Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: 10 Questions for Maria DeBruin (NJ '17)

February 20, 2018

 1000w Brick 2017 Maria DeBruin surrounded by students4

Chemistry teacher Maria DeBruin (NJ ’17) expected her life to change when she left the corporate world for the classroom, but she’s embraced every part of her role as a teacher, even bathroom, hall and cafeteria duty: “I have learned to love every opportunity to interact with students.” She won her Milken Educator Award at Brick Township Memorial High School on November 2, 2017.


1. What went through your mind when you heard Jane call your name at your surprise notification?

Maria DeBruin: Don’t pass out! Don’t cry! Do I stand up? Do I walk down there? Why did I seat my class at the top of the bleachers? Don’t cry! What is happening right now?!?!

Well, I didn’t pass out, I did stand up, I did walk down there, and, inevitably, I did let out the “ugly cry.” It was the most exciting moment of my life!

2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?

Maria: My students made this day even more special than I could have ever imagined. The standing ovation was incredible and the rush of students to hug me was overwhelming. The following day, current and former students threw me a party, and students wrote individual notes describing how my teaching has impacted them. They are excited to have a Milken educator as their teacher, and their parents have also expressed their gratitude. The e-mails, texts, and social media posts from former students were so heartwarming. My favorite message: “You are the Beyoncé of all educators.”

1000w Brick 2017 Maria DeBruin walks to front 2

3. How did you end up in education?

Maria: I had tutored friends in high school, tutored for my college and tutored privately. I knew I loved teaching, but I also loved chemistry. I still do. I have a B.S. in Biochemistry and a master’s degree in Chemistry, and I worked for Merck as an analytical chemist. I loved my work as a chemist, but I knew I wanted to teach; it was my passion. I completed the requirements to apply as an alternate route teacher and took a job as a chemistry teacher after working in industry for five years. It has been life-changing for so many reasons, and I am grateful to be where I am today.

4. Who are your role models as an educator?

Maria: My mother was my first-grade teacher and I loved being in her class. I remember how loving and kind she was to all the kids in the school. She made everyone feel like they were her child; she genuinely cared about them and invested her time in their lives. She has always demonstrated kindness and still does today. I aspire to be like her.

My grandfather was a chemist and college professor. He was the first person to get me excited about science. He showed me that science was more fun when you did it (this is why I developed my annual Science Night Out show). When I was a young child, he would spray his own disappearing ink solution all over my clothes. As a college student he would talk me through tough topics. After I got my first job as a chemist, he proudly came to visit me on-site for lunch. After he passed away, I found his visitor badge from that lunchtime visit tucked away in a memory box. He never got to see me become a teacher, but I know he would have been proud. My Milken Educator Award would have made him even prouder.

1000w Maria DeBruin quote 2

5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?

Maria: As a chemist, I had a beautiful lab, my own big office, an endless budget for supplies, and a flexible schedule. I knew my life would change when I became a teacher, but when I was handed my schedule for the year, I definitely was not expecting bathroom duty. What did that even mean? Well, imagine my surprise when I realized that I had to sit at the entrance of the bathroom and sign students in and out! I definitely had to swallow my pride.

Since then, I have truly learned to love every opportunity to interact with students. I get to know so many students (not just my own) in the hall or in the cafeteria during lunch duty. Building relationships with all students is essential to being a great teacher.

6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?

Maria: I hope they remember that we had fun and that I genuinely cared about them. AP Chemistry is incredibly challenging, even for the most gifted students. I work extremely hard to create a fun learning environment, including thumb wars, Old Maid, Four Corners and Minute to Win It.

Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So I am the teacher who isn’t afraid to go off-topic to learn more about my students. I am the teacher who attends my students’ after-school activities. I am the teacher who purposely goes to my student’s check-out lane at the grocery store. I am the teacher who hand-writes an encouraging note when a student is sad. I am the teacher who isn’t afraid to love, because when I do, I find that both my students and I are successful in the classroom.

1000w Brick 2017 Maria DeBruin Jane Foley classroom

7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?

Maria: Getting students to believe that they can succeed in AP Chemistry. Most students come to my class never having had to work truly hard in their lives. They are naturally gifted in math and science, but while they are capable of learning the material, it no longer comes easily to them. The first few weeks are difficult for everyone and maintaining high grades throughout the year is even harder. But, with consistent encouragement and reinforcement, they all realize their potential and achieve. After my students head off to college, I get a flood of emails thanking me for teaching them how to handle stress, how to cope with a “full plate,” and, most importantly, how to work hard.

8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?

Maria: Coincidentally, days before receiving the Milken Award, I had told a friend about an idea for a side business; I told the friend that I was “still waiting for my magical moment to happen.” Receiving the Award certainly has been a magical moment, and the timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.

1000w Brick 2017 Maria DeBruin with students

9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?

Maria: Teaching can be an incredibly rewarding career for those who approach it with the right attitude. It’s not for everyone. Successful teaching comes from a deep passion in wanting to help others, care for others, and make a positive impact. I wholeheartedly encourage and support my students who are interested in pursuing a career in education, and often I try to persuade them to teach chemistry!

10. What’s your definition of success?

Maria: Success comes when a goal is fulfilled. We all want different things in life and there isn’t one right choice. I often have multiple goals, some long-term and some short-term, and when I reach them, I feel successful. I encourage my students to set goals for themselves and then work hard to achieve them.

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