Spotlight: Peter Arseneault (CT '15)January 15, 2016
Peter Arseneault (CT '15) focuses on project-based technology education at Bacon Academy in Colchester and received his Milken Educator Award on November 12, 2015. Arseneault's students study science, technology and alternative energy, building solar heaters, designing energy-generating panels out of recycled materials, and maintaining teachers' and community members' cars. Here, excerpts from our conversation with Peter about his first year of teaching, what he learned from working on a riverboat, and his dream car.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Peter Arseneault: My mother was an ESL teacher for many years and then became a guidance counselor for the second half of her career. My father taught me how to work on cars and build things, always encouraging me to learn more skills to be independent. Growing up, it was always important that we value education and try our best. In high school I took many technology education classes: manufacturing, woodworking, automotive. I found these classes really engaging, connected easily with the class content and teachers, and felt that those skills would stay with me for a lifetime.
MFF: What was your first job?
Peter: I was a deckhand on Camelot Cruise Lines, a riverboat on the Connecticut River. I did basic boat maintenance, supervising passengers, setting up and breaking down for events, cleaning and emptying the trash.
From that job, I learned that it took a lot of hard work to earn a little. As a young adult I had many aspirations and desires, but paying for gas, car insurance and taxes certainly wasn’t part of the "real world" I had envisioned. I was making minimum wage — around six dollars an hour — and it didn’t add up fast. This experience is still something I use in the classroom: Even though you try to reach every student, some are more challenging than others, and sometimes it takes a lot of hard work to earn a little. In the classroom, it pays off in the end.
MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?
Peter: I had Mr. Paul McCormick for three years of English at Haddam Killingworth High School. It was the hardest course I had ever taken. The expectations were high and the workload was significant, but Mr. McCormick made learning fun and balanced the rigor with supportiveness. His teaching style has been something I have remembered throughout my teaching journey.
MFF: What was the hardest thing about your first year of teaching?
Peter: My first class was introductory automotive. It was a diverse student population, and I knew it would be a challenge from the start. The three teachers before me had only lasted about a year. That year I was teaching four different subjects (automotive, robotics, video production and construction) in four different classrooms.
I came into teaching excited to share my knowledge and experience with students, but I was surprised how much I learned from them. I was shocked by how much my students challenged me and pushed me to learn more, and how much we learned together.
MFF: A student tells you he or she is thinking about a career in education. How do you convince him/her?
Peter: I would talk to them about how innovative and interesting teaching is, and tell them that no two days are alike. Even though you’re doing the same job, the content changes, students change, courses change, and it’s a constant challenge to stay on top of it all, which keeps things interesting. I have students who have become teachers, even some in Career and Technical Education.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on your school?
Peter: The Award brought a focus to what we do as teachers every day and the hard work that goes into teaching. The presentation was a celebration of how hard every teacher in the school works to make learning fun, in a rigorous environment, using authentic learning experiences. While we always seem to focus on how hard the students are working, we sometime lose focus on how hard we are working as a collaborative team (students, staff, administration).
MFF: What’s your favorite time of the school day?
Peter: I love spending time in my classes with students, learning together. I love when my students ask challenging questions, even if I don’t know the answer right away, because it provides both of us an opportunity to learn something new together. And I love collaborating with my colleagues. Spending time on hall duty, eating lunch and at meetings can be very beneficial: That's when we talk about how to move students forward and improve our programming.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars to use in your classroom or school, what would you do with it?
Peter: I would use it to reach challenging populations. I would develop programs to reach struggling students and kids who have difficulty connecting with the traditional school model to help them learn and develop skills in a different way so they could transition into the work force or a non-traditional educational setting, such as a vocational school. I would also set up scholarship opportunities to encourage students to go into teaching. There's no better way to make a positive impact on the learning experiences of thousands of students than by encouraging and attracting quality teachers.
MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you at your going-away party?
Peter: I hope people recognize how hard teachers work to support their students, and how we strive to bring out the best in those around us. I hope that my colleagues recognize that working collaboratively yields the greatest achievements. I hope the celebration will be filled with stories of student successes.
MFF: If you hadn’t chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Peter: I'd likely be somewhere in the automotive or construction trades. These are two passions that I have outside of the classroom. I think everyone should have some exposure to these areas before they finish high school.
MFF: Dream car?
Peter: A Jeep Rubicon, so I could go anywhere. Or a muscle car, like an older Corvette or Mustang.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when..."
Peter: "...students show what they've learned with a smile on their face." That's when we can all say that we've learned together.
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