For the second year in a row, a teacher at the Henry School in Mt. Airy has won a “Distinguished Teachers Award” from the educational Lindback Foundation. About one in every 300 of the 18,300 public school teachers in the city is chosen for the award among those nominated by the 386 individual schools. Each winning teacher receives a $3,500 prize and is honored at a ceremony in May, which did not take place this year because of the pandemic.
Meredith Schecter, a first-grade teacher at Henry who won the award for 2020, told us last week, “I was honored to get the award and to be part of the Henry School community. In a world where teaching can be a thankless job, I am humbled. It is great to be appreciated. I did not have to go up on a stage to accept the award (because of the pandemic), which was fine with me.
“I have no problem teaching a bunch of children, but I would be very nervous speaking to a group of adults. Of course, it was a lovely surprise to win the award, and it came at such a weird time in the middle of the pandemic. It motivated me mentally.” (According to last year's winner at Henry, Nicole Paulino-Trisdorfer, “Meredith is really an exceptional teacher.”)
Of course, the big question currently on the minds of almost every public-school parent and teacher is whether children should be in actual classrooms this fall or have all-virtual classes or a combination of the two. Needless to say, Schecter has strong opinions on the issue. “I didn't realize how scared I would be till I heard about spending two days per week in the building. (That two-day plan has since been rescinded, at least until mid-November.)
“There are a lot of societal problems that are brought into the schools. We constantly take them and make them work, but I did not expect to be as scared and anxious as I was. I'm not an epidemiologist, but I look at the facts. We had to go into the building at the end of the spring semester to take care of some things, and it was crazy to be in the classroom after so long with no kids.
“I have mixed feelings about it. Many kids are not doing well at home, and they are not with their peers, but I can't take on everything. Teaching from home is very hard, and it is a heart-wrenching decision to leave the kids. Every time I left a school, I was hysterically crying on the last day of school.”
Meredith, 40, is secretary of the school advisory council, which was started almost five years ago to get families more involved in the school community. She grew up in Mount Laurel, NJ, the daughter of a kindergarten teacher. For a while in high school, she revolted against her mother, like so many teenagers, but she was always drawn to teaching. She earned an English degree from the University of Delaware and a graduate degree in education from Rosemont College. She moved to Philly 20 years ago after undergraduate school and now lives in center city.
Meredith started her teaching career as a literacy intern at the John Webster School in Kensington for one year. She then taught for four years at the Paul Dunbar School in North Philly, followed by six years at the John B. Kelly School in Germantown, where she helped to open a “Promise Academy,” which provides “an extended school day and year for more time and opportunity to learn.”
“That was very challenging,” said Meredith. “Then the Kelly School principal went to the Henry School, and I followed her. It was a voluntary move. I always heard Henry was a phenomenal school. I am going into my seventh year here. It is a great school, and it has really elevated my teaching.
“I always had good classes at the schools where I taught, but here there is overwhelming support from the community. I never had that before. It is hard to compare schools, but there is definitely more privilege and opportunity at Henry. I'm teaching from home, and I am trying to wrap my head around this all-virtual thing. Usually in the summer I turn off but not this summer.
“I am going into my 17th year of teaching, so I usually know what the first day will look like but not now. How to get everyone engaged will be a challenge. A lot of trial and error. It is hard to grade. I check in with the kids every day. Mental health is very important in order to have a successful educational experience.”
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com