Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Colin DeGroot (NM '15)

April 8, 2016

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Colin DeGroot (NM '15) loves when students ask random questions about the world — it gives him a sneak peek into their teenage minds. DeGroot received his Milken Educator Award at The ASK Academy in Rio Rancho on February 24, 2016.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?

Colin DeGroot: I always wanted to be an educator, all the way back to high school. I was not the best student back then, but I had some great teachers who believed in my ability to succeed and helped guide me through to college, where I was able to become a successful student. Their support made me want to help other students. On top of that, I have always had a passion for understanding our universe through the process of science and found that teaching provided me an avenue to share that passion with students.

MFF: What was your first job?

Colin: Bussing tables at a Bob Evans restaurant. It was a really eye-opening experience for me for two reasons. The first was the general lesson of hard work and the value of education; minimum-wage jobs are difficult work and education is so important to provide people with opportunities to move out of these jobs and into successful careers. The second was the value of being great at whatever you do. I trained with another kid who was so proud of how well he did his job, how quickly he could bus a table, how nice he could make it look, and how many dishes he could get loaded and put away. This pride in any job has taught me to find ways for all students to find pride in their work, and this is still something I value in my classroom to this day. 

MFF: Who was your most memorable teacher?

Colin: Mr. Bixler, my seventh-grade science teacher. He was a hilarious teacher who found ways to get students engaged in class every day. He had us understanding the connections between atomic structure and spectroscopy. He had us digging into caves and understanding geologic time. And he used humor in a way that still sticks with me today. 

MFF: Tell us about your first class.

Colin: My first year was quite the challenge. Straight out of college, I was tasked with being the science teacher on an English Language Learners team. The majority of my students were not primarily English-speakers. The most memorable moment was when I was able to connect with the class through a series of hands-on projects that removed the language barrier and allowed all students to show me what they were learning. This was a powerful lesson I still think about.

MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?

Colin: I don't really convince students to enter certain careers — I just support them in their own decisions and goals. If a student was interested in teaching, I would have a conversation about what their goals are besides a fulfilling career like education. Obviously, if they want to be rich, teaching would not be a great choice. However, if they are interested in a career that allows them to build a family and spend time with their future kids, it is a great choice. 

MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Colin: Hopefully, my students saw that if you work hard and dedicate yourself to a craft, you can be successful and be recognized for your hard work.

MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Colin: Actually, it's the random moments when my students ask really amazing questions that get me totally off-script. It sounds weird, but those are the authentic moments that really connect me with my students and help me to understand what they are really thinking about. It's sort of an experiment for me to allow it each time it happens; I could easily redirect them, but I'm just as curious as they are about where the conversation may lead. 

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Colin: I would develop a program that allowed each student to create a project based on his or her specific interests. This funding would allow each student to truly become an expert in something they are passionate about. Say a student plays guitar. This project would allow them to fully investigate guitars, from the construction of an acoustic instrument to the design of electric pickups.

MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?

Colin: The one thing I would really want to hear is that I helped them to discover their passion for educating themselves. That somehow I helped them continue to better themselves and achieve the goals they wanted from life. 

MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Colin: As funny as it may sound, my backup plan was to be an engineer. I have always had a knack for solving problems and was pretty good at math. Those two things seem to work well for engineers.

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."

Colin: ...when students are using evidence and data to learn about their world. 

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