Teacher Appreciation Week is treated like a national holiday at Ozobot HQ. With schools closed across the country, we’re more eager than ever to connect with our educator community and find ways to celebrate everything they do for students. For a glimpse at that, check out our new Lesson Reaction YouTube series–where we share our reactions to creative community lessons like OzoLoops, Oregon Trail, and more.
We also have a very special group of teachers to spotlight this year: the teachers of Ozobot! We have former educators and learning thought leaders across all departments, from Engineering to Customer Experience to Marketing. We think of our 100+ Certified Educators as an extended part of our team too, and believe that all together these educators keep us on track with our mission to inspire all kids to create with technology.
Please meet the educators of Ozobot below, glean some tips for anyone thinking of taking the leap into edtech, and discover some encouraging messages for teachers facing one of the biggest tests of their careers with COVID-19.
Melissa Toohey, M. Ed. | Educational Technology & Adoption Specialist
- Currently pursuing a doctorate in UCLA’s Educational Leadership Program (#GoBruins)
- Super passionate about equity and inclusion in CS and STEAM
- Doting dog mom to rescues Schnitzel and Brezel
In a past life, Melissa (aka Mrs. Toohey) was a K-1 teacher who drew inspiration from the teaching strategies of Rita Pierson, let her goofy sense of humor shine, and discovered computer science as a powerful way to engage more students.
On uncovering students’ strengths with CS…
“I had one student, Shelia, who entered Kindergarten classified with developmental delay, received special ed speech services, and was placed in the lowest math and reading group. Sheila lacked confidence and struggled academically, but my class gave her the opportunity to shine because she excelled in computer coding. I empowered and celebrated Sheila, and she supported her top-performing classmates that were easily frustrated with the content. Sheila proved to me the power of computer science instruction, and how computer science offers all students the opportunity to think differently and show different types of strengths. Sheila succeeded despite being classified with learning difficulties, and coding created the opportunity for her alternative strengths to be recognized.”
Melissa also worked as the Founding Coding, Engineering, & Design Thinking Teacher at KIPP Ignite Academy in South Los Angeles. We’ve got a gut feeling that experience prepared her well for the challenges of a startup. A small team of teachers and administrators started the school, and Melissa had the opportunity to design their STEAM curriculum from scratch.
Most recently, that same drive brought Melissa to Ozobot and UCLA simultaneously. She’s earning her doctoral degree in educational leadership while also bringing her expertise in coding and CS to major Ozobot Classroom projects like our scoped-and-sequenced Core Coding Curriculum. Even with all that on her plate, she argues that some of the greatest challenges of her career came in the classroom (see Messages to Educators for Teacher Appreciation Week below).
Theresa Rapior | Software Engineer
- Taught grades K-8 in South Korea
- Specialized in working with emotionally disturbed students
- Self-taught programmer
- Some things she’s built: key components of Ozobot Classroom, our Dorothy Vaughan and Fortran lesson, and an awesome costume for Bender, her Evo named after the robot in Futurama.
After college, Theresa spent two years teaching grades K-8 in South Korea, where she fell in love with working with kids and found she had a particular passion for working with the most disruptive kids and finding creative ways to engage them. She returned to the US to teach privately and work with middle school students dealing with emotional and behavioral challenges, all while coding in her free time.
On a teaching experience that stands out…
“One class in Seoul had a very rambunctious girl named Yubin, who was always disturbing the class by talking a lot. She had lived on an American military base and was basically fluent, so she was bored, and that made her disruptive.
One day, I decided I would teach an English class without speaking at all (honestly, I was tired), with the stipulation everyone must speak English. The kids were like ‘Woooahhh teacher are you serious?!’ I did everything with my hands, and in the end it was a success. In fact, Yubin’s chattiness encouraged other students to chat even in broken English, which they hadn’t had time to do before. It was actually one of my most successful sessions!”
Looking for the next challenge, Theresa joined Ozobot in 2017.
On transitioning to edtech…
“EdTech is where we get to be creative with education. We get to experiment with content and engagement that, in the classroom, it doesn’t feel like you have time to plan out or test. I hope that our content and tools make teachers feel like they can experiment too, even if it’s just an hour a semester, and see the results.”
She started out building Ozobot curriculum and then quickly got snatched up by the engineering team, where she designs elegant solutions to our teachers’ wants and needs.
Jen Maher | Customer Experience Representative
- Basically embodies STEAM–has taught dance to ages 4-to-adult and MS math and science
- Makes upcycled glass art in her spare time
- Answers educator questions and accepts shout-outs @ozobot and at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jen’s teaching experience began all back in high school–when her dance teacher asked her to sub–and extends to today. She currently teaches educators how to use Ozobots and engage their students in coding and STEAM as part of our all-star Customer Experience team.
Jen majored in dance in college, then went on to teach ballet, tap, and modern dance to all ages at Ketchikan Theatre Ballet, Alaska’s oldest private dance studio. She also spent time working as an artist-in-residence with PreK-2 special needs students.
On a lesson about dance, grief, and community…
“One experience that stands out happened when I was teaching dance in Ketchikan, AK. My grandfather, to whom I was very close, had recently passed away. I had been so busy with my life that I hadn’t really taken the time to grieve. I decided to make the grieving process the topic of a piece of choreography for the dance company to take on their Southeast Alaska tour. The dancers and I had many discussions about grief, gratitude, community, love, and healing. As the tour proceeded, each town had a new reaction to the piece, letting the dancers know that they had experienced all the things we had discussed. In addition to helping me through my grief, the dancers learned about intention, healing, sharing energy with an audience, and the power of dance performance.”
Jen worked toward her math endorsement, teaching credential, and a Masters in Education in Curriculum and Instruction before taking the leap into teaching dance in a K-8 public school and starting her own tutoring business. She also spent time teaching middle school math and science before joining the Ozobot team, and still tutors in math in addition to making amazing upcycled glass art in her free time.
We can’t say we were surprised to learn about her wide-ranging experience covering dance, math, and coding. Dance, after all, is a bit like programming with your body, with each repeatable step in choreography acting like a function you can call.
Cassandra Willer | Content Manager
- Earned an MA in Psychology
- Worked as a K-12 substitute teacher
- Created Hungry, Hungry Ozobot, Ozobot Trick or Treat, Stargazing with Ozobot, and more Ozobot lessons!
- Named her Evo Liesel
Long before becoming the creative mind behind many of this blog’s posts and much of our beloved Ozobot lesson content, Cassandra supported differently-abled and low income student populations and strove to give them opportunities equal to their peers from within the classroom.
On her background in education…
“During my time in my Master’s program, I interned for a school psychologist, assisting with assessment and formulation of IEPs. After I got my MA in Psychology, I began working with kids on the autism spectrum. I am so grateful for the time I got to spend advocating for them and empowering them to succeed in school and at home. Later, I became a substitute teacher for a school district in Los Angeles County… I enjoyed a few long-term substitute gigs in elementary and middle school, where I got to experience the day-to-day responsibilities of a classroom teacher.”
Substitute teaching across K-12 classrooms prepared Cassandra well for her role at Ozobot, where we work to produce curriculum and content for educators across all grades level and subjects.
On a teaching experience that stands out..
“While I was substitute teaching in a low-income middle school, we did an exercise where students were prompted to talk about setbacks they’ve experienced in life. I wasn’t expecting the responses I got, including ‘My sister died in a drive-by shooting while we were eating dinner.’ That day, and their responses, greatly impacted my view of the role of schools and education in the lives of children.
While all students’ situations may not be as extreme, with 51% of students in Pre-K-12 considered in poverty, it is likely that there are multiple students in a given class worried about more than their quizzes or turning in their homework. They’re worried about their safety, getting basic needs met, and stability. It deepened my appreciation for educators, who are not only trying to give these students the best chance of getting out of poverty by providing access to a great education, they are also trying to provide a safe space for many students and trying to engage them despite what’s going on at home.”
Messages to Educators for Teacher Appreciation Week
Now that you’ve had a chance to get to know our team of in-house educators, we’d like to leave you with their messages for ALL OF YOU during this toughest of Teacher Appreciation Weeks.
Melissa: “When I entered my doctoral program, a recent graduate spoke to my cohort and said, ‘This program will be the hardest thing you ever do.’ I remember thinking, ‘I’ve already done the hardest thing I’ll ever do: teaching in a classroom and attempting to meet all the needs of 28 different children.’ I know teaching is hard, and often feels impossible. You are valued and appreciated by your students, their families, and their communities, not only during the one week of the year that is labeled ‘Teacher Appreciation Week,’ but always. You have cheerleaders and people behind the scenes rooting for you. We have your back. You may not see us or hear us, but we are fighting for you and your students.”
Theresa: “I just want every teacher to know how valuable I think they are, and that no matter how digital everything becomes, their creativity and love and role as a teacher will always be essential.
I think I can speak for Ozobot in saying that we love hearing your successes, and also your needs. So during this transition and long term change, please feel free to reach out to us with your thoughts. We’re a teacher-driven company!”
Jen: “Always remember that you are engaged in work that can affect lives for the better. Be their inspiration by being excited about what you are teaching! My middle schoolers used to roll their eyes at me when I got all excited about math concepts. I rejoiced at every eye roll because that showed me they noticed.”
Cassandra: “My appreciation for teachers has grown even more since joining Ozobot. I see you spending your own time and money to enrich the lives of your students (even though I don’t think this should be the case!). You’re learning how to integrate coding and STEAM in your classrooms (even though it isn’t something you were taught) because you care about building your students’ future-ready skills.”
Thank you, educators, for all that you do for your students and communities year-round!