Coffee Break: Alabama Teacher of the Year on the Importance of ‘Schooling’ Legislators and Challenging Students

Coffee Break: Alabama Teacher of the Year on the Importance of ‘Schooling’ Legislators and Challenging Students_5fbec05682236.jpeg
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Coffee Break: Alabama Teacher of the Year on the Importance of ‘Schooling’ Legislators and Challenging Students

Coffee Break: Alabama Teacher of the Year on the Importance of ‘Schooling’ Legislators and Challenging Students

National Public Radio recently featured Jennifer Brown’s 10th-grade science classroom for a lesson that was focused not on students, but on lawmakers. The Alabama Teacher of the Year invited state legislators to visit her classroom to help ensure that policy is being informed by the day-to-day challenges of educators and kids.

Jennifer talks about tightening that connection between the schoolhouse and the statehouse, and about her influences and impacts as one of the nation’s top teachers.

Are you a coffee drinker? Tea?

Coffee, for sure. I love a good cup of Dunkin’ Dark with a dash of cream, a dash of milk and a couple of Splendas. I love tea, too—unsweetened with Splenda and a lemon.

I was struck by this part in a news story about your being named Alabama Teacher of the Year: “Every student needs a champion. They need someone who will push them to be better every single day. They need someone who will tell them they can be whatever they want to be.” Who was your champion? Who pushed you to be better?

I was quoting the late Rita Pierson who said in her widely viewed TED Talk, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists they become the best they can possibly be.”

I had many champions along the way. In high school, Coach Shelley, my basketball coach, was a champion for me. In college, my biology professor, Dr. Cusic, was my champion. When I worked as a waitress at J. Alexander’s restaurant, my champion was a manager named Donna Martin. When I was first hired as a teacher at McAdory High School, Principal Ann Jones was my champion.

Today, my colleagues and students are my champions because they push me to be the best I can be each and every day.

Talk about how you hope opening up your classroom to legislators will improve statehouse conversations about what schools, teachers and kids need?

Recently, a blogger by the name of Larry Lee asked me if a legislator had ever visited my classroom. I immediately said, “No. But I’ve never invited a legislator to my classroom.” And it hit me: Legislators aren’t going to visit my classroom if I don’t invite them. So, I declared the following week “Invite a Legislator to Your Classroom Week” in Alabama. Here’s a story my friend wrote about it.

Many of the people writing bills for education are educated, but they are not educators. There is a huge difference in the two. How can someone really understand what is happening in our schools without actually being in them? I believe it is our job to educate legislators and the general public on how our schools work. I also believe that as teachers it is our duty to share the wonderful learning happening inside our classrooms.

Is there a science to making science fun and challenging for 10th graders?

I believe kids are naturally curious and that most enjoy learning. However, we have unintentionally conditioned students to think that school is a place they come to get a grade and that learning only happens when sitting in a desk listening to a teacher. Through powerful conversations with my 10th graders, I realize that my students lose their love of learning if I focus on covering content rather than the learning process.

School is supposed to be hard. Students are supposed to be confused sometimes. Part of the fun of learning lies in the challenge. When I get them to believe in this, science becomes both fun and challenging.

Additionally, I use the 5E Model of Instruction (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate) to teach the content. Basically, we do the lab first and then learn about it, so students are active participants rather than passive listeners. Students must experience science and not solely learn about it from a textbook, lecture or worksheet…and my 10th graders agree!

If you could turn the tables and shadow for a day any elected official in the world, living or dead, who would it be?

Eek, that’s a tough question. I think I would want to shadow any of the U.S. presidents, just to see what a day in the life of a president would be like. If you forced me choose one, I would have to pick John F. Kennedy.

Photo of Jennifer Brown with students, courtesy of Jennifer Brown.
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