Midway through her sixth year as an English teacher at Meadville Area Senior High, Siobhan Brown says that if the COVID-19 pandemic has brought little in the way of positive experiences, it has at least demonstrated that she is in education for the long haul.
“I realized this year was really affirming that I want to be a teacher,” Brown said in an interview after school this week. “With all the hardships, I feel like if you really didn’t want to be a teacher, you weren’t going to do well with the hardship. Everybody struggled, but I feel like it made you realize that this was your passion.”
The challenges of the pandemic have revealed the resilience of both the staff and the students at MASH, Brown said.
Even with the school back to full-time in-person learning, the resilience of certain ninth graders will continue to be tested over the next few weeks: several of Brown’s students are striking out on their journey through Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”
“I’m trying to make it as exciting as I can,” Brown joked.
Their reading of the novel comes at the end of Black History Month, which this year Brown has incorporated more formally into her classroom: Each day, a different African American historical figure is spotlighted for students, including Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress; Claudette Colvin, the African American teen who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Rosa Parks became famous for the same act; and Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman and first Native American to be a licensed pilot.
For Brown, who is one of just two Black teachers among a faculty of more than 60, issues of representation are important — important enough that she intentionally incorporates a diverse array of writers and texts throughout the year, “not just in February,” she said.
As a child in Youngstown, Ohio, Brown often found herself one of just a handful of African American students in her school. At Gannon University in Erie, Brown noticed that for many of her friends the college was their first experience of a diverse learning environment.
When she was hired at MASH soon after her graduation from Gannon, Brown wanted to make sure her students didn’t have to wait that long.
“Being a person of color has affected what I teach,” Brown explained. “I want our kids — especially our students of color — to feel represented in what we read and be able to see themselves. I also want our students who are white to be able to see some things that maybe they don’t get to see all the time and to broaden everybody’s worldview.”
Students respond well to the approach — and not just according to Brown, but according to her colleagues and her students.
It’s been a couple of years since MASH junior Ace Reese took Brown’s English class, but the experience stands out.
“Ms. Brown is the teacher that you don't forget as you get older,” Reese said. “She was the teacher that not only cared about your academics but also made you laugh and smile even on your bad day.”
For junior Kylie Moore, Brown was not only a “really independent role model,” she was a reassuring presence as students made the transition from middle school.
“She was kind, thoughtful and motivated to prepare us for high school while always being light-hearted, comedic and positive,” Moore said. “She is a really independent role model.”
Brown’s passion for teaching and for literature help her connect with students, according to her fellow English teacher Jenna Diorio.
“She is always coming up with really creative ways for students to extend and apply their learning,” Diorio said, “and she’s always the hardest working person in the room.”
By giving students options — whether it be writing an alternative version of a text, much as Dickens did when he rewrote the ending of “Great Expectations,” or by learning a Victorian-era dance that would have been familiar to characters in the novel — Brown allows them to explore and experiment, according to Diorio.
Calling Brown’s presence in the classroom “dynamic," Principal John Higgins was direct in his evaluation: “The kids bend over backwards for her. They really like her,” he said. “I’d like a hundred more just like her.”
Finding that many teachers exactly like Brown would be tough, however. Higgins acknowledged that attracting teachers of color to this corner of northwestern Pennsylvania can be a challenge, particularly at a time when there’s a shortage of teachers in general across the nation.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 83 percent of the 821 students at the school last year were white. Black students made up 7.6 percent of the student population while multiracial students accounted for another 5.5 percent.
Diorio said it’s important to have teachers of color like Brown and band director Armond Walter on the faculty at MASH.
“We appreciate them,” she said. “It’s not just about seeing a Black person in a role of authority, but also about how they both treat and recognize all students in their classes. They really make an effort to see and get to know and recognize all of their students for all of their individual personalities and accomplishments.”
Being in a position like Brown’s, she added, can sometimes bring added responsibilities. If other faculty members are thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion, she explained, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of checking with Brown for her take.
The fact that Brown is really good at figuring out ways to incorporate diversity in ways that appeal to students makes it even more tempting to depend on her, according to Diorio.
“It’s almost like we take for granted that we have some coverage there for somebody to tell us, ‘Oh, actually, that’s problematic, here’s why,'" Diorio said. “We really all should be relying on ourselves and checking our own unconscious biases.”
For Brown, who has known she wanted to be an English teacher since she was in seventh grade, the focus remains on students.
“I like being able to make everything new every year so that you never feel boxed in,” she said. “You’ve got to be in it for the students. If you’re not in it for the students, I don’t know what you’re doing.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.