Education Week “Leader to Learn From” after she left campus in 2008.

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Student Choice and Student Voice: One Grad's Path to Success

By Brittany Bluthardt '20

“Did you see this?” Butler University staff members said as they celebrated one of many student success stories this spring.

Michele Eaton, a Butler alumna and Indianapolis educator, didn’t expect to become an Education Week “Leader to Learn From” after she left campus in 2008. She began her professional career prepared, but she didn’t know what her future success would entail.

Despite her current passion for the field, Eaton didn’t always want to pursue education. She originally had dreams of becoming an engineer but was discouraged by a teacher at a young age. Eaton didn’t let this affect her future. She eventually found her calling at Butler University.

“I knew the impact one person could have, positive or negative,” Eaton said. “I wanted to be the teacher that encouraged a student to follow their dreams, and I would help them to get there.”

After receiving her degree in Secondary Education, Eaton kick-started her career and taught in Indianapolis as a second-grade teacher. Ena Shelley, dean of the college of education, remembers her as academically talented, eager to learn, and a quiet leader. She was very happy to hear of Eaton’s honor, but she wasn’t surprised.

“I wish she could've heard our excitement because people were so proud of her,” Shelley said. “In a time when there are so many challenges in education, she was a message of hope and inspiration for the whole college to keep going.”

Eaton accomplished her goal of becoming an educator and became a second grade teacher after earning her degree at Butler. She took an online class for her master’s degree while teaching. From the completely online program, she earned a master’s degree in education with a focus in technology.

“I was so enamoured with the program and the professional connections that I was able to make without ever meeting anyone face to face,” she described. “I quickly became an advocate. Online learning was something I could get behind.”

A few years later in 2012, Eaton became the virtual education specialist for MSD Wayne Township. Shortly she was promoted to director of virtual and blended learning, a position created specifically for Eaton’s interests and skill set. Eaton helps direct the Achieve Virtual Education Academy, an online school for students to receive a high school diploma outside of the classroom. She trains teachers from across the state on blended learning, a combination of online schooling and face-to-face interaction.

Despite Eaton’s experience in education, the program had a rocky start with low engagement and interest. The teachers tried various techniques, but nothing worked. Eaton knew they needed to think about the academy from a different perspective.

“My first instinct was to throw out a ton of ideas, but this was something I’d never actually done myself in the classroom. I took a step back and said, ‘Let’s be students.’” And with that idea in mind, she began to study who they were serving.

She collected data and feedback from the teachers and redesigned their techniques to fit each individual. What they learned was that the academy students come from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages; over half of the students are adults. To accommodate this nontraditional student, Eaton worked with the teachers to recreate the program and revolutionize student’s thoughts of online learning.  The academy now allows students to recover lost credits, accelerate their learning, and earn an official high school degree -- not a lesser equivalent.

The proof of Eaton’s success in the numbers. Total graduating students rose from six in 2011 to 30 last year.

“There’s not a one-size fit all solution for any student or any classroom, but when you’re talking about a specialized population that you find in a virtual school, you can’t just create something and hope for the average,” Eaton said. “The more that we can personalize the experience for our students, the more success that we’re going to find.”

“Student voice and student choice” is one of Eaton’s main teaching philosophies. Although technology is inevitable for online learning, she doesn’t think of the internet as an educational barrier.

“It’s not about entertainment, it’s about doing work that I care about -- doing work that matters,” she said. “I think that if we help students find their voice, we can help students learn how to be advocates for their own learning. Technology is a catalyst for that type of work.”

Eaton’s passion for helping students flourished at Butler. College of education majors experience hours of student-teaching in classrooms across the city. Eaton said this lead to professional connections with other teachers and leaders in the field. Her advice for current and future students pursuing education is to get connected.

“It is too hard of a job to do on an island,” Eaton said. “Learn how to network. Butler makes that possible, so when you leave that is something you can continue to pursue.”

Eaton kept her strong connections. One of her mentors from Butler University is professor Arthur Hochman, who even today she still turns to for advice. Hochman knew she was impressive from the start, and he remembers her unwavering energy and focus. From a few notes he kept while Eaton was in school, he reminisces on his visit to her classroom during her first year of teaching.

“I spoke to her principal on the way into the school, who warned me that she had a really challenging group of children,” he wrote. “I came in expecting the usual first-year teacher chaos but instead I saw order and innovation. The class had a clear sense of community, and you could not have found a more joyful teacher standing in front of a group of young children. I will never forget what Michele whispered to me: ‘I must have gotten an easy class as a first year teacher, because these kids come to school every day ready to learn.’”

Hochman said this is only the beginning for Eaton. Dr. Shelley hopes she will return to Butler to speak about her success or become a mentor for future educators. A part of the COE’s vision statement is to challenge the status quo, and Eaton does just that.

“She embodies this can-do, must-do spirit of giving back and moving people forward,” Dr. Shelley said. “It’s that quiet leadership of bringing people along, not forcing them, but helping them to see how it works. That’s a gift. That’s a true leader.”

As for the future, Eaton hopes to continue improving and growing as an educator. Above all, she thanks Butler for helping her to reach this point in her career. When asked, she says doesn’t have just one favorite memory as a student -- she just remembers the people.

“Butler is all about community,” Eaton said. “I think that was one of the best things about coming here and certainly something that won’t leave me.”