“I never had any doubt that I wanted to be teaching in a high school because of the topics and the conversations students are able to have,” says Matthew Heath ’09, ’13, a global history teacher at PSLA @ Fowler High School. “My students are starting to make some decisions about the people that they want to be, and by studying history they are able to learn not just about the past, but about who and what they want to be—I don’t see myself as just a high school teacher.”
Heath, who studied history education and special education at Le Moyne, began teaching at PSLA @ Fowler in 2013. As a global history instructor, he covers a wide range of topics—covering history from the Age of Exploration to the modern issues his students are trying to grapple with today.
And his students are just as diverse.
“There are over 25 languages spoken at our school by students and their families, as well as here in the west side of Syracuse,” says Heath. “There are students coming from all over the world that are going through Fowler.” Consequently, many of his students are English as a New Language (ENL) students, and language barriers often pose challenges in engaging students. “Some of the students that I teach speak very well or have been speaking English for years, while others have only been speaking English for a year or even less.”
But for Heath, diversity isn’t as much of an issue as it is a learning opportunity. “Sometimes, when we are learning about different parts of the world, I’ll have students in my classroom who are originally from that area. It’s very enriching for us all,” he says. “They are an amazing group of kids that bring so much more. I learn so much from them—they teach me all the time.”
Beyond the classroom, Heath serves as a coach for the junior varsity soccer team, the indoor track team, and the junior varsity baseball team, encouraging all of his students to try out and get active. “I love coaching them and seeing them on a different level.” Soccer is especially popular at PSLA @ Fowler; the varsity team has won the league 5 years in a row. “You can hear all different languages spoken on the field; they have their own style of play,” says Heath. “Their passion for this sport is so deep, and so is the school’s. When the soccer team wins, the whole building reacts. The kids are proud. They’re proud to say, ‘I’m a Fowler kid.’”
With some confusion and sadness following G.W. Fowler High School’s closure and transformation into the Public Service Learning Academy (PSLA), or PSLA @ Fowler, keeping this pride strong among students is more important than ever for Heath. “You can tell these students feel sad about this decision, that the school they graduated from technically won’t exist anymore. So we try to have good dialogues with them about what’s happening. We give them special encouragement and say ‘Let’s try to make this the best possible outcome. Let’s come together.’”
“There are two days that are the best at Fowler,” says Heath—no matter what the school’s climate is: Graduation Day and Multicultural Day. “On Graduation Day, to see kids walk across the stage—I’m not thinking about the other kids who aren’t there—I’m just so grateful to see these students accomplish all that they have.” Multicultural Day, held in the spring, is a chance for students to celebrate the diversity of their school. “Everyone involved loves it,” says Heath. “There are different dances, different foods, and all of the students represent different countries.”
For Heath, ultimately, his time at PSLA @ Fowler is about meeting the needs of his students, whatever they may be. “I want to have a really deep relationship with these students. They have so much going on in their lives. They really want to know that we care about them.”
“When I first started teaching, I knew that I really wanted to get into the thick of things. At Le Moyne, one thing that was instilled in me was this idea of ‘Who needs me most?’ I still think about that as I teach.”