Allison Brown, English and ESL teacher at Westfield High School, in her classroom during a recent lesson on “Beowulf.” Brown has been named 2018 ESL Teacher of the Year by the Texas Association for Bilingual Education (TABE).
Photo album: Allison Brown, ESL teacher at Westfield High School
HOUSTON – Oct. 12, 2018 – From an early age, Allison Brown remembers playing school with other kids in her Chicago neighborhood. Brown, now an English and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Westfield High School, loved the childhood game, and didn’t realize for years that she was also discovering and developing her own passion in life – teaching.
That passion has earned Brown several awards since those Chicago afternoons – most recently, the Texas Association for Bilingual Education (TABE) 2018 ESL Teacher of the Year Award, which Brown received Friday. It was during those childhood games that Brown’s knack for teaching – and for working with ESL students in particular – first became apparent.
“I was always the teacher,” Brown said of the neighborhood games growing up, “and I would teach the ‘students’ whatever I learned that day. So, if I was learning fractions, all the kids in the neighborhood were learning fractions.”
For Brown, it was all good fun with friends, but eventually she started to realize something else, too – she was pretty good at this.
“When I was twelve,” Brown said, “my next-door neighbor told me that I was the one who taught her and her sister and her younger brother their ABCs and their numbers.” The neighbors’ family was from Poland, and the parents, still learning English themselves, were having a hard time supporting their children in their schoolwork. The language barrier was often too high for them to help with homework and other assignments, but Brown had already, if unconsciously, begun developing ways to cross that barrier so she could help the other children learn.
Brown recalled several key instances, including another with a Spanish-speaking friend in middle school.
“I had another friend in eighth grade,” Brown said. “She was from Guatemala, and the teacher had never had ELL students before.” Her friend was having trouble following the lessons in the English-only classroom, so Brown found herself looking for alternate ways to explain the material so her friend could grasp it.
“I figured it out, and then I would re-teach it to her,” Brown said. “I didn’t even think about what I was doing at the time. It was just, I wanted to be helpful, and she’s my friend.” From the childhood games with the kids in her neighborhood to helping friends who were struggling in school, Brown’s mission had become clear to her.
“I’ve only ever wanted to be a teacher,” Brown said. “I did summer camp stuff. I did vacation Bible school stuff. I taught Sunday school. It’s what I feel like my calling is.”
Eventually, she went on to earn her degree, then began her formal career in the classroom. Across more than 16 years of teaching, she has taught ESL students in Michigan, California and Texas, and has made the Houston area her home for more than a decade. Brown is now in her seventh year teaching at Westfield.
“She’s a real resource for the district,” said Chief of School Leadership and Student Support Services Dr. Lupita Hinojosa. “She’s a champion for her students and a team player with her fellow teachers. Spring ISD is proud to have her on the team, and we’re excited about her winning the Texas ESL Teacher of the Year Award.”
During a recent discussion in her classroom at Westfield, Brown and her students talked about the Old English epic “Beowulf,” trying to get at just what makes a hero a hero, while also discussing the fact that heroes – in literature and in life – aren’t always perfect.
“I love when they’re excited about learning,” Brown said. “I love when they have those discussions, when the literature leads to something deeper – a deeper understanding of life, a deeper understanding of who they are or why people do things. They get impassioned, and they want to talk about that, you know?”
As an English teacher who specializes in ESL and working with English language learners (ELL), helping her students develop the language skills needed to participate in those kinds of discussions is a big part of Brown’s day-to-day job. She says it always helps when she can sit down one-to-one with students and listen to them read and speak, both important diagnostic tools that help Brown differentiate instruction and meet students where they are in their learning.
Her busy classroom doesn’t always afford her the opportunity for one-on-one teaching and learning, but Brown said that she’s learned to leverage the strengths of her students to help them help one another. It’s an experience that she knows can be empowering for students.
“I find that most kids want to help others,” Brown said. “You know, when you come into school and you know you have a deficit – like a lot of these kids do, they know language is a deficit for them – they’re embarrassed. But if you can show them what they can do, they want to do that. So if I find a kid who’s good at writing, they’ll want to sit next to somebody who they can help. Maybe that kid speaks better than them, but I can pair them with each other to help even out the score. And they really like that. They appreciate that they can do something useful. They feel good about themselves.”
The structure of the ESL English classes has allowed Brown to work with some students for several years running. That means she has time to build rapport and get to watch the students grow over the course of their high school years.
“Having that relationship,” Brown said, “where they come in and they know who I am and they know kind of how my classroom works, and that they can trust me, it really does help.”
Especially gratifying, Brown said, have been instances when her students – having discovered their own knack for helping others learn – tell her that after several years in her classroom they now want to become teachers, too.
“As sophomores, I had asked them what they wanted to do,” Brown said of one group, “and one wanted to be a psychologist, and another wanted to work in the oil fields, and they changed their minds and decided to become teachers, because they saw that they could do it and they were good at it. Knowing that they’re going into education, that’s exciting.”
Like all teachers, Brown said it isn’t always easy seeing her students leave, especially when she’s been working with them for two or three years by the time they’re seniors. But, when asked about what keeps her motivated and energized to return to the classroom with each new year, Brown spoke of the sense of satisfaction she feels knowing her students are prepared to face whatever comes after graduation.
“I love to go to the graduation ceremonies and see how happy they are,” Brown said. “And as they’re walking past, they hug you, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m done! I finished!’ I love when they’re finished and they’re just so proud of themselves.”
At moments like those, Brown said, she remembers what drew her to teaching in the first place, and she feels thankful for the chance to make a difference in students’ lives.
“That’s really what motivates me,” Brown said, “that it matters. They have those choices later in life because they finished, because they learned something.”
Westfield Principal David Mason agreed, noting that progress in an ESL classroom can look different than in other settings. “You’re not going to always see it reflected at first glance in what the state measures as progress,” he said, “but we see it when we actually look at students’ data and see them grow over time. Ms. Brown instills in them a process of learning, and it’s something they take with them into their lives.”
Mason said the campus was excited to celebrate the TABE win with Brown – she is the only teacher in the state to receive the honor this year – but he also noted that no single award could tell the whole story.
“We’re super excited,” Mason said, “but the award doesn’t really describe all she does. She does so much for her kids. She finds ways to build relationships and help her students achieve small successes, which build up to bigger successes.”
For Brown’s part, she’s happy for the recognition, but still feeling somewhat shocked by the attention.
“Oh, man, I was surprised,” Brown said, “because, like I said, all I ever wanted to do was teach. I’m just doing what I think God made me to do. And, man, it’s an honor, but also kind of like, ‘Are you really sure?’ I’m just doing my job, right?”
Still, Brown’s passion for teaching keeps her striving for excellence in the classroom, and she doesn’t mind if that passion shows.
“I’m very intense about teaching,” Brown said. “The kids are like, ‘Man, why don’t we ever get a day off in here?’ And I’m like, ‘Because I love you too much to waste our educational time.’ And they’re like, ‘Aw, Miss, it’s not that serious.’
“It’s totally that serious!”