NJ Teachers’ Lounge was lucky  to catch up recently with Maria DeBruin, a Brick, NJ science teacher who was recently awarded the prestigious Milken Educator Award.

The award, dubbed the “Oscar of teaching” by Teacher magazine is a $25,000, one-time prize given to early- to mid-career educators in recognition of their excellence in teaching. Beyond the unrestricted cash prize, teachers are invited into special networking opportunities with other educators around the country. To date, the Milken Family Foundation has awarded $68 million dollars to American teachers as a way of “bringing attention to these classroom heroes; serving at once as validation, motivation and inspiration to current and future quality educators,” according to the foundation. The message the foundation seeks to send is: “We recognize you. We value you. We thank you.”

Needless to say, we’re quite proud to have one of our own recognized in this way. We asked her about receiving the honor, and got some of her reflections on what it takes to make great ideas come to life in public education.

NJTL: Congratulations on receiving the prestigious Milken Educator Award. Walk us through the moments leading up to the announcement (we heard your students were guessing it was you before they called it…what were YOU thinking?) How did it feel to learn that you had been chosen?

As I sat at the top of the bleachers, I was completely unaware that the assembly was actually for me. Like everyone else, I thought I was there only to hear the Commissioner of Education speak to our school. Once I realized that an award was being given out to a single teacher, I immediately began to think of many of the deserving teachers in my school that could be the recipient.

After they revealed how much the teacher would win in prize money, I thought, “WOW, this is a really big deal, what’s going on?” The students that were surrounding me were whispering to me, “It’s you”, which was sweet but I whispered back, “pay attention” or “Shhh..”. When Dr. Jane Foley announced that the recipient was me, I thought I was going to pass out! I was so overwhelmed with shock, excitement and gratitude that I inevitably let out the “ugly cry”!

NJTL: Tell us a little about the work that has brought you this recognition? How long have you been working on this, and what was your inspiration?

Teaching AP Chemistry isn’t an easy job, but getting students to like it is even harder. Most of the work I have done to receive this honor has been in the development of resources to encourage students to pursue science and enjoy the learning process; this has always been my inspiration. Amongst many other activities, there are two programs that stand out from the rest.

The first program, which was developed six years ago, was the production of Science Night Out – a free show for the community that demonstrates large-scale science experiments. This show not only engages the community but the students truly enjoy the month of planning and, of course, the actual performance. Teachers’ Insurance Plan of NJ has been instrumental to this program running and I am grateful for the grant money they have provided in past years.

The next major contribution to my AP program was the implementation of recorded lectures. Each day, I record what is being taught in class so that students can review and absent students can learn the material without falling behind. This has been so well received that my lectures are being passed through various college communities as well.

NJTL: Most teachers aren’t doing what they do for recognition. A lot of times their best work comes from love for the subject matter or from a passion for inspiring students or solving a problem. What advice would you give your fellow teachers about bringing their best ideas to fruition?

Regardless of any recognition, a teacher’s positive efforts will always be appreciated by someone. For me, remembering that my hard work would inspire a child is what consistently helped me bring new ideas into the classroom. Although my administration is very supportive, it did take some initial convincing to pursue some of my ideas. I always made sure my “pitch” was well planned out and written down for review if needed.

NJTL: What’s one thing you would change about present day public education to make ideas like yours more likely to happen?

There are so many positive programs, effective schools and passionate educators in the public school system. Teachers have great ideas all of the time, it’s the implementation process and time it takes to develop the idea that prevents many great ideas to coming to fruition. “Program Sharing” amongst districts would allow educators and schools across the state to learn about successful programs and how to establish them in their own schools.

Through this award I have met many amazing educators, principals, superintendents and state officials, all of whom have tremendous wisdom and knowledge on what works. It would benefit us all if each year, these people traveled to share their programs and expertise. This would encourage others to work towards achieving their own goals and possibly implementing a shared idea in their own school.

For more on Maria DeBruin’s Milken Award, please click here.

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