Spotlight: Eric Crouch (GA '16)March 8, 2017
Male teachers tend to shy away from elementary education, but fifth-grade teacher Eric Crouch (GA '16) saw that as an opportunity: "Our youngest students need positive male interaction, influence and role models." He won Georgia's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Double Churches Elementary School in Columbus on November 30, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Eric Crouch (GA '16): I spent most of my late high school career undecided about my future, and then photography just fell in my lap. Turned out I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a real knack for it. After changing my major to business, I realized I didn't find any of the classes meaningful. I decided to drop out of college and pursue photography full-time. When my then-fiancée Dara (now my wife) found out, she told me to reconsider or find a new spouse. She knew deep down I was not passionate about photography and that in the long term it wasn't the best path for me.
That Thanksgiving, my grandfather told me that I hadn't enjoyed business because I hadn't found something I liked selling. I re-enrolled in college and decided to take classes in different fields; one was education. I walked into Spencer Garrard's classroom and everything changed for me. The way I understood and viewed teaching was completely transformed. It was at that moment I knew what I wanted to do.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Eric: These are the years when students are most impressionable and need a firm foundation that will serve them for the rest of their academic careers. I wanted to help children learn life skills early on and ignite a spark and fuel a desire for learning at an age when children are curious about their world. I knew students at this age needed a teacher who would facilitate learning opportunities that called for creativity, higher-level thinking skills, and thinking outside the box.
I also knew that most male teachers tend to shy away from elementary-aged children. Our youngest students need positive male interaction, influence and role models. I saw this as an opportunity to help children discover their passion for learning.
The most exciting thing about the lower grades is that the students are so loving, care for each other and want to be at school. The most frustrating thing is not having enough time in the day. As crazy as it may sound, when many teachers are celebrating the end of the school day, I always find myself wishing I could have just a little more time with my students.
MEA: Your school serves a lot of transient military families. How does that affect what happens in your classroom?
Eric: It is difficult serving transient families because of the uncertainty, but also because I get attached to my kids. I love them like they are my own. I build these relationships because I love my students and I want to watch them be successful in life. So it's difficult when a student moves away, and it's hard to keep up with them once they are gone. On the other hand, we often get blessed with new students who bring diversity into our room, and they help us become more global citizens. My students have really opened my eyes, and I am truly honored to serve the children of service members.
MEA: What was your first job?
Eric: Babysitting for one of my mother's friends. Babysitting is not what most guys start out doing, but I was 12, it paid better than cutting the grass, and it was a lot more fun.
What I learned from working at a young age was if you want something you must work for it. Earning my own money meant I got to buy some cool name-brand athletic clothes. I learned the value of hard work and the satisfaction of earning something rather than being handed something.
To this day, I am constantly looking for ways to bring resources into the classroom. When I first got to Double Churches Elementary, our school had zero projects on DonorsChoose.org. After I got 20 projects funded my first year, other teachers wanted to know how to get resources into their classrooms. I started teaching my colleagues after school how to get their own classroom projects funded and now, five years later, our school has raised over $150,000 in resources!
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Eric: I was blessed and very fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers throughout my school career, but the most memorable teacher would be Mrs. Sharpe. She was my third-grade teacher who also ended up being my field-experience teacher in college. She worked hard for me when I was in third grade and she worked even harder for me in college.
MEA: What subjects did you love (or not)?
Eric: My favorite subject is Social Studies because it allows me to teach the lessons of history while emphasizing to my students the importance of becoming educated, staying informed, and developing into productive citizens who will have an impact on society while giving back to their community and country. I don't have a least favorite; I think to be an effective educator you need to enjoy the things you want your students to like.
The hardest subject for me as a student was English and Language Arts. For me, it was about not giving up. In life, you must be willing to wander into unfamiliar territory. To try something new and be willing to try again if it doesn't work out. To dig deep and press on if you want to grow and better yourself. My students know this all too well.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Eric: My first class was a group of first-graders that to this day I still adore. So much of what I do now I learned with this group. I have a big photo of that class hanging in my classroom.
My very first day I met a boy named Jayden. He helped me become the best teacher I could be. He struggled, but we weren't going to let that define him. In half a year he went from not being able to read to reading on grade level. Jayden was amazing despite all the hardships he faced outside of school.
The second week of school we got a student from Japan who knew only four words in English. I tried to find time to read to her every day, but it was hard. Jayden, who had then and still has a huge heart, walked over after sensing my frustration and said, "She can have my reading time. She needs it more than me." I told Jayden that if he would take charge of class lunch choices and taking attendance, I could help our new student without losing that extra time with him. He took me up on the offer and the rest was history.
A month before school got out Jayden moved to Atlanta. Although he moved away, Jayden and I still speak to this day. He reads well above grade level and is captain of his middle school football team. It's been difficult knowing I won't be as present and active in Jayden's life as I would have liked, but I am so grateful to still be in contact with him and following his growth, progress and success.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Eric: As far as I know, most awards are not given in front of students. So for my students to be able to witness this wonderful event made it very meaningful not only for me but for my current and former students. My hope is that they took away how rewarding teaching is and that when you commit to teaching and your students, you can make a difference that lasts a lifetime. I also believe the ceremony will leave a lasting impression about the rewards of committing to what you love and the importance of being passionate about what you do. Of course, all the students now think I am rich and famous and want to borrow money for ice cream.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Eric: That nothing significant happens inside your comfort zone. To make a change or see change, you must put in the effort that will transform your problems into solutions. Anyone who ever did anything significant sat in a classroom just like you at some point. You can be, you must be, the best, the greatest "you," because then the possibilities are endless.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Eric: I use mobile apps to communicate with my parents quickly. Remind is where I post announcements; parents can respond with questions if they need clarification. Seesaw is an app for publishing student work. Students publish their work on their iPads and it uploads to a feed (like Instagram). Parents receive student work via email. I can give the student feedback and the parents can see what the student needs to work on and even add to his or her assignment.
As we prepare for middle school, the level of communication between teacher and parent is not the same as when I taught first grade. I believe students need to be held responsible for their education and the quality of their work. Students are expected to be the driving force for their education, and I have found that they are more willing and determined when they understand this.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Eric: I have two different favorite times of the day. We encourage our kids to get here on time by letting them play basketball, baseball or football games on the Xbox. We get to break down walls and be a family. My other favorite time is when the opportunity presents itself to get to know my students better. Really getting to know them helps me tailor my instruction, which makes my teaching relevant to them. I love spending time with my students. Anytime I am with them is my favorite time of day.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Eric: Class size. When I taught first grade I never had more than 21 students and my room was big. Now that I am in fifth grade, I have 29 students and the room is smaller. This limits how we can use the space we have. It also makes it extremely difficult to get to know everyone as well; it's hard to find 30 of any resource and it's also expensive.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Eric: I would build an outdoor amphitheater for assemblies and student performances. I think this common area would be a huge asset to our school and would promote the arts while getting kids outside of the classroom walls. Our school lacks sufficient room for a makerspace where students can tinker and create daily; I would love to create an additional common area attached to my classroom for students to create. Finally, I would knock down one of the exterior walls of my room and add on to my room to create distinct learning spaces for my students. The room would be cutting-edge and would include a museum of student work with the purpose of driving students to strive to do their very best.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Eric: Professional photography or real estate. In addition to teaching, I am a professional wedding photographer. I still enjoy capturing important moments in peoples' lives. I find it so rewarding giving people something they will treasure for years to come. I also love helping people and looking at houses. I think this would be a natural career path for me that I would enjoy if I wasn't teaching.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Eric: I think we need to do a better job celebrating our teachers and highlighting their students' successes. Teaching is the most rewarding profession there is. To make it attractive to young teachers or prospective teachers we must change the narrative. Teaching is a craft. It is not a fallback. Too often our gifted children are told that they can do something better and we glorify other careers rather than the teaching profession. We should be promoting this amazing profession, focusing on the successes in our profession and not its challenges.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Eric: ...when my students are succeeding inside and outside the classroom.
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