Spotlight: Nick Peruski (MI '19)January 21, 2020
In addition to math and career skills, Nick Peruski (MI ’19) teaches resiliency: “Life is full of inevitable setbacks, but when my students encounter one, I hope they are able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on.” Nick won Michigan’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Lakeland High School in White Lake on December 6, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: You are known as a strong advocate for CTE (career and technical education). Why is this pathway so important for today’s high school students?
Nick Peruski (MI ’19): For years, society has told students that the single path to success is attending college. This couldn’t be further from the truth and does our students a huge disservice. College might be the correct path for some students. For others it may be a trade school, a two-year institution or an apprenticeship. All of our students are different and thus have different paths for future success.
CTE programming is a powerful tool to meet the needs of all of our students. Students in CTE classes strengthen their communication, collaboration, teamwork and professionalism skills. Additionally, students are learning technical skills and potentially earning industry-standard credentials. From business to computer programming, construction to visual and performing arts, students have the opportunity to explore courses that prepare them to enter into the workforce equipped with the skills they need to succeed.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Nick: I have always been interested in teaching and learning. When I began my undergraduate program I was fascinated by science, specifically genetics. I knew that I wanted to do something in that field. My husband convinced me that I would be a great teacher, and that planted a seed in my mind. I knew he was correct one day after helping my younger cousin Ethan with some math homework. The rest just kind of worked itself out.
I have been lucky to teach both middle and high school. I have enjoyed seeing how student behavior and learning evolve at various grade levels. At the middle school, I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to coach both cross country and track. It was such a powerful experience seeing students outside of the classroom and excelling in non-academics. I miss my Donut Run Crew—we used to meet early, 90 minutes before school began, to condition between the cross country and track seasons. We would run about three miles to the Milford Bakery for donuts and juice. When entering education, I never considered the experiences outside the classroom that I would share with students as well.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Nick: It was an amazing experience! I was a bit crazy and worked at the Apple Store at the same time—also a great experience, but not recommended if you like to sleep. My students were awesome. I will always remember the song they created for our organizational tracking sheets (blue sheets we called them), sung to the tune of “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas. I was lucky to work with Natalie Moore, the science teacher on my team, who helped me navigate classroom management and parent meetings. She remains one of my closest friends.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Nick: They are young adults about to enter the next stage of their lives. At the middle school level, graduation was so far away. In high school, students think much more about their careers and lives. I love knowing that I am teaching students real-world skills they are very close to using outside of school.
That being said, kids are kids, regardless of the age. They are witty and funny. They say what is on their minds. I love it. Every day is different, which is one of the most unique aspects of teaching.
MFF: You helped implement standards-based grading (SBG). What is that, and how does it contribute to student success?
Nick: In SBG, content is organized by standards, not by unit. When students assess, they receive an individual score for each standard. This make it easier for students, parents and teachers to identify specific areas of strength and areas for growth. Instead of traditional tests at the end of unit, students take multiple mini-tests throughout the unit. This also helps me set the pace of instruction based on student comprehension.
SBG gives students who haven’t mastered content yet the opportunity to improve and demonstrate proficiency when they are ready. The option to reassess eliminates the anxiety so many kids experience when taking math tests. Students take ownership of their learning, tracking their progress throughout the term. SBG naturally allows for differentiation based on scores in specific standards. I have seen countless students who have hated math in the past thrive under this system. SBG also made it easier for me to provide targeted interventions to students who were struggling.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Nick: Success is different for everyone. It’s finding balance and happiness while achieving your own personal best, regardless of your individual situation. I hope to make an impact on my students, empowering them to reach their fullest potential as they enter the next phase of their lives. For students, I hope they forget the traditional notion of failure and instead view setbacks as an opportunity to grow and improve. Failure is only a true failure if you don’t learn something from it.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Nick: That learning can be fun, and that they continue to want to learn after they leave high school. Ever since I read Dr. Carol Dweck’s books, we discuss Growth Mindset and self-improvement in all my classes. I hope that students take with them the idea that they can achieve whatever goal they set for themselves. Life is full of inevitable setbacks, but when my students encounter one, I hope they are able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on. Lastly, I hope that students remember that it’s okay to be themselves. Being different is something we celebrate in my classroom. Diversity makes the world a better place.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Nick: In high school my French teachers, Amy Miller and Sandy Moulin (Fifi), were always very motivating and encouraging. They sought ways to make learning come alive, something I strive to do with my students. They also genuinely cared about their students, which is the most important aspect of teaching—building relationships. I enjoy keeping in contact with them to this day.
Michelle Chotkowski, Shelley Gustafson and Tricia Rayner are all colleagues who have helped me grow tremendously. They have been mentors and sounding boards. Bouncing ideas off them has helped me improve. I was able to drop my guard and not worry about feeling judged when working collaboratively with each of them.
I have been fortunate to have supportive administrators throughout my career. Paul Gmelin and Martin Lindberg have helped me become the teacher I am today. They both pushed me out of my comfort zone, encouraged me to try new things, challenged my thinking and provided me with actionable feedback.
Dan Meyer and Rick Wormeli have made me rethink assessment. They are both phenomenal speakers and have questioned the status quo of traditional assessment. As a result of their blog and books, I implemented Standards Based Grading in my math classes. Additionally, Dan Meyer inspired me to change the way that I taught math. Through inquiry-based instruction and project-based learning, I was able to increase student engagement in my math classes.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Nick: Once I began to figure out that an educator in my building was receiving an award, I started to create a mental list of all of my colleagues who deserved it. When my name was announced, I was taken aback because that thought hadn’t really entered my mind. I was in complete shock. I must have said “This is crazy!” about 100 times throughout the day. There are so many talented, passionate and dedicated teachers across my district and state. I am beyond honored to have the privilege to represent them.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Nick: My current students were all very excited for me, with many of them telling me that they thought that it was really cool. They have had all kinds of ideas for spending the $25,000. The most gratifying part has been hearing from former students, some from almost a decade ago. It confirms that I have in fact made a difference in some students’ lives.
MFF: Leaving aside your students’ ideas, what are your plans for the $25,000?
Nick: Although my students think it’s boring, the money will help me complete my doctorate degree. I just earned my Education Specialist degree from Oakland University last summer. It was a phenomenal program that taught me so much about organizational leadership and the specifics of how schools are run. I am so close to earning my doctorate, and the Milken Award will make that dream possible. As a lifelong learner, I am looking forward to continuing my education.
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