Middle school teacher Ryan Hardesty is the type of teacher who gets excited about post-Halloween costume sales at Spirit Halloween.
“I typically raid the store looking to find anything that connects to my lessons, even if it’s not super accurate,” says Hardesty (MAT ’09), who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies at Highland Middle School, located in the Blackhawk School District in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
Whether it’s donning a pharaoh costume for a lesson on ancient Egypt or creating a music video with historical figures rewriting the lyrics to an Adele song, his enthusiasm for getting middle schoolers excited about learning is one of the reasons he received the 2023 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year Award.
As part of the National Teacher of the Year Program, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) issues the award to honor exemplary teaching and classroom practices across the commonwealth. The award recognizes a professional who inspires students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn; who has the respect and admiration of students, parents, and colleagues; and who plays an active and useful role in both school and community.
Hardesty was one of 12 finalists for the award, which was presented on December 5, 2022, during PDE’s annual professional development conference. As Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year, he will travel across the state to meet and collaborate with other educators and will represent the commonwealth in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
Hardesty is still shocked he was chosen for the award.
“I don’t think I’m the best teacher in my building, let alone the best teacher in the state,” he says. “I don’t think you can compare what educators do from classroom to classroom; a lot of people are really good at what they do in their room.”
But Hardesty knew from an early age that teaching history was the right path for him.
“I started to really like social studies in middle school and high school, and watching some of the really good history teachers I had in high school made me realize I wanted to do that, too,” he says.
Hardesty earned his bachelor of arts in history and political science from Pitt’s Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences before obtaining his Master of Arts in Teaching from Pitt Education. Now, as a social studies teacher, he teaches his students valuable lessons that will help them navigate the world around them.
“Teaching social studies allows a lot of creative freedom. I think it’s really important to help prepare students for their everyday life,” he says. “I always tell them, no matter what career path you take, you’ll need to form opinions on what other people are doing and saying, and need to be able to communicate that to others.”
In addition to using costumes and music videos, Hardesty says he encourages collaboration in his classroom to make students have ownership in what they’re doing.
“I try to be creative with the lessons to spark their interests, make class more engaging, and make it different from what they see all day every day,” says Hardesty. “With middle school, I feel like they’re old enough to talk to them like more of an adult but still young enough to think that the goofy things we do are fun.”
Hardesty was nominated for the Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year award by a student and their parent, who were impressed by how he pivoted to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic. During that time, he made a video every day – “sometimes silly, sometimes serious,” he says – to check in with students, explain that day’s lesson, and make them feel like they were together when they couldn’t physically be together in the classroom.
“Most of the way I teach is interactive and discussion-based, which is really hard to do online,” he says. “One of my strengths is building connections with kids, and I think that helps them to be successful in my class. Trying to somehow build that through a screen is what I was focused on trying to do with the videos.”
Hardesty credits his time in the School of Education’s MAT program and his student-teaching experience for preparing him for his career as an educator.
“The ability to student-teach for an entire school year was invaluable to me,” he says. “That gave me a whole new level of experience and confidence going into that first year of teaching.”
He adds: “Anyone who asks me, I recommend that they go to Pitt. I loved my time at the university.”