Timothy Chipp, Abilene Reporter-News Published 7:04 a.m. CT May 15, 2019
Jessi Spitler enjoys both a career teaching in the classroom and one in the field as an animal researcher Rob Westman, Abilene Education Foundation
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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on winners of the Abilene Education Foundation’s Teachers in the Limelight Celebration awards. Awards presented at a ceremony were elementary, secondary, math and science teachers of the year, along with a fifth, created in 2019, called Future Shapers Teacher Award.
Cooper High School’s Jessi Spitler wears two hats.
One is teacher, educating young minds in the science department and advocating for a pair of subjects often overlooked in high school.
The other is field researcher, getting her hands — and, sometimes, mouth — dirty tracking wild animals for scientists studying ecological and habitat issues.
One led to the other, which, by happenstance, led back to the first. It’s part of the wild ride that brought Spitler, originally from Ohio, to West Texas.
Beyond the classroom
“Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to this stuff,” she said of field research. “I went to school and got my teaching certificate. When I was an undergrad, I signed up for a field biology job and found out people actually do this for a job.”
She’s taught chemistry, biology and physics, the big three in the high school science classes. But Spitler is enthralled by what is classified as environmental science.
She’s doing everything she can to make it a respected subject at Cooper.
“In (her) generation, these were the classes the ‘dumb kids’ took,” Spitler said. “Environmental science was for those who couldn’t pass chemistry or physics.”
Spitler’s secret weapon in making the learning fun is the plethora of personal stories she can tell. Being in the field, be it for a few weeks or a few months, puts her face to face with some of nature’s apex predators.
Such as when she wrestled crocodiles to tag them with GPS trackers. She’s been accosted by a honey badger that got into her sleeping bag.
In Africa, she helped researchers studying the highly endangered black rhinos.
A trip to West Texas to study rattlesnakes brought her to Cooper. And now, after five years, she’s been named the Abilene Education Foundation’s 2019 Science Teacher of the Year.
A teacher is the link
“A teacher makes a difference for kids,” Spitler said. “I encourage my students to question science. It’s a little scary to give up control and let the students explore and question, but I’ve found it makes the kids excited about the work they do.”
It helps when you can spend time relating with the students through fun stories about the subject matter. It helps her connect and reduces the number of discipline problems she experiences.
In addition to environmental science, Spitler also started the high school’s astronomy class. Another passion of hers is to look up at the sky and see what lies beyond the Earth’s influence.
It’s different knowing Saturn has rings and actually seeing them in the telescope, she said.
Spitler has partnered with the Big Country Naturalists for stargazing parties and will continue to do so as astronomy grows in popularity.
Monday: Allison Stanley (Math Teacher of the Year)
Today: Jessi Spitler (Science Teacher of the Year)
Thursday: Nicole Flores (Future Shapers Teacher)
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