Spotlight: Chad Downs (MI '18)March 11, 2019
Chad Downs (MI ’18) is passing the torch to the next generation: His new Future of Education Scholarship, funded by his Milken Educator Award prize, goes to a high school senior in his hometown who plans to teach. Chad won Michigan’s 2018-19 Award at Ann Arbor Open School on December 12, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: What is an “Open School”? What impact does it have on students’ learning experience?
Chad Downs: An Open School is a public progressive school that believes building relationships with students and their families is key to academic success. Our teachers care personally about each child and their family, building trust and respect. We still cover all the standards in Common Core, but we focus more on the skills that are unquestionably crucial to thrive in today and tomorrow’s world: collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and communication. We guide our students to recognize and own their strengths and weaknesses, help out when they can, and seek help when needed. It’s a special school community, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.
MFF: You plan trips to Detroit, Kalamazoo and other places. Why is it important to get your kids out of the building?
Chad: I believe (and so does the Open community) that learning doesn’t only take place within the classroom walls. You can acquire knowledge and skills in every place and situation you are in. My students are encouraged to explore, wonder, think out loud and ask questions. We often set off on our field trips with our social studies or science lens on, but we have the confidence to veer off of our agenda if we find something else engaging. We stop to reflect on our decisions, pause to observe something fascinating, offer aid if we recognize that someone needs help. All of those things are more important than making it to the next exhibit on time.
It’s all of that … but it is also making learning fun and meaningful. We learn more if we are interested, so we find things to be interested in.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Chad: Shocked. Even after they announced the assembly was for recognizing an educator, I did not think it was me. I work with many exceptional educators! After re-watching the video with family members, I noticed I kept mouthing one word: “Wow!” As I was standing in front of all of the students, my friends and colleagues, all I could think was, “Breathe!”
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Chad: They were so proud and excited! The rest of the day in the classroom is sort of a blur. However, I do remember each of the students giving me a card with kind words about how I helped them through a variety of challenges that happen in a 3/4 classroom, each one unique to the child. I think the Award will make a lasting impact on my students. They still love retelling the story from their perspective.
I’ve also enjoyed many past students and their families reaching out to me and sharing a memory. It’s been a rich experience, and I feel lucky to have been a positive part of so many families.
MFF: What made you decide to teach?
Chad: I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since eighth grade. There was a time in my junior year at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) when I considered switching to another major—I had thoughts about how education should be, and I wasn’t finding classrooms that matched my ideas. Jeanne Petig, an EMU advisor, changed that by introducing me to Ann Arbor Open, a K-8 magnet school within Ann Arbor Public Schools.
MFF: Why elementary school?
Chad: I entered my freshman year at EMU wanting to teach business to high schoolers and coach football. The mother of a friend suggested that her son and I apply for a before- and after-school daycare job that would turn into a summer job that made decent money. My friend and I thought we’d play sports with the kids when the weather was nice and introduce them to our favorite movies when it rained. It wasn’t anything like we imagined—it was far more challenging and rewarding. I decided after that summer to change my major to elementary, and I am glad I did.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Chad: Both of my grandmothers were role models in different ways. Grandma Downs didn’t go to school much past third grade. She must have told me a thousand times how important education is to her. Grandma Chase was a teacher and made an impact through the stories she told of her students, colleagues and principals.
Growing up, I mostly loved school. My parents supported and encouraged me to build relationships with my teachers. Many of my teachers have shaped the educator I am today.
I student-taught with Bette Diem at Ann Arbor Open. She was and still is my role model. She would praise my strengths and challenge me where she saw I needed improvement. Now we teach next door to each other, and she is still lifting me up and holding my hand when needed.
MFF: What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Chad: My first year as a full-time teacher was after pre-student teaching, student teaching, and a long-term sub job, all in the same school and grade. I was feeling right at home with a huge support group around me. Principal, teachers, parents and students all made my first year a positive experience.
One story stands out, though. I mentioned to the students on a Friday that we were going to start rocks and minerals projects the following week. Monday morning I wrote the students’ five choices on the board. One child raised her hand and said, “I was thinking over the weekend that I would make a rock board.” I thought for a second, said “Sure,” and added that to the options. Then, many students started raising their hands with ideas they had been thinking about over the weekend. When we were finished we had 16 options on the board, and my original five options were by far the lamest. I learned something that day!
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Chad: I used some of it to pay off my student loans. I have created a scholarship called “Future of Education” in Plainwell, my hometown, for a senior going into education. The rest is being saved for my children’s college.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Chad: For me, success is being a part of a team and collaboratively using each other’s strengths to achieve our goals.
For my students, success is believing their voice matters. Success is learning to be an active listener. Success is learning to be open-minded. Success is recognizing there is a problem and having the confidence to solve it. Success is not allowing challenging subjects to get in the way of where your strengths will take you.
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