Mehmet Ozer – Special-Education Teacher & Robotics Program Leader
The Dell City School is shaped by a sense of community. With an enrollment of fewer than 75 students, no student here is anonymous. School staff have the opportunity to give each student the individualized support they need to succeed.
Mehmet Ozer, the district’s new special-education teacher, is an important part of the process. It’s his job to insure that students with special needs – including those with learning or physical disabilities – get the attention and assistance they need to flourish.
“We have brilliant kids,” Ozer said, “but if they don’t get the education they need, that can hold them back. In some cases, these kids can be labeled as ‘acting out’ or ‘falling behind,’ but that is not really the case. These kids, most of them – they just need special attention.”
Special education begins with a conversation. The special-education teacher, the principal and the student’s parents meet, and, with assistance from a trained diagnostician, identify and discuss the causes that are making the mainstream classroom challenging for the student. Then, they develop an “individualized education program.” The plan can include one-on-one attention from Ozer, or introducing more hands-on activities in the classroom or modifying teaching methods in other ways.
Ozer has his own classroom where he works with students. But it’s also part of his job to make other teachers aware of the obstacles special-needs students face, and to suggest accommodations and techniques they can use to connect with those students.
In addition to his work in special education, Ozer is also the faculty leader of the school’s robotics program. The program – in which students design, build and program robots – is in its third year, and Dell City students have already tasted success in competitions against teams from other schools. Ozer worked with a robotics program at a previous job, and robotics education connects directly with his own professional passion.
Ozer is currently pursuing a PhD at New Mexico State University, focused on hands-on learning in STEM education, or science, technology, engineering and math.
Robotics can plant the seed for a future career in science or technology, Ozer said, and for all students, it’s a powerful way to encounter and absorb scientific concepts. It’s collaborative, practical activities like robotics that really embed those concepts, Ozer said.
“We learn by reading, we learn by listening, we learn by seeing,” he said, “but the most important way we learn is by doing. That takes us to the most permanent learning. I really enjoy teaching my kids through hands-on activities, through building things.”
The Dell City robotics program currently has about 10 participating students, from the elementary and middle school grades, and the program could grow as the schedule for meetings is adjusted to accommodate students with other extracurricular commitments.
Ozer’s journey as an educator has been a remarkable one.
Raised in Ankara, Turkey – the nation’s capital city – Ozer completed his bachelor’s degree and became a teacher in his native country. He taught for five years, in both public and private schools, teaching Turkish language-arts. But an interest in the role of hands-on learning began in his undergraduate years, and he wanted to travel abroad to pursue advanced study in the area.
“I always was looking ahead, looking forward to reach my goals,” Ozer said. “In our classrooms today, our kids need to be involved in real-world projects. That was really my passion, and I wanted to go further.”
In 2010, he moved to New York City. He wasn’t certified to teach in U.S. schools, and through friends, he found a retail job in Oklahoma. The retail company had a branch in El Paso, and he soon moved there.
In El Paso, he pursued teaching certifications – in mathematics and special education. And he enrolled in a master’s program at NMSU. He finished that program two years ago, and began his PhD work. He’s now at work on his dissertation. Ozer’s dissertation looks at the impact of “discovery” learning in algebra education. He will assess whether students who participate in STEM projects do better on algebra exams than their peers who do not have that hands-on component in their studies. Ultimately, Ozer would like to be an education professor.
“I’m not sure when,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure it will happen one day.”
It’s quite a distance from the sprawling metropolis of Ankara to a small West Texas town, but Ozer said that there are elements of Dell City that are familiar. He feels a particular empathy for the school’s bilingual and English-language learner students. Ozer’s father is Kurdish, and a Kurdish speaker, while his mother is Turkish. Ozer was raised in a bilingual community.
“I actually grew up with multiple languages,” he said, “and I know how that affects education, how that affects students’ lives – I experienced it firsthand. I can see our kids from that perspective as well, and I think it adds into to my teaching philosophy.”
Ozer lives in El Paso with his wife and two children – a 5-year-old son, in kindergarten this year, and a 2-year-old daughter. Raising a family while teaching full-time and also pursuing a PhD means a busy schedule for Ozer. But he said he’s enjoying Dell City, and the warm, close-knit environment of the Dell City School.
“It’s a great place to be,” he said.