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Two Philadelphia teachers take honors in National Liberty Museum contest

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia teachers Tony Rocco and Derek Stevenson took home top honors at the 12th annual Teacher As Hero awards presented at the National Liberty Museum earlier this month.

Rocco, a middle school photography teacher from Stetson, a charter school, received the grand-prize Teacher as a Hero award May 5, which included $500 and a plaque featuring his work to be shown in the museum. Rocco founded Photography Without Borders, where he pairs his students from an after-school program, Stetson Shutterbugs, with students from Colombia to help the young people from the two cultures understand one another through photography.

Rocco said that being able to bring students to Colombia was a rare opportunity for them that lasted for a long time afterward.

“They got to see what it was like to live in a little town in Colombia and all these people that they had met through pictures, now that got to see their families. They got to spend time with them, taking cold showers.” Rocco said. “These are experiences I took for granted because I got to travel, but these kids will never get to go anywhere. But the fact that I gave them a chance to go experience another culture and have those kinds of experiences is something nice.”

Rocco said he has kept in touch with his former students and is amazed that he was able to influence the lives of the kids he taught.

“To this day, I’m in contact with almost every kid I’ve ever taught, and when I see them, they’re all out of high school. But one of them has gone to major at the Art Institute for photography.” Rocco said. “I haven’t even talked with the kid in three years, but he still kept up with it on his own, and he reached out to me and said ‘I just wanted to let you know I’m taking photography at the art institute.’ I said, the fact that he’s going to college is amazing, but that he’s majoring in photography is awesome. So you never know when you can light a little spark.”

Stevenson, another top honoree and a cinematography teacher at Roxborough High School, received the Good Neighbor award for helping found the State Farm Safe Driving PSA Project. The students work with Lankenau Hospital, Main Line Health, and Pennsylvania State Police, along with the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communications.

Derek Stevenson, who works as a cinematography teacher at Roxborough High School, received the Good Neighbor award for helping found the State Farm Safe Driving PSA Project. Courtesy photo

Stevenson said that being a teacher is so much harder than he ever thought it could be.

“I used to work in television, producing local, national, live television, but by far this is the hardest job I’ve ever had to do. I say that because it comes with the weight of a kid’s future. I make a mistake in television, it’s OK. I do it again the next day,” Stevenson said. “But if I make a mistake here, say the wrong thing or not be attentive to a kid, it could affect them for a lifetime.”

Stevenson said that for the display at the National Liberty Museum, he asked his students from the last seven years to send him videos about what their experience was like with him as a teacher.

“To hear the feedback I got from my students about me and what I meant to them and their development – it was very emotional moment, where I had that ‘wow’ moment,” Stevenson said. “I knew I had an impact, but I didn’t know I had an impact. Sometimes on a day-to-day basis, you don’t get a thank-you, but this particular student was open and honest about what I meant to him and it really was touching.”

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