Caroline Eschenbach

Caroline Eschenbach, a third grade literacy teacher at Virginia Heights Elementary School (Photos courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation)

In Roanoke, Virginia, students and faculty filed into the Virginia Heights Elementary School gym.

“We thought [the school] was being recognized, but then [the speakers] started talking about how one teacher would be recognized with $25,000, said Caroline Eschenbach, a third-grade literacy teacher. “I thought ‘no way’—then they called my name.”

Eschenbach, a 2010 Virginia Tech graduate, and now, a Milken Educator Award winner, was ushered to the front of the room, which was roaring.

For 30 years, the Milken Educator Awards, often called the Oscars or Grammys of teaching, have rewarded and inspired excellence in education. The awards target early-to-mid career education professionals in the U.S. Eschenbach was the lone winner in Virginia for the 2018-19 school year.

In the classroom, Eschenbach emphasizes literacy and critical thinking. She exposes her students to reading materials that range from books to news articles and creatively reinforces their learning. According to Eschenbach, third grade is an often transformational, yet tumultuous year for students.

“We are a school that receives Title I funding and has a diverse population of students,” said Eschenbach. “A lot of these kids come from more challenging experiences that make it difficult to have a more even playing field in terms of testing.”

Despite these challenges, the reading scores for Eschenbach’s students have been phenomenal, thanks to her hands-on, relationship-building style.

“Rhymes, rhythms, dances, and whatever it may take to make more of an impact,” are all classroom standards, according to Eschenbach. “You build rapport first and have academics second.”

Caroline Eschenbach

Caroline Eschenbach (on right)

Eschenbach’s teaching philosophy is rooted in her family history; her mom, grandmother, and aunts are also teachers. In fact, according to Eschenbach, her mother inspired her future career at a young age.

“I would go and observe her class, and I fell in love with it,” said Eschenbach. “She was engaging and creative in her methods, building strong relationships with her students.”

Eschenbach chose to major in interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Tech, now known as human development. The program allowed her to immediately connect with a classroom through a practicum at Kipps Elementary. She fell in love with the region and ultimately decided to remain close by in Roanoke, where she will continue to teach and change lives—now honored as a “Milken Educator.”

“I often say that I’ll do anything as far as a cartwheel for my students. It is amazing that you can make an impact on so many lives in just one year.”

Written by Brendan Coffey, a student intern for the Virginia Tech Magazine.