Spotlight: 10 Questions for Neal Cronkite (MI '17)March 15, 2018
In addition to science and math, Neal Cronkite (MI ’17) and his middle schoolers spend a lot of time building community, celebrating successes and supporting each other through tough times: “I want students to know that our lives are intertwined now.” Neal won Michigan’s 2017-18 Milken Educator Award at Washington Woods Middle School in Holt on February 2, 2018.
1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?
Neal Cronkite: I was stunned. As Mr. Gallagher [Greg Gallagher, Milken Educator Awards senior program administrator] was announcing why he was at our school, I started to think of all of the amazing people that I work with and the dozens of reasons why any of them were deserving of the Award. When he called my name, it took a second to register that he was talking about me. It was all such a blur and a huge honor.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Neal: My students were so happy for me. When I came back to the classroom later in the day, they were all smiles with hugs, high-fives, and homemade cards. A couple of them told me that they knew it was me they were talking about!
After I won the Award, I noticed that my students sat up a little straighter and were more engaged than usual in class. For some of them, it was almost like their education was something that they had taken for granted, and they were now really paying attention to it for the first time.
3. How did you end up in education?
Neal: I don't have a clear moment when I decided to be a teacher. For as long as I can remember, it was what I always wanted to do. Growing up, I had amazing teachers who inspired and challenged me. Not only were they great at their jobs, but they made learning fun. They recognized in me things that I didn't see in myself, and I try to carry that on with my students: to continue to inspire them to be the very best versions of themselves that they can be.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Neal: I spent a lot of time early in my career trying to be just like the successful teachers around me. I found out the hard way that I could not copy someone else’s style and have it work for me. Eventually I learned that I should take little bits and pieces of all the great teachers I meet and meld them with my own personality.
I still remember and look up to many of my childhood teachers. I am inspired by many of Sir Ken Robinson's views on education and creativity. I am very interested in some of Sal Khan's ideas regarding mastery-based instruction. I love that I am fortunate to work in a district with amazing professionals who continue to challenge me and stretch my thinking on how we continue to get better as educators.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Neal: My first year was a blur, but not in the traditional sense. An unfortunate mix of poor classroom management and a personal sick leave led to my not finishing out the year. Looking back, I was too concerned with my students liking me rather than respecting me. I also learned firsthand the importance of procedures and that I need to have a very clear idea of what I expect so I can communicate that to my students.
Knowing that I still wanted to be a classroom teacher, I spent the next few years subbing and accepting a variety of positions to learn what worked in other classrooms and make connections in other districts. Despite, and in part because of, my rocky start, I came away from my first year a better educator.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Neal: We spend a lot of time in class intentionally building community. I want students to get the sense that we are not just people occupying the same physical space for one school year, but that our lives are intertwined now. We share and celebrate successes and support each other through tough times. I want students to leave my class knowing that they matter and that they can accomplish anything.
I also hope that students remember that learning is fun. That they can do complicated math that seemed impossible at the start of the year. That science is amazing and the natural world has so many treasures to discover. I hope they remember that it’s important to laugh and to find joy and wonder in everything they get to learn and experience.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Neal: My biggest challenge is that there is never enough time. I am constantly balancing the administrative side of teaching with the academic side. There are so many new initiatives, procedures, protocols, and assessments that I find myself busier than ever with paperwork and meetings. This leaves less time for lesson planning, providing feedback, and collaborating with peers.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Neal: First I am going to pay off the rest of my student loans! After that I will probably buy something fun for the classroom (maybe a 3-D printer) and do a couple of projects around the house.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Neal: I would definitely encourage them. We need more inspired and dedicated individuals to join our ranks. I would also caution them that teaching is more than what goes on during the school day and is a lot of hard work. The hours can be long and the payoff is often delayed for years. When students grow and become more confident, or come back years later and thank you for something you did, it's all worth it.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Neal: A quote that I share often with my students is, "The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday." Success, to me, is constant improvement, doing things a little bit better than the day before.
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