Jessica Eschbach
Norman Public Schools educator Jessica Eschbach was named Oklahoma's 2021 Teacher of the Year on March 4. (NonDoc)

Jessica Eschbach, an innovative-learning coach for Norman Public Schools, was named the 2021 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year during a virtual ceremony on March 4, after being selected from a pool of 12 finalists from all over the state.

“Jessica understands that the world of instruction is constantly updating to reflect new research, and she strives to help students, families and fellow teachers to adapt to technology and new ways of learning,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said when the award was announced. “She embraces innovative strategies that aim to reach schoolchildren where they are and stands out as a leader among educators.”

Eschbach, 31, has been teaching for seven years and has been in her current job for a year. As an innovative-learning coach, she works with teachers to develop and improve teaching strategies and approaches.

“I’m honored beyond belief,” Eschbach said during the ceremony. “I can’t even imagine being in the presence of the other finalists. I’ve been in awe of their passion and their talent and their love of their kids during this entire process, and I feel like I’m a better teacher because I’ve met them.”

The Teacher of the Year title comes with $10,000 in cash and prizes and the responsibility of being Oklahoma’s ambassador of teaching for the next year by traveling the state to promote the teaching profession.

NonDoc interviewed Jessica Eschbach shortly after her selection. In the following Q&A, she discusses her role as a teacher, her concerns for students during the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons she hopes will stick with her students for the rest of their lives. Responses have been edited lightly for style and grammar.

What led you to the education profession? How do you view your role as a teacher?

I’ve always loved and appreciated my teachers, but I didn’t consider it as a career choice for myself until I participated in a work-study during my freshman year of college. I taught computer classes to women who had recently immigrated to the United States to help them develop the skills they needed to get jobs. I saw how education could truly change lives, and I wanted to be a part of it. I transferred to OU, enrolled in the College of Education and never looked back.

As an educator who has experienced nearly every grade, from the newest pre-K students to the seniors getting ready to graduate, I really feel that my role as a teacher has always been to show the kids their own potential. Content and standards always come, but before real teaching can begin, students have to feel like they can succeed and are capable of success. My job is to nurture their talents, help them develop new abilities and skills and lead them through the year knowing that I am always on their side. 

You’re the innovative-learning coach for pre-K through 12th grades for Norman Public Schools. Tell us more about what this position entails. 

This position really brings together the best parts of education. I primarily work with teachers, both at Norman North High School and at three elementary sites in Norman Public Schools, to help them achieve their goals within their classroom. This year in particular has been challenging for all new reasons, so I have worked with the other coaches in the district to develop and implement continuous professional development on Canvas, our new learning management system, to help teachers provide excellent instruction to all students, both in the classroom and virtually. I also work with students who need assistance with Canvas and respond to help requests from parents as well. It really is about serving the entire school community.

I also get to collaborate with teachers on units and lessons that we can elevate with educational technology and new strategies for student engagement. I work closely with the librarians at Norman North, Molly Dettmann and Rachael Lester, and together we plan and facilitate experiences for students that encourage inquiry and critical thinking skills. 

I know that Norman is lucky to have positions like this in place to support teachers and students. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with these amazing educators across the district and still get to work closely with students from so many different walks of life. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how you teach and interact with your students? 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was the teacher-librarian at Kennedy Elementary School, and the way we worked with students was turned upside down. Of course, we have had to digitize lessons at all levels to make sure students learning at home have equitable access to their class content, and that has been a challenge at all levels because we really had to reinvent the wheel that is good teaching.

There are also the concerns that come with students being at home and not interacting with their peers or teachers as much as they would during a typical school year, so I think for all teachers there is the added worry for all of our students.

What are your biggest concerns for your students regarding the pandemic? 

I know that there is a huge focus on the potential loss of instruction during the pandemic, but I am also very concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of our kids.

The isolation and the massive shifts in the way we live our lives each day has affected students more than we realize, and I think we will be seeing new challenges in the coming years that are related to COVID-19. However, I think that if we are aware of these issues and work with school counselors, social workers and other mental health experts right now, we can be proactive in our support for students, families and teachers.

What advice do you have for your fellow teachers as they continue to navigate the pandemic? 

Don’t do it alone! Across Oklahoma and the entire country there are educators facing the same types of challenges we are, and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that distance can’t stop us from connecting with each other. Get online and make connections to teachers through social media, educational groups and message boards and professional learning networks.

We are so much stronger when we work together on solutions to common problems. Don’t feel like you need to do it all by yourself to be a good teacher. You are a good teacher, and there are so many of us who want to work with you and help get through this crazy time in our lives and our professions. We just need to find each other! 

What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing Oklahoma’s education sector?

I believe that the pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in our state in terms of educational equity. Every district in the state has talented teachers who do their best to serve their kids, but we now know that many of our more rural districts don’t have the funding to provide technology to all students in the same way our more affluent districts can. In some cases, there was not even a way for kids and families to access reliable internet connectivity, even if they had their own technology.

I hope we never live through a pandemic again, but we need to be prepared to make sure all of Oklahoma’s kids get access to equitable educational opportunities. That could be educational technology, but it also could be access to outside resources like museums and zoos, guest speakers and instructional experts, and effective professional learning for their teachers. All kids in Oklahoma need to have the best chance at success, period.

If there was one initiative to benefit students that you could implement at your school district what would it be?

When I worked at Kennedy, I began a “guest reader” program from a request made by a very innovative kindergarten teacher, Ashley Quate. The goal was to have people read books to kids, but it became so much more than that. Local and state leaders were invited into our school, and not only did they get to read with kids, which is always fun, but we were also given the opportunity to open the dialogue about what our community needed in terms of support.

The pandemic put a temporary halt on school visitors, but I would love to see that program expand to all of the elementary schools and possibly involve middle and high school students to serve as “reading mentors” for our youngest learners. The power of connection, when combined with a focus on literacy and sharing a love of books, can be life changing. I hope we can start it up again soon, as soon as it is safe for all involved!

What is a lesson you teach to your students that you hope will stick with them throughout the rest of their lives?

I hope they always remember that success looks different for everyone. It can take a while to figure out what that looks like for them, and that’s OK. I hope they always find their passion and believe that they can move mountains if they give it their best shot. School success is just one part of the puzzle. There will be challenges and naysayers, but if they stay true to themselves and remember that they always have a cheerleader in me, they can pursue greatness. I believe in all of them!

I know it must be hard to narrow down, but what is your most cherished memory from your time teaching so far? 

This is probably going to sound really weird, but I loved getting pied in the face. When I worked as a teacher at Alcott Middle School, I was one of the founding faculty advisors for a club devoted to school and community service. We did a major fundraiser, and students who raised money were entered in a raffle for the chance to pie a few of us. That fundraiser was one of our first big projects, and we were able to make a significant contribution to a charity the kids helped choose.

The pie in the face was the culmination of a lot of hard work and watching all of these kids come together for something much bigger than themselves. Washing the whipped cream out of my hair was a different story.