By: Melissa Jones—
Muncie, IN—Stefanie Onieal is not a teacher, she says. She’s a researcher.
“I’m a researcher of my students. I am researching what they know, what they can do, and I’m trying to take them to the next place, to where they need to go,” said Onieal, a second-grade teacher at Burris Laboratory School in Muncie. And it’s this unique approach and dedication to self-reflection that led to her being named the winner of this year’s Ball Brothers Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award.
Ball Brothers Foundation annually presents the Excellence in Teaching Award to a Delaware County teacher who incorporates 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and collaboration. The winning teacher must also use unique approaches to motivate their students by creating authentic learning experiences.
“Ms. Onieal’s nomination was a stunning example of a teacher who takes a creative approach to teaching students to be informed members of our community,” said Jud Fisher, president and chief operating officer of Ball Brothers Foundation. “We are fortunate to have someone like her teaching our future generation of leaders and difference-makers.”
The award is more than just the recognition—it also comes with a $17,500 grant from Ball Brothers Foundation. The funding provides $5,000 each to the district, school, and classroom of the winning teacher to further support creativity and innovation. The remaining $2,500 will be specifically used for professional development opportunities selected by the winning teacher.
The award is given in recognition of the values and entrepreneurial spirit that its founders held important with regard to education and student achievement.
“There’s not always the respect that my profession deserves, so I think it’s amazing that a group thinks it’s important to recognize teachers,” Onieal said. “It makes me proud and completely humbled.”
Onieal, a Muncie native, has been teaching for more than 25 years and is always seeking new opportunities to improve, from starting inclusion programs, to writing technology grants, to even going back to school herself.
Returning to school at age 51 to receive a master’s degree “was a huge learning curve,” she said—but the experience pushed her to reflect on her teaching philosophy and shape it into the unique approach it is today.
Onieal describes her philosophy, in part, as teaching her students that “knowledge is power.”
“It’s teaching kids to advocate for themselves. It’s teaching kids why we’re learning to write: it’s to give yourself a voice, to give yourself power,” she said. “Choice and voice are super important in my classroom and to me. It’s not my room, it’s our room; they’re not my rules, they’re our rules.”
This principle is best shown in her Muncie Landmark unit, which starts with the question, “In what ways do local landmarks tell the story of our community?” Onieal invites a local expert to teach her class about the landmarks, noting that what the expert teaches depends on the discoveries and questions of her students.
“This year, my students were curious about why so many landmarks are statues of native people. I invited an expert to teach us about the Lenape; my students were shocked to find out that modern-day Lenape people exist,” she said. “Learning about the Hurley Goodall statue led to reading his book and learning about local Civil Rights leaders. Another year, my students noticed that women are not well represented. This led to asking an expert on the Ball women and their work for women’s suffrage to come and speak.”
Social justice and diversity are heavily embedded in her teaching. She plans to use her portion of the grant to purchase more books—particularly more inclusive ones—for her classroom.
“In [my graduate school] program, I started learning … to critically examine my classroom, my materials, my curriculum,” she said. “I’ve been working on that, but this is going to allow me to get even more [materials] so that my students see themselves represented in the books that they read and they also see people not like them in the books that they read.”
Books are an instrumental tool in Onieal’s classroom, as they use “tons” in her workshop-modeled reading and writing lessons. This workshop approach is one area where she’d like to spend her professional development funds, in addition to trainings from Teaching Tolerance and more formal training on using responsive techniques in the classroom.
“Professional development—that’s one reason why I’m so excited that I won this award, because that’s something teachers are getting less and less of,” she said. “I could spend the whole $17,500 in professional development; I love it.”
Ultimately, Onieal said she didn’t need the award to know she’s working hard for her students. Instead, the honor has a deeper meaning for her.
“I have two sons who saw me go through the whole graduate school program and all of that,” she said. “I think it’s important for them to see all the hard work I’ve put into my career and that somebody has recognized that.”
In addition to Onieal, Ball Brothers Foundation and its selection committee recognized two other finalists for this year’s award: Drew Shermeta, a social studies teacher at Muncie Central High School, and Roza Selvey, a computer science teacher at Southside Middle School in Muncie.
“The Excellence in Teaching Award celebrates teachers who incorporate 21st century skills in their classroom, and both Shermeta and Selvey serve as great examples of this kind of teacher,” Fisher said.
Shermeta uses technology in his economics class to help empower students with not just a portfolio of their work, but a deeper, holistic understanding of their education.
“During the first week of class, each student constructs a website that will serve as the platform to which they’ll post six unit-end products, comprising a portfolio for the semester,” Shermeta said. “Collaborating with teachers in my building has opened up the possibility that these sites can be used to vertically organize learning over four years in high school and to horizontally organize learning across different disciplines within a year.”
Selvey teaches a course called Project Lead the Way Computer Science for Innovators & Makers. The class is centered around teaching students to apply their computer science knowledge in real-life contexts and situations.
“My course involves real-world problems and mimics the work of professionals in the computer science field,” Selvey said. “Students are encouraged to wonder how code can be used in wearable tech, art exhibits, or mechanical devices. This broadens students’ understanding of computer science concepts through meaningful applications.”
Both Shermeta and Selvey will receive a $1,500 grant to be used in their classroom and for professional development.
To learn more about Ball Brothers Foundation’s Excellence in Teaching Award, including eligibility requirements and previous years’ winners, visit ballfdn.org/excellence-in-teaching-award.
About Ball Brothers Foundation
Established in 1926, Ball Brothers Foundation awards approximately $8 million annually in grants supporting arts and culture, education, the environment, health, human services, and public affairs. The Muncie-based private foundation gives priority to projects and programs that improve the quality of life in its home city, county, and state.