Do you know those teachers that simply exude an energy that compels you to do more, be better, and attempt to exceed their already high expectations? Teresa Engler is the epitome of this archetype. I wasn’t even her student, yet at the end of our brainy, yet, light-hearted conversation I felt that I had been. Teresa has been in education for over 30 years, where she spent 17 of those years teaching middle school science. After telling me this, Teresa cheekily said, “Hurry up and tell me how young I look!”
On the Cusp of Transformation
Teresa had the opportunity of a lifetime when her school was chosen to participate in Google’s pilot program of the Dynamic Learning Project (DLP) in June of 2017. Teresa was whisked off to the Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California where she trained rigorously for an intense five days! The DLP was launched in an effort to close the digital divide, and to see if technology could assist in democratizing education. Teresa’s time at Google facilitated an entire paradigm shift of her understanding of both technology and education.
Learning from the top leaders at Google helped push Teresa to incorporate technology in exciting and innovative ways so as to achieve an increase in student engagement and performance. “Technology is such a beautiful thing in that it can enhance instruction, however, it can never replace it. It will add to it in an impactful and meaningful way, but the real magic is in the delivery of the content.” One of the more impactful things that Teresa took with her from her time at DLP was the Perpetual Wheel Model, which purports that when implementing tech into a classroom, reflection is the most important aspect of the process. “If you reflect and it’s positive, great you can continue, but if you’re reflecting and it’s just mediocre, then you need to take time to reevaluate why you are using that tool. Is it really enhancing student learning or is it just fun?”
Armed with a personal mentor from Google and loads of new strategies and goals, Teresa began to implement these new-found skills into her middle school’s classrooms. “It really was a three step process. First a teacher would reach out to me for help. I would then go in and observe the classroom, and then lastly we would pick 1-2 strategies and tech tools to see if they would help.” The reflective process is a must within the DLP model and Teresa’s own philosophy. “If you reflect and the results are just mediocre then it’s time to reevaluate the reason you are using that tool.” It’s imperative to check to make sure that the technology you are utilizing is not just for the children’s enjoyment but also to boost learning.
One of the more innovative ways in which Teresa employed technology to elevate student understanding and engagement was by incorporating Virtual Reality (VR) headsets into an ELA classroom in order to build background knowledge. Teresa works for a school district that has a below average socioeconomic status with 50-60% of her students on reduced lunches. This inherently presents its own unique set of challenges. In this particular ELA classroom, the students were reading The Pearl by John Steinbeck, which is a philosophical book about a man who dives underwater and finds a prize pearl. Both Teresa and the teacher knew that many of these students had never travelled to the ocean, much less been underwater. They were able to use the VR headsets to take the kids underwater and let them experience what diving could be like in an ocean. After this experience they were properly equipped with the right background knowledge to learn about why it was so important to find this pearl. Without this background knowledge, they would not have truly grasped the symbolic importance of the man finding this pearl.
This particular use of technology struck a chord with me. Today’s technology is providing an avenue and a means to democratize education; it’s allowing underprivileged students to have access to opportunities that were previously not available. Teresa believes this has a ripple effect. “Whenever you have opportunities for your teachers to learn, your teachers pass it on to the students, your students pass it on to the community…that’s the beauty of the coaching program. It brings knowledge and awareness to our own communities about everything that is out there in the world.”
The Proliferation of Tech Culture
After teachers began to see the success that she was having with incorporating technology, they began to reach out to jumpstart their own classrooms. However, what really assisted in creating this flourishing technological culture was her implementation of the badging system. If Teresa saw a teacher utilizing a technology tool in a meaningful and impactful way that hit their educational goals, she would give them a badge for that specific tool. “It’s really about creating a culture of learning, a culture of collaboration, a culture of sharing, and then all of that has a ripple effect and comes back to student success.”
Teresa ingeniously placed these badges on the front of the teacher’s classroom so that it naturally facilitated collaboration between the teachers! “They are now talking with each other and they don’t need me! That’s how excitement spreads, and I truly believe that the badging system helped permanently establish technology into our classroom culture.” At a time when motivation can be so low, the passion within teachers needs to be ignited! Teresa at her core believes a key way to do this is by celebrating teachers, and celebrating the wins.
While speaking with Teresa, I was bewitched with her natural charm and wit; she possesses a youthful and animated energy that I can only estimate translates incredibly well into the classroom. While she has worked in education for 30+ years, she has not lost an ounce of her shine or sparkle. I wondered how she managed to maintain this passion and drive for her career in a time when teacher burnout is increasing at an exponential rate.
40-50% of teachers leave their school in the first five years with 45.3% citing dissatisfaction and stress as the main reason for their departure. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further exacerbated the already dire situation. According to an article by Steiner and Woo, ¼ of respondents said that they were likely to leave the teaching profession at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, with a majority of whom said that they were not likely to leave the profession before the start of COVID-19. (Steiner, Woo, 2021)
You wanna know how I stay fresh? Technology coaching completely revitalized me. I was in the classroom for 27 years and then I had an opportunity to coach. I think teachers need an opportunity to follow their passion.” Teresa advocates for teachers having more ability to move around in the education system. Sometimes you are locked into positions as a teacher and she believes it’s imperative to allow for more flexibility. “People need to recognize that we need to spread our wings and fly; whether that be switching grades, subjects, fields, or even taking a year off!” Stripping teachers of their autonomy can chip away at the rewards and gratification that comes from teaching. Teresa also acknowledges that there is a type of nurturing that is expected of teachers that is incredibly emotionally taxing. “Emotional labor is also why teacher’s burnout…it’s hard. It would be fake to not admit that! There are good days and bad days, but you are there to make a difference in a child’s life and learning, and that is what keeps you grounded and motivated to move forward.”
Finding Stability with OKIOCAM
The COVID-19 pandemic not only heightened issues of emotional burnout, but it also presented serious logistic problems. As soon as the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, the school’s need for a compact, lightweight, and durable document camera grew exponentially. After trying out one OKIOCAM, Teresa decided to order thirteen more and her teachers in her school district have been in love with OKIOCAM ever since. “We needed those document cameras to be home with us. It’s incredibly portable which I believe is its main selling point. I love the adjustability and durability of the camera. The material that the OKIOCAM is made of really allows it to maintain its strength throughout all environments and activities.”
Teresa loves that the use of OKIOCAM has not just been limited to remote learning. It has continued to contribute to her student’s learning even after in-person instruction has returned. “We have let students demonstrate and present their learning, as well as teachers have been able to record lessons so that they can be accessed by the students at a later time.” Teresa is always breaking new ground through her use of tech tools in the classroom.
Teresa has faced these challenges head on while acknowledging that the students’ educational needs are at the crux of the issue. It’s obvious that Teresa has made much more than just a difference in her students’ lives. I asked her what her proudest accomplishment was in her 30+ years of teaching. She easily could have rattled off her long list of impressive achievements like presenting at Google Playground 3 times, being a DLP coach, or Google for Education Certified Coach. However, she just grinned and said “After all these years, I am still connected to my students. I became more of their friend than their teacher. I have celebrated weddings, births of children, I am now teaching some of my student’s kids, and I have even hired some to work on my house. I was strict, I had rules and high expectations, but I gained their respect and I think that’s why I have stayed in education for so long.”
I think her proudest accomplishment perfectly encapsulates why she hasn’t lost any of her zeal for education. The relationships with her students is what keeps her around. No matter the profession, It’s a powerful lesson for all of us; the importance and necessity for human connection. There is a tangible uniqueness to the way that Teresa has navigated her dynamic career path, and I am confident that she will continue to be at the forefront of technological innovation within the education system.
Teresa Engler is an instructional technology coach at McGuffey School District in Claysville, Pennsylvania. She participated in the Dynamic Learning Project and later became a Google for Education Certified Trainer and Coach. She has presented at both Google Playground and ISTE conferences multiple times. Be sure to check her out on Twitter and LinkedIn.
This story is a series where we honor extraordinary educators who are making a difference in their communities with OKIOCAM. This story is written by Ben Jones.
Steiner, Elizabeth D. and Ashley Woo, Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply: Key Findings from the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1108-1.html.