An Illinois Board of Education Teacher of the Year honor has landed in the hands of a Bloomington High School favorite. The Illinois State Board of Education named special education teacher Brandon Thornton its top teacher for the east central region of Illinois.
As virtual learning becomes the new outlet for education amid COVID-19, maintaining student engagement has become a weary task. Thornton said making sure students feel seen in the classroom, whether it's virtually or in-person, is how he’s sustained his success.
“Learning their names, taking a little time to talk to them outside of your content area, going into breakout rooms and talking one on one, and letting the conversation go into whatever they’re doing at home, is so important now more than it ever has been,” Thornton said.
Thornton said he values that strategy because it makes students more comfortable as they begin to see him as a person, rather than someone they’re just taking information from.
When his teaching career began, Thornton taught math. Given the opportunity to explore a new position in special education, he hesitated to take it right away because being represented in STEM fields meant a lot.
“I was the only Black math major at ISU during my four years there. I know they’re more representative now, but a big reason why I didn't want to leave is because I felt like those kids wouldn’t be seen,” he said. “I think there’s decades of systematic things for why that's happening, but I think if we just uplift kids of color and put them in positions of influence intentionally instead of making STEM seem unattainable, it will make a difference.”
Entering his new role as a special education teacher virtually has been a bit of a transition for Thornton. While he misses the one-on-one attention he can give students in the classroom, he said the new way of learning has inspired him to advocate even more for his students.
“When we were in-person, it was like, ‘OK at one point this week I’ll pull them in to talk,'” Thornton explained. “Now if my kids aren’t showing up for class, they’re getting a message from me or if their grades are slipping they’ll constantly get an email. It’s kind of put me in a panic mode which isn’t healthy, but they need someone in their corner and that's what I love doing about this job.”
Thornton is a favorite among the Bloomington High School student body. While maintaining a healthy relationship and implementing discipline at the same time can be challenging, he said being authentic is key to establishing a student-teacher bond.
“I’m honest about wanting them to be the best they can be, what it means to be a Raider, and I'm just authentic with them,” Thornton said. “They know I’m not a strict person, so if I do need to discipline, it’s always coming from a place of care, and I think they need that transparency from adults because often times it’s just, ‘Do it, because I said you have to do it.'”
Thornton is working toward his doctorate degree, but has no plans to transition to higher education. With a passion for teaching and advocacy, he plans to continue his role at Bloomington High School and inspire students along the way.
The state board of education said a committee of administrators, teachers, past winners and other educators chose the 10 regional Teachers of the Year. The board will honor its Teacher of the Year finalists and announce the winner during an Oct. 21 virtual meeting.
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