Special education leader’s story inspires new colleagues
Many of the area's newest teachers and district superintendents were on hand for a welcome breakfast at Brookfield Zoo's Discovery Center, Tuesday, August 14, 2012. | J.Geil ~ For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 17, 2012 11:39AM
BROOKFIELD — About 100 new west suburban teachers were inspired to be rungs on a ladder, rather than a stumbling block for their students, during a welcoming breakfast Tuesday at Brookfield Zoo.
Karen Brown, director of special education at Lyons Township High School, shared her early struggle reading and her journey through West Virginia schools at the 47th annual breakfast sponsored by the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Brown challenged educators to decide how they want to be remembered by their students as she addressed new colleagues at LT and five surrounding elementary districts and the La Grange Area Department of Special Education cooperative.
“In spite of the district calling me mentally retarded, Mrs. Bowling did not believe it when I was in first grade,” Brown recalled. “My math skills were good, but I struggled with reading until I was in fifth grade.”
Brown’s teacher paid for a Weekly Reader subscription and worked with Brown after school, she said. A fifth-grade teacher offered further encouragement to celebrate successes or try harder, and an eighth-grade new teacher offered a burst of inspiration.
“Mr. Allen Connoly told me I was brilliant and said, ‘You think like no one I’ve ever met. You can get out of the projects and go to college,’” Brown said.
Raised by her mom and grandmother, Brown said she was being trained to work as a maid, but she began entering contests and saving money to attend college. Her high school wouldn’t let her enter the college prep track, but a counselor made sure she had the necessary courses as electives, such as physics, biology and calculus.
Hard work paid off. She graduated fourth in a class of 435 students and was awarded a full scholarship to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Brown worked as a classroom teacher for 19 years before becoming an administrator.
“With the encouragement of a few teachers, I went from being identified as a student with disabilities to a student taking physics and calculus in high school,” she said.
Nancy Flanagan, who will be teaching band part-time in La Grange Elementary District 102, said Brown’s talk was motivating.
“I’d love to get a poster to put up about being a rung on a ladder for my students,” said Flanagan.
Sandy Brantner, a special education teacher at Ideal Elementary School in Countryside, said she found Brown’s journey moving.
“Her speech was excellent, amazing and it brought a tear to my eye,” Brantner said. “It made me want to be a rung on a ladder.”
Other teachers said they were inspired to share the talents and experiences they bring to their classrooms.
“I have wanted to become a teacher for as long as I can remember,” said Anna Monahan, a kindergarten teacher in the same classroom she attended as a child at Laidlaw School in Western Springs. “I adore kindergartners’ desire to learn and excitement in discovery.”