Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Sub’s lesson plan relies on commitment

E-mail this article \ Print this article

J. Adam Fester⁄The Gazette
There’s no substitute for Sarah Browner, who kept her commitment to a handful of students she taught at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown.
Sarah Browner planned to travel last year. The semi-retired 55-year-old Germantown resident was considering returning to Italy or checking out Las Vegas. But she shelved her plans to fulfill a commitment she made to a handful of middle school students.

‘‘It was a challenge to deal with kids who needed everything you can give, but it was the most gratifying assignment I have ever had” is how Browner assesses her substitute teaching experience at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown.

Since retiring from the U.S. Postal Service in 2002, Browner has been working as a substitute teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools. A degree in education from Morgan State University along with enthusiasm for the children and teaching skills make her much sought after. Her phone has been ringing all summer with requests from teachers and administrators to fill in for them in the coming school year. Everyone knows that if you want Mrs. Browner to sub for you, and you do, then you better get the request in well in advance, one seasoned English teacher explains.

Teaching is not just about doing something she loves, Browner says. Instead, it’s about commitment to the students — which she calls the soul of good teaching and claims as an intrinsic personal value.

Browner’s promise to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave last year led to the cancellation of her travel plans. When the teacher opted not to return to school, the temporary spot turned into a yearlong position.

‘‘When they came and asked me if I would stay the whole year, I thought ‘No, no, I want to travel with my husband,’” Browner recalls. ‘‘Then I thought more about the commitment I made to these students.”

She worried about what would happen if she did not accept the long-term position.

‘‘The students already had one teacher come and go, and then they had me,” she says. ‘‘And if I left, how many other subs would they have throughout the year?” Convinced that continuity is critical in children’s lives, Browner fretted that too many changes in staff would be detrimental to their education.

‘‘I just couldn’t abandon the children,” Browner says. ‘‘So, bye-bye Italy, hello middle school.”

While many of her peers are reluctant to teach middle school students, Browner says she enjoys it. Working with students in transition gives her a sense of meaning and purpose. This transition period often provides a window of opportunity that Browner says she can use to send students in a positive direction. She can help students see that school can be fun, and not just drudgery.

Not every substitute teacher takes that responsibility seriously, according to Clemente teachers who have enlisted Browner.

‘‘The typical sub is a warm body in the classroom,” says English teacher Nancy Baskin. In contrast, ‘‘Sarah teaches.”

Resource teacher Nancy Unger concurs.

‘‘Most subs don’t know how to grade papers, how to help children learn, and work with the behavior, but Sarah does, and if you leave her work to do, she gets it done.”

Browner has a sense of purpose in the classroom.

‘‘I tell people I don’t come to sub. I come to teach, to accomplish a goal and make a difference in a child’s life,” she says. ‘‘I intend to cover the plan the teacher left for me because if I don’t do that, I don’t feel successful.”

‘‘She does that and more,” says Jeanie Dawson, who worked with Browner at Clemente and is now Assistant Principal at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville. Dawson describes Browner as ‘‘a phenomenal teacher. Her enthusiasm for teaching and learning is heartfelt, and her abilities in the classroom are born of experience and wisdom.

‘‘I will always hire her in a minute!” she says.

Cindy Weiland, 24, co-taught with Browner last year at Clemente and says Browner was amazing.

‘‘She was really into kids. She called their parents like every day! If they failed a quiz or forgot their homework, she called home. Sometimes she pulled struggling students out during lunch to help them or during power hour — whatever it took. She worked really, really hard to see that her students got every opportunity to succeed.

‘‘If her goal was for her students to succeed, she accomplished it!”

Many of Browner’s students earned a ‘‘B” in a class they might have otherwise failed, Weiland adds.

Still, it wasn’t always easy to persuade students to accept her help.

‘‘Some students need the help, but are reluctant to ask for it or just plain don’t want your help. That resistance is a challenge to overcome, but once students see that you are there to help them, they usually come around,” she observes.

Browner speaks of one student last year who turned to her for help with a science project that involved giving a speech explaining Newton’s Laws.

‘‘I was worried about it, too,” Browner confesses, ‘‘...but we worked and worked. We made note cards, and we practiced and practiced her speech. The day came to give the speech, and the student did a wonderful job.” ‘‘When she was done,” she recalls, ‘‘she had the biggest smile on her face, and I was so happy, I ran up and gave her a big hug and kissed her. I was so proud!”

Don’t confuse care, compassion and commitment with weakness when it comes to Browner’s approach to teaching. Just over five feet tall, this African American woman with a rock-solid physique has the demeanor and approach of a drill sergeant. She insists that students toe the line and do what is expected of them. They know the rules when Mrs. Browner walks in to sub for the day: no pranks, no sleeping and no misbehaving.

‘‘I tell them right up front: ‘I don’t have room for nonsense. I’m an experienced teacher, and my job is to see that the plans the teacher left get done. If you impede my progress, I will ask you to leave,’” she says.

Once while substituting at Watkins Mill High School, a student tested her mettle.

‘‘They warned me about [this student] before he ever came in. He was a doozie. He leaned into my personal space, laid back in his chair, called out and was a negative ringleader for all the students,” she recalls.

Browner told him he needed to be a positive leader and when that didn’t work, she laid it out for him.

‘‘I told him, ‘I will not tolerate this. I will clear this class down to the last person who wants to learn if that is what it takes.’”

She proceeded to call security to remove him and five or six other misbehaving students.

‘‘When they saw I meant business, the rest of the class went just fine,” she says.

Browner will substitute this year, but won’t make any long-term commitments. The wanderlust is stirring.

‘‘Making the most of my life outside of school is important too,” she says. ‘‘No one promised me a long life.”

Her plans include traveling to Italy with her husband, Donald Sr., working on a book about her mother and volunteering at church — as well as spending time on workouts and helping her own teen-aged children.

So, she says, it will be up to others to fill in the long-term gaps this year. To anyone considering substitute teaching, Browner pleads: ‘‘Don’t do it just for the money. Realize that you are shaping the lives of little people, and you need to do the job to the best of your ability. Teachers need commitment.”