The only Georgian among the 35 U.S. educators to receive one of this year’s “Oscars of Teaching,” which includes $25,000, didn’t even seek a teaching degree and initially had trouble finding a teaching job.
Eric Crouch of Double Churches Elementary School was rewarded for his perseverance Wednesday, when he learned along with the students and the rest of the staff that he is a 2016 Milken Educator Award winner. Jane Foley, senior vice president at the California-based Milken Family Foundation, made the surprise announcement during an assembly in the school’s gym.
After he gave Double Churches principal Paula Shaw-Powell a tearful hug, Crouch told the crowd, “I couldn’t do this without these people right here,” as he gestured toward the students and staff. “These people right here are why I’m here.”
Then he thanked Shaw-Powell for hiring him six years ago.
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“She was the one who gave me the opportunity,” he said.
Crouch credits his wife, Dara, a labor and delivery nurse at St. Francis Hospital, for motivating him to not give up after initially not being able to land a teaching job.
“She saw something in me that I didn’t in myself,” he said.
Following the assembly, Shaw-Powell told the Ledger-Enquirer what makes Crouch an excellent teacher.
“Eric always is filled with excitement about teaching,” she said. “He always looks for that one thing that will drive that child to excellence. He is always looking for what he can change and what he can do to make a difference in the lives of children.”
Shaw-Powell also appreciates Crouch being willing to move from first to fifth grade this year.
“He wanted the opportunity to teach some of the more rigorous curriculum,” she said, “and he wanted the challenge.”
Crouch, 30, is a 2004 graduate of Hardaway High School. He had “no clue” about a career goal. He started in general studies at CSU then became a business major, but he wasn’t enthused and struggled academically while he pursued photography work, which he still does on the side.
Crouch recalled, “I had about $20,000 in student loans, and my wife said, ‘You’re going to have a career that we can depend on.’”
He also recalled pivotal advice from his grandfather, Paul Edwards, who told him, “Sell something worth selling.” And he decided that meant he should pursue the inkling he already had: become a teacher and help children get a good education.
“That’s the most valuable thing you can give a person,” he said.
Crouch earned his bachelor’s degree from CSU and a master’s degree from Troy University, both in early childhood education.
As for his teaching philosophy, Crouch said, “Learning is about meeting the children where they are. It’s about being able to take what’s going on in the world and making it relatable for the children. All children can learn, and all children can be successful, and it’s about taking the time and the extra effort to make sure that happens.
“… The reason we’re here is to make this a better place to live. We want a better future for our children. We want them to have the opportunities that we have or better, and it’s up to us to make sure that they have the foundation to get there. That’s why I wanted (to teach) elementary.”
Asked what he plans to do with the $25,000, Crouch said he will “put it in a savings account.”
Regardless, the award won’t change his approach to teaching, he promised.
“We’ll do the same thing every day,” he said. “We grind. We work hard, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
Crouch added with a laugh, “I’m still kind of shocked. I don’t know how we’re going to get anything done today. But we will. Don’t worry. We will.”
Fifth-graders Zaria Law and D’Karlos Garcia told the Ledger-Enquirer that Crouch makes learning joyful. They said he finds creative ways to connect with them.
“He’s really funny, and he jokes a lot,” said Zaria, 10. “He makes it very exciting in his classroom when you walk inside the door.”
For example, Zaria said, he shows videos and plays games instead of only lecturing.
D’Karlos, 11, even mentioned a water balloon fight. More importantly, he added, Crouch does what it takes to ensure his students understand the lesson.
“He will offer help and repeat something over if you don’t get it,” D’Karlos said.
The Milken Educator Awards is the oldest teacher recognition program of its kind in the nation. Now in its 30th year, the program has awarded more than 2,700 educators, totaling approximately $68 million.
The last winner from Georgia also teaches in Muscogee County: Lisa Sitz of Waddell Elementary School received the award in 2012, when she taught at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy. Another Columbus educator retired St. Luke School headmaster Ann McDuffie, received the award in 1996, when she was principal of now-closed Edgewood Elementary School. Sitz and McDuffie attended the assembly to help congratulate Crouch and welcome him into the elite club of excellent educators after the surprise announcement.
In addition to the $25,000, which is given without restrictions, this year’s Milken Educator Award winners will attend an all-expenses-paid forum in New Orleans to network with colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness, according to Milken’s news release.
Educators don’t apply and they aren’t nominated to win this award. Instead they are selected through a confidential process involving a panel appointed by the department of education in each state. The annual recipients alternate between the elementary and secondary levels.
In Georgia this year, the unnamed panel comprised educators, community members and corporate representatives, said Keisha Ford-Jenrette, the Georgia Department of Education’s director of recognition programs. But each state doesn’t necessarily have a winner each year, depending on the foundation’s available money and how many candidates meet the criteria, Foley said, which includes:
▪ Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices and student learning results in the classroom and school. All of his first-grade students in 2014-15 met or exceeded goals in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. When he started teaching fifth grade this year, 13 of his students were below-tier level; that number has decreased to five. In five years of teaching, his students have read more than 35 million words and checked out nearly 50,000 books. As of last year, the poverty rate for Double Churches families was 40 percent. Double Churches also has a high turnover rate of students because it serves primarily military families assigned to Fort Benning.
▪ Exemplary educational accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide models of excellence for the profession. Crouch has taught colleagues how to raise money for educational projects through DonorsChoose.org. The crowdfunding website has enabled him fund more than 50 projects for items such as photography equipment, standing desks, iPads and a 3-D printer for his students. He also teaches “Technology in the Classroom” as a guest instructor at Columbus State University.
▪ Contributions to education are largely unheralded yet worthy of the spotlight. Crouch was among the 10 semifinalists for the Muscogee County School District’s 2016 Teacher of the Year award.
▪ Early or in the middle of an educational career, with strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership. Crouch serves on Gov. Nathan Deal’s Teacher Advisory Committee. He was chairman of the first grade teachers before moving to fifth grade to help Double Churches fill a need. According to his bio from the Georgia Department of Education, his colleagues say Crouch “is always working to help students ‘get it’ and motivate hard-to-reach students.”
▪ Engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community. Crouch uses technology to help his students learn and to connect with their families. He informs parents and guardians daily about their child’s progress by using emails, texts, newsletters and social media. When students have passed reading comprehension tests and met their daily goals, he gives them a medal and stretches the goal for the next day. He rings a cowbell and shouts out the student’s accomplishment. He also built a stage, bookshelves and a wooden boat for his classroom. He filled the boat with pillows and tables to give his students a fun place to read.
Georgia first lady Sandra Deal, Georgia Department of Education superintendent Richard Woods and Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis were among the dignitaries in attendance along with Foley.
In the Milken news release, Foley said, “Eric Crouch creates an exciting classroom where students are motivated to reach their potential every day. A technology superstar, Eric uses the latest tools to make learning engaging and connect with students’ families.”
Foley continued, “His classroom rule is ‘Make Mr. Crouch proud of you.’ On behalf of the Milken Family Foundation, we are proud of you, Mr. Crouch, and your potential to have an even greater impact on the teaching profession for generations to come.”