Staff Spotlight - Theresa Wheeler

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

— Zora Neale Hurston

‘Formalized Curiosity’ is Wheeler’s Tool of Choice

By Amanda Gronewold

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Theresa Wheeler

On equality in education, a matter close to her heart, Theresa Wheeler says, “Education is not and never will be the great equalizer, but it’s a tool nevertheless.”

Wheeler says that her tool is research, and she feels a sense of duty to use it to affect education.  One of her favorite quotes on the subject of research comes from Zora Neale Hurston: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

Wheeler spent most of her childhood in the St. Louis, MO area before moving to the Mississippi Delta as a teen. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at Mississippi State University where she concentrated on sociology and mass media. To fulfill the research requirements of her undergraduate degree, she worked on both NASA and National Science Foundation grants, researching women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. It was this research that got her noticed by her professors when she went on to MSU’s sociology graduate program, and they recommended she consider applying to work at the RCU to further hone her educational-research skills.

Wheeler joined the RCU in 2007, bringing not only her research talents, but also skills in data management and statistics. She started on the assessment team but has had her hands in almost every aspect of what the RCU does from helping out with curriculum to routing RCU work orders via the help desk system. Transition is a familiar process for Wheeler—she just made another move in the spring of 2015 to the professional learning side of the RCU.

Wheeler’s new role will involve facilitating various professional-learning courses, but she will also be writing culinary arts courses. An avid home chef herself, she is excited to provide new resources for culinary instructors to access in teaching their students.

It’s no surprise that Wheeler also plans to continue “poking and prying with a purpose” in professional learning. She has ideas to evaluate how Certification of Online Learning (COOL) participants are using their skills in Canvas.

“Some teachers come to COOL and do just enough to get the certificate so they can meet their requirement, but some teachers actually get in there and create courses, and I want to see how they use it for the district. That may even translate to student outcomes in the long run,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler has unique ideas for researching student outcomes. She has developed an interest in spatial analysis—on her office wall hangs a Mississippi map of her creation that displays how the wealth of each school district correlates with the reading proficiency of that district’s students.

Wheeler likens educational research to health research. “I think that you can use health-research methods to study education,” Wheeler said, “if you treat low student outcomes as an illness, as a sickness, as a malady.… I want to take those methodologies and use them to study students the way we study patients.”

A mother of three, Wheeler plans to continue her studies by pursuing an educational specialist degree in educational technology, a master’s in health, and possibly a doctorate in public policy. “Negative student outcomes are sometimes a product of policy. I want to see how policy ties into those student performances,” said Wheeler.

Fun Facts

  • What are you most likely to be found doing outside of the RCU?

    Walking around Starkville with my [two-year-old] baby. We walk about five miles a day.
  • What would you want to do for a career if you weren’t working here?

    I would be a culinary arts instructor on the coast and teaching adjunct sociology at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. I almost want to say that’s something I would want to do when I retire from MSU. I like being around young people learning.
  • How do you define success?

    For me, success is not getting promoted and making money. For me success is just being able to do the research I want to do, but being able to do it well.
  • What’s something about you that may surprise people?

    I’m a classically trained musician. I play flute and cello. I also taught myself how to play piano after buying every songbook of every album by Tori Amos.
  • What kind of music do you like to listen to?

    Debussy and Ravel—also Tupac, Outkast, and Raheem DeVaughn.
  • What’s your favorite piece of literature?

    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin