Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Dereka Duncan (LA '22)

April 6, 2023

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Dereka Duncan (LA ’22) chartered her district’s first elementary Beta Club to build empathy and pride through community service: “My Beta members understand that they are able to impact others and make a difference even at a young age.” Lowell Milken presented the fifth grade science teacher with a Louisiana Milken Educator Award at Cohn Elementary in Port Allen on January 24, 2023.

Milken Family Foundation: You’re known for incorporating math and ELA into your science curriculum. Why do you focus on this approach?

Dereka Duncan (LA ’22): I use integration to help my students make connections to prior learning. It also helps to deepen their understanding of content beyond my classroom. For example, when teaching a lesson on the apparent brightness of stars based upon their distance from Earth, I always incorporate the use of rounding and ordering of decimals. This lesson is usually taught after students have already been introduced to rounding decimals in their math class, so I can reinforce the skill and reassess students’ knowledge. Likewise, I expect that my students produce quality written pieces using scientific text and reasoning. I often reinforce the writing strategies and use the same writing rubrics as my peers in ELA. There’s an increased emphasis on writing in all subject areas, so it’s important that writing skills are not taught in isolation.

MFF: Why is encouraging community service through the Junior Beta Club important to you?

Dereka: In 2019, I chartered the first elementary Beta Club in my district. I wanted to expose my students to the ideals of a prestigious organization like the National Beta Club. The sense of pride and nobility my Beta students possess is like no other. My Beta members understand that they are able to impact others and make a difference even at a young age. They are aware of and empathetic towards the circumstances that plague our community. During our weekly meetings, they shower down ideas for service and are eager to lead in a positive manner.

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MFF: How did you end up in education?

Dereka: I started college as a nursing major. But then, at the beginning of my junior year, I became pregnant. I was overwhelmed with the idea of finishing school and being a full-time mom. I knew nursing would be very demanding. I wanted a career that allowed me to be able to provide for my son and devote as much time as possible to him.

I volunteered with my sorority at a local school, and I fell in love with the students and the relationship they had with their teacher. I knew that education was the right choice for me. Teaching would let me enjoy as much time as possible with my son but also make an impact on other children.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Dereka: Mr. McClinton, who taught Algebra II and advanced math, was known as the “hard” teacher. His class was challenging, but it was fun for me — I LOVE a challenge. He required me to think creatively and taught me how to persevere.

Mrs. Montalbano, my third grade teacher, impacted my life in so many ways. I dealt with insecurities as a young child. Every morning, she greeted our class with a smile and kindness. She lifted up every student in her class and always made us feel special.

Mrs. Roberts, my “work aunt,” reminds me of my goals and encourages me to work hard and always do my best. I admire her spunk, dedication and strength. I have learned how to overcome obstacles, exhibit the magic I have within myself, and remain optimistic and passionate. All three of these teachers have helped me become the educator I am today.

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MFF: How was your first year of teaching?

Dereka: It was exciting, but also challenging. I graduated in December and began teaching in the middle of the school year. My kids were eager to learn but constantly reminded me that I was a newcomer. I struggled to keep them engaged and excited about learning. I struggled to connect. I doubted myself for months and questioned if I had what it took to be an effective teacher.

I knew I had to win over my students and connect with them in order to have a successful classroom community. A colleague and mentor stressed the importance of establishing classroom routines and procedures, as well as building relationships. Mrs. Piper told me, “You have to be consistent in your routines and aware of your students’ needs.” I soon found success once I put those two things at the forefront.

One of my fondest memories was planning out my first thematic unit! I had so many creative ideas and my team trusted me to lead. They gave me support but trusted me to be able to plan a unit and culminating task. Our students learned so much and enjoyed all the engaging activities. I was so proud of our success.

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MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Dereka: Elementary students are so impressionable. They are at an age where you have to “be yourself” in order to connect with them and keep them interested. I love that many of them consider me to be a “school mom” because, as they say, I act like their parents. It is the best feeling to know that many of them revere me as much as their families. They are old enough to be free and independent thinkers, but still young enough to continue to mold and develop. I try my best to model positivity, confidence, responsibility and integrity.

MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Dereka: I was in total shock! I could not believe that out of all the amazing teachers at my school, I was selected. It brought me to tears. I immediately thanked God because I owe it all to him. I knew that this Award and timing was his way of showing me that my work is not in vain.

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MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award? Has it had a lasting impact on them?

Dereka: They were just as excited as I was. They jumped all over me and are still congratulating me. They remind me every day that I am “rich,” and I remind them that I am very rich in blessings. Many of my students told me that they want to win $25,000. I assured them that they could, as long as they work hard, persevere and focus on their education.

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Dereka: Success is accomplishing any goal that you set for yourself. If you work hard, thrive, persevere and keep the faith, success will come your way. No matter how small the goal, if you accomplish it, celebrate the success.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Dereka: I hope my students remember that I always cared and wanted the best for them. No matter their grades, their character and growth were always the most important factors to me. I will cherish the bonds we shared and I hope they remember the small life lessons I’ve taught them for the rest of their lives.

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