Steve Balsomico, a Shaler Area High School Japanese language teacher, is a 2020 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year semifinalist.
The Pennsylvania Chapter of the National State Teachers of the Year, with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s guidance, chose Balsomico to advance to the next round, competing to become one of 12 finalists recognized in the fall in Harrisburg. Officials will announce Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year at an awards ceremony next winter.
“I’m not just representing myself on this. I’m representing myself; I’m representing Shaler, and I’m representing my Japanese program and the program at schools, of you know, international exchange and intercultural exchange, and I feel like there is a certain amount of responsibility to represent those things the best I can,” said Balsomico, 37, of Shaler.
He learned Japanese through immersion by residing in Japan for four years after earning his master’s in theater from Bowling Green State University. In graduate school, he studied Japanese theater and film and considered pursuing a doctorate in Japanese film studies.
“I figured before I jump into that kind of thing I should at least live in Japan and see what it’s like for my own eyes,” he said. “So, I got a job to teach English in Japan and moved there without being able to speak any Japanese.”
As a Joyo City Board of Education employee, he taught at 15 junior high schools and elementary schools. The Joyo, Kyoto, government eventually named him cultural ambassador.
Upon his return to the United States, Balsomico knew that he wanted to spread cultural awareness through work as a teacher — he had earned a bachelor’s in secondary education and social studies from Edinboro University prior to attending graduate school. Eight years ago, he accepted a Shaler Area Japanese teaching position.
In addition to teaching students about the Japanese language, Balsomico provides a variety of opportunities for students to experience Japanese culture.
“There’s no language without culture and there’s no culture without language. They just go hand in hand,” he said.
He has facilitated cultural experiences such as assisting the Japanese Honor Society in cooking authentic monthly meals, coordinating Japanese film nights and organizing sushi fundraisers during lunch periods that expose students to a different culture’s cuisine. Classroom activities have included a traditional tea ceremony, Japanese calligraphy and Shogi, a Japanese chess game.
He has hosted native Japanese assistant teachers through the Laurasian Institution’s Language Education Assistance Program and brought Japanese students to Shaler Area in a cultural exchange through the “KAKEHASHI Project – The Bridge for Tomorrow.” Two years ago, Shaler Area students participated in the Laurasian Institution’s New Perspectives: Japan program, which involved touring Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as staying with host families. Shaler Area students are slated to travel to Japan with the program this summer.
“Teaching at Shaler and teaching Japanese, especially, has really driven home the point of just how important it is that we connect with each other, both on a personal connection and on a global connection,” he said.
“Aside from maintaining efficient classroom operations, Steve is always willing to offer his assistance and help a student to achieve their highest potential. On a daily basis, his personal communications and positive interactions with students are indicative of his commitment to be a significant part of their lives,” Principal Timothy Royall wrote in a recommendation letter for the award.
In 2014, Balsomico collaborated with Kate Elder, Shaler Area Gifted and Talented Education teacher, in welcoming Ichiro Fujisaki, former Japanese Ambassador to the United States, in a multi-district discussion.
Balsomico lives with his wife, Yasuko, whom he met in Japan, and their 5-year-old son.