 year, and Superintendent Tracy Vitale said he is “one of our finest teachers” and that the district is “very lucky” to have him.
“I'm so lucky to be a part of this community,” Tolomeo said. “It's a wonderful area to be in, and I'm very lucky to be here with families that support us (this) much.”