Next month the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year will be chosen from among the 10 finalists.
One of those finalists is Helen Brandon, who was nominated by her school community for her work as a sixth-grade math and science teacher at District 87’s Bloomington Junior High.
“Overall, it was a little surprising,” said Brandon about being a finalist.
One could argue otherwise as she graciously sat down for a WGLT interview clad in a purple tutu, fishnet gloves, crimped hair, and earrings that read “love you,” all in honor of Rock Your School, a national movement dedicated to providing captivating lessons for students.
Dressing like a rockstar isn’t a daily occurrence in Brandon’s classroom, but lasting all year is her enthusiasm and hands-on teaching style.
“My goal for my students is that they want to come to school, they feel appreciated, they feel like their experiences and their lives are valued, and what they have to bring into the classroom is valued,” said Brandon.
When asked about her take on the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, Brandon pointed to a poster in her classroom of STEM leaders of different genders, races, and areas of expertise.
“One of the things we do at the beginning of the year is talk about science identity. Middle school is where we start losing kids, females, and a lot of our diverse students in math and science. So I feel like we need to target it early, but it goes beyond the talk. It's helping them see different STEM leaders who are of different backgrounds, languages, having active science discussions, and getting them to see themselves as scientists,” said Brandon.
During the year, Brandon’s students are given the chance to curate their own science identity.
“That's the way to break down those barriers. You've got to get them to see that they have a science or math identity. And then that is something that they can build on throughout and hopefully go into those fields.”
Brandon also shared her thoughts on the Illinois teacher shortage.
“Teaching is a labor of love. It just is, and I think one of the good things about the teacher shortage is the conversations that are happening around it. And these are conversations about, how do we support our teachers? Our student and pre-service teachers? Because we all want a solid education for our kiddos. And I think, to do that, we need to continue these conversations to try and combat the problem.”
Mrs. Brandon has been teaching for 17 years, dedicating 15 of those to students at Bloomington Junior High, her alma mater.
“When I look at my kids, and there are some days I'm just watching them interact, and I think, this is what the future can look like. It gives me hope and makes me so happy to be a part of that little journey,” said Brandon.
ISBE will announce the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year during the Those Who Excel banquet on Oct. 19 at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal. The winner will represent Illinois in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year Program.
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