Deborah Huffine still remembers the win.
This time last year, the unassuming science and engineering teacher sat in on the 2017 Dream Big! gala for Teachers’ Treasures, a nonprofit partner of American College of Education that distributes free school supplies to teachers working in under-served schools in the Indianapolis area. From the stage, they praised a teacher who empowers her students daily.
Before she knew it, Debbie was being directed to the podium. At the night’s end, the Guion Creek Middle School teacher took home a $2,500 cash award, a $4,000 ACE scholarship and the Teachers’ Treasures title of Teacher of the Year.
One year later, ACE caught up with the instructor. Polished in all black – save for a light, red-leather jacket – and perched in front of her students’ prized robots, Debbie appears ready for her close-up this time.
American College of Education: Walk me through the night you were named Teacher of the Year.
Debbie Huffine (DH): That was incredible. I mean, I had gotten to the point [in my career] where I don’t expect anything at all so at that moment, I was just sitting there, thinking, “OK, so who are they talking about?” And my husband elbowed me, and he’s like, “That’s you!” And I’m like, “Oh my gosh!” And they had taken a video of my class and had it up there, and I’m like, “Those are my kids!”
ACE: And you’ve been teaching for…
DH: Thirty years. I know I don’t look at all like I’ve been teaching 30 years.
ACE: No, you don’t. How have you seen the profession evolve over the past three decades?
DH: When we first started, the standards were real loosey-goosey. Now, it’s very dictated what you have to have, but I have the best job in the world because I don’t teach math or language arts, so I have a lot more freedom in what I do. We get to do experiments and watch how things change overnight, and I do all these cool demonstrations, and my kids get to build mechanisms.
ACE: Award-winning mechanisms, I hear…
DH: Yeah, our [robotics] team is like 36th right now in the world, and my kids work really hard. They do a lot of the design, and then we have two engineers that work with the kids and say, “OK, so what do you want it to do? In order to get this action, this is the type of mechanism that you could use.” And then [students] have to build it.
ACE: Did you ever see yourself being a part of this world of creators when you were at Taylor University [a private, interdenominational, evangelical Christian college in Upland, Ind.]?
DH: You know, I was a nursing major first – for two years. All my friends were education majors, and they were like, “Debbie, you just love science so much. You love to tinker. You should just be an education major.” And I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll take an education class during the summer,” and I just had so much fun teaching kids how to do things and seeing their eyes light up. It was like, “Yes, I have found my home.” I never looked back, and it’s been really awesome. So, sometimes God puts things in place ‘cause you’re not in the right place.
ACE: That’s kind of what happened with ACE, isn’t it? Had you heard of American College of Education before you received the scholarship?
DH: I had never heard of ACE before. I was originally just going to get a STEM certificate because I had to continue my license anyway, but then, my kids were like, “Mom, you always wanted to get your doctorate. Why don’t you just do that?”
ACE: Is that something that would have been feasible for you without the scholarship?
DH: At this point with the business [Debbie and her husband own CycleBar Traders Point, an indoor cycling franchise in Indianapolis], it would not have been, but it would’ve been the same [scenario] anywhere. With the scholarship, it got me so that I could actually get started and that was huge, and I would tell anybody that. It also made me realize the value of it. The fact that I had a scholarship and didn’t have to worry about the first couple payments, it freed me up to focus on what I was learning and to realize how much I wanted to do this.
ACE: What’s been your biggest takeaway from your education with ACE so far?
DH: My lesson this week in Models of Leadership is about the glass ceiling for women – both white women and women of color, and it’s interesting to me that it’s kind of self-fulfilling…if we don’t show women, then kids don’t see women that are successful.
ACE: What’s next for you?
DH: This summer, I’m going to Iceland so that’s pretty cool. I got the Lilly [Endowment Teacher Creativity] Fellowship. It’s a $12,000 grant, and they want you to take about six to eight weeks during the summer so I’m going to take a pop-up book class in July at the Smithsonian [in D.C.], and I’m going to Philadelphia to meet this one pop-up artist. Her name is Colette Fu, and she does pop-ups with real photographs. Then, I’m going to Iceland, and I’m going to go down a volcano and swim in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and I’m going to take all these pictures and turn them into a pop-up book. One of the newest engineering jobs is paper engineering and understanding how to make paper move so I’m going to use what I learn…to help my kids do pop-ups about their engineering work. I’m just so excited – I can’t wait.