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Washington's Teacher of the Year makes online learning a success

Teacher of the Year Blaire Penry stands accepting an award plaque from Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal
Bobbi Stockwell
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction
In late September, Aubun Online teacher Blaire Penry was named Washington's 2024 Teacher of the Year. She accepted the honor from Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.

In late September, Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction announced its 2024 Teacher of the Year. Sitting on stage that day was Blaire Penry, alongside her fellow finalists.

"It's a big honor, it’s really humbling,” said Penry, who’s been teaching since 2015. “To have that announced with everybody else, my family in the audience, my mentor, my principal in the audience, I was kind of overwhelmed and you can definitely see it on my face.”

Penry teaches high school students in the Auburn School District where many of her classes are held online. It's a learning style that was necessary during the pandemic, but not always successful. But Auburn Online as it’s known, has persisted, in part, because of innovative teachers like Penry.

When Penry spoke with KNKX All Things Considered she spoke about the energy she consistently brings to the classroom.

“I really love what I teach,” said Penry. “I'm fortunate in that I get to teach career and technology and electives – so I teach psychology and theater. These are things that I genuinely love and find interesting and can find relevance in their lives and build those connections between their lives outside of school, and then the curriculum."

Interview Highlights

On how she ended up teaching online classes

I'm sure that most of us can remember the Zoom meetings that can drag on. You click that button, you're not on the screen anymore, you're off doing your laundry, or off doing whatever around the house. We had to hold kids’ attention when they have their whole world to kind of distract them. So that challenge was really engaging for me. And so I knew that I wanted to be a part of that.

On what makes an online classroom successful

One of the things that I really love about our program and how it was run over the past two years, was that it is a ‘synchronous’ program. Students are with me in class, just like they would be in a regular building. And I think that's another really key aspect of it is that genuine connection that I have with my students. Yes, they're not walking into my classroom in a building, but as soon as they come on the ‘meet’, it's ‘man it's so good to see you, I'm so happy you're here. This is what we're going to do today’. Those routines are still there. There's familiarity in that and there's still relationship building and connection in that. And that has to be there.

A portrait of Blaire Penry
Bobbi Stockwell
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction
Blaire Penry will represent Washington in the National Teacher of the Year competition this spring.

On how to best prepare students for today’s workplace culture

One thing that I did was create in our homeroom, we had an opportunity to fill it with something more and something more substantial than the previous lessons that we had been doing. And so I took that chance. And I said, Hey, we're going to do a social justice curriculum from this point onward. And it really was about students having the opportunity to explore what's going on in the world around them, in their community, how they can shape and advocate and change what is going on in their homes, in their communities, in their buildings, right? In their immediate world, but also outside of it. And those skills, those advocating skills, the ability to analyze the situation and then to see how we can fix it and those problem solving skills. Those are skills that employers want and need.

On what’s giving her hope with today’s students

Them. Yeah, their perseverance, their brilliance, their creativeness. They will absolutely leave their mark, they just have a unique and different way of looking at problems. And what I have noticed was that students have a really strong sense of justice. If you ask a student what they want to change about their school, they will have very specific things with very specific reasons. And they're strong and they're rational and they're right. They're right in what they see and what they want to change. And I think our job as educators is to acknowledge and to support and uplift and empower that, like, ‘yes, you're absolutely right.’ And so, what gives me hope is, if I can be the adult, that they learn from and learn those self advocacy skills and to take their strength and just charge forward, like that absolutely gives me hope.

Penry will be Washington's representative in the National Teacher of the Year competition. The winner will be announced in the spring. 

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at