Katie Wisnosky has always seen herself as a “grassroots girl who just loves what she does.”
Compared to other candidates who have doctorates, experience teaching in other countries or published books, the Tunkhannock Area High School educator anticipated being eliminated in each round for 2021 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.
To her surprise, the Pennsylvania Department of Education named her a finalist last week along with 11 other teachers from across the Commonwealth.
“When I first heard the news, I guess I was a little humbled by the thought of it,” Wisnosky said. “It truly was an honor.”
Her interest in teaching developed during her years as a student in the Lackawanna Trail School District. Having a passion for reading and writing, she specifically wanted to become an English teacher.
After graduating from Lackawanna Trail, Wisnosky moved on to Indiana University of Pennsylvania to pursue her bachelor’s degree in English education. Later in life, she became a student again, this time to earn a master’s degree in educational development and strategies at Wilkes University.
After IUP, she landed a long-term substitute teaching position at Lakeland High School. The rest of her career would take shape at Tunkhannock Area High School, where she served as a short-term substitute teacher before being hired full time.
That was 12 years ago. While her teaching philosophy constantly evolves, the importance of looking at the whole student in order to effectively teach them remains at the root of it.
One way she accomplishes this is by asking parents to submit a letter about their child at the beginning of each new class. Parents have free range to write anything they believe will help Wisnosky effectively educate their child.
“If you can reach just one child, that student might grow up to be president or win a Nobel Peace Prize or become a famous musician, and as a teacher, that student passed through your classroom,” she said. “You never know how one connection will alter a life, and that to me is the most magical and empowering part of my profession.”
She also makes it a point to remind her students that every day is a fresh start, no matter what happened the day before.
Wisnosky believes that each student has a special gift, it’s just often a matter of helping them discover it. Helping students make these discoveries, then finding ways to incorporate their strengths into her curriculum has been one of her greatest teaching accomplishments.
Founding Breaking Ground Poets in 2011, a community organization that allows young people to write and perform original poetry, also ranks high on her list. Poets in the organization have performed at local slams, as well as the Brave New Voices festival in San Francisco.
BGP was also invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer in Scotland, which was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Watching those students evolve and grow in front of a public audience and learn to navigate their own stories and identities has been very empowering and kept me motivated over the years,” Wisnosky said.
Along with Cammie Anderson, a drug/alcohol prevention/education specialist who works with Tunkhannock Area School District, Wisnosky has also focused on providing safe spaces for students struggling with substance use disorder or seeing it at home.
This partnership led to the founding of Breaking Boundaries, a program that links high school students with mentors at Keystone College.
Like teachers everywhere, Wisnosky has needed to adapt to distance learning during the pandemic and she commended her school district for going above and beyond.
She teaches sophomore English, as well as contemporary poetry, and estimates having 150 students this semester. Throughout the school closure, she’s kept in touch with students and ensured they have the resources necessary to succeed.
Wanting to make sure that youth voices are heard during the pandemic, she has also arranged for the Wyoming County Press Examiner to publish editorials from her students.
Teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic returns Wisnosky to her main principle of understanding the whole student.
“I think it is important to note that education, and our students, are constantly changing,” she said. “As a teacher, you have to evolve as well and communicate with your students on an individual basis about what their needs are.”
Samantha Reposa, who graduated from Tunkhannock Area High School in 2014, nominated Wisnosky for Teacher of the Year.
Wisnosky taught Reposa and also recruited her to take photos for BGP in high school. After Reposa graduated, she kept in touch with Wisnosky and continued helping her with BGP.
“I got to watch her firsthand do what she does best and it was really inspiring,” Reposa said. “I looked to her as a mentor because I saw the good she was doing in the community, and I wanted to learn to do the same.”
Reposa now works in Washington, D.C. Seeing the National Teacher of the Year recognition take place in her city, she thought, “You know who deserves this? Katie Wisnosky.”
“Katie is too humble to really realize the influence she’s had on the community and the inspiration she’s had in these kids to break from whatever background or past they have to achieve great things in their lives, which is truly inspiring and incredible,” Reposa said. “She should be proud and know that she deserves this.”
To get this far in the selection process, Wisnosky first wrote a series of essays and submitted two letters of recommendation, which Principal Todd Bosscher and school counselor Susan Elias wrote.
After advancing to the next round, she underwent a phone interview that was scored. From there, Wisnosky made it into the final round. Once school resumes as normal, she has to submit a video of herself teaching and providing a statement, as well as a lesson plan.
PDE plans to announce the winner during an awards ceremony in Harrisburg this December. The Teacher of the Year takes time off to report for speaking engagements and represents Pennsylvania at the National Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House.
Throughout her own education, Wisnosky has met quite a few inspirational teachers of her own, including Nancy Brown, Gena Lengel, Curtis Sohns and Renee (Sorensen) Jones at Lackawanna Trail, and Linda McPherson, Lynn Alvine, Mike Sell and her poetry professors at IUP.
“I also have been gifted with brilliant and inspiring colleagues and administrators who support my visions and who make going to work every day a joy,” she said.
Wisnosky likes to think that every student who returns to school in the fall does so with a new hope that this year, everything will just go right. As a teacher, she shares this hope.
“I still get nervous on the first day of school, and I hope that I always do. Because that means that it matters,” she said. “When I stop feeling nervous, then I know it is time to leave the profession.”