Saxon Brown possesses a rare combination of childlike idealism and old soul pragmatism. Both traits have come in handy to the first-year English teacher at Bel Air High School, a large school of about 1,500 students in a suburb north of Baltimore. The 22-year-old is far closer in age to his students than he is to his colleagues, most of whom range from 40 to 65.
Earlier this month, Brown spoke to Education Week about how he’s faring in his first year, which is widely seen as the start of the “make or break” period for new teachers. (Some statistics put the resignation rate of K-12 teachers in the first five years as high as 44 percent.) Brown shared all sorts of insights about his new career, like when he knew he wanted to be a teacher, what it’s like to teach students only a few years younger than him, and how he’s handling the challenges that all teachers grapple with—how to engage teenagers in big-picture academic themes when social media beckons constantly, how to manage his time given all the responsibilities that come with the job, and more.
The conversation, told below in his own words, was edited for length and clarity.
Both of my parents are teachers, so I guess you could say it’s sort of the family business. Because I attended the middle school where my parents taught, I would see the fun stuff about the job—after school, my parents talking to their colleagues, just hanging out. By the time I was out of elementary school I was, like, yeah, I know I want to do this.
When I told my parents, they were like: OK, that checks out. But at first, I think they were afraid that I was overly romanticizing teaching. But because I had two teachers in the house growing up, I saw not only the really great things about being a teacher but also the things that deter people from going into the job or that push people out after a few years. But so far, I love being a teacher.
When I was little, I used to play school. Now that I’m actually teaching, I still feel like I’m playing school. I’m having so much fun. I find myself thinking: ‘Why doesn’t everybody want to do this?’ I guess I’m just still in the honeymoon phase. I know there are complications to the job, but I haven’t seen most of that yet. It helps that my colleagues are so awesome.
I don’t know if I’m just green, but they really have it together. My department chair is right across the hall from me. On the first day of school I went to her, and, in almost a whisper, I was, like: ‘How do you take attendance?’ She is invaluable. I would fall apart if she was not there.
Long days, many responsibilities
I’m still figuring out how to manage everything. I have 150 9th grade students—four sections of honors English, two of general English. It took me three weeks to learn all their names. I’ve taken on a few other responsibilities beyond teaching; it’s fun, because it’s another way I get to know the kids. I’m the announcer for the boys’ basketball team. I’m also the student government adviser, and I play piano for the student choir. I get to work at 6:30 in the morning, and I’ll typically leave around 5:30 or 6:30 at night, but there are some nights I stay until 7:30 or 8.
I don’t mind staying late at school; I kind of like it. I can listen to Led Zeppelin as loud as I want in my classroom when no one’s around. But the second I’ve got to take work home; well, you don’t want to mix work and play. Most of what takes up my time is lesson planning. I want to plan a lesson where my student will say: ‘Oh, that was interesting.’
‘English class teaches you about you’
I love English. I know a lot of students hate English class, because it’s reading and it’s writing and it’s speaking, and it’s listening, and what 15-year-old wants to do any of those things? But I want my students to like English, and I’m going to do whatever ridiculous thing I can to maybe get them to see that some part of it—one text, one short story, one novel, one poem—was better than they expected it to be.
I often tell my students that English class teaches you about you. I’ve also told my students that there is nothing they could go through that some author hasn’t also been through and written about. Broken hearts, dying family members, growing up, being let down, literature has got you covered. And, if nothing else, English is a class about stories. It’s the same reason people binge-watch Netflix or go to the movies. We love being entertained.
Initially, it was surprising to see how many students are apathetic or are just intensely forgetful. But I’ve also learned that if you find something that students are interested in or really care about, they’ll work hard. And I do my best to make English literature entertaining. If I have a super interesting lesson, if I’m jumping on the desk wearing a King Arthur costume reciting poetry, students’ cell phones are generally not out.
On cellphones: I hate ‘em! Some teachers collect them before class. I don’t; that’s not my style. But I do sometimes get a little frustrated. I’ll think, ‘I poured my heart and soul into this lesson plan and you’re on your phone!’ I’m definitely still navigating the technology piece.
Technology: How much is too much?
High school is so different now. When I was in high school, we didn’t have laptops. Everything was on paper. There was no Canvas [an electronic learning management system] or electronic records. I do a lot of stuff on paper in my class. I ask my students: ‘Does it bother you that you have to handwrite a lot of stuff in my class?’ They say they prefer to handwrite because, in other classes, they’re just on the computer the whole time. All students have a laptop in class. But for me, they’ll only open it up when we’re doing something that requires the technology. For the most part, during a discussion or a read-aloud, they don’t need their laptops.
I know I’m a kid teaching kids. And my students know numerically how close we are in age. But, they can’t even drive yet. I pay bills. I have been on public transportation by myself—normal adult things that they have no concept of yet. So even though my students know I’m 22, I think that they find that to be older than it actually is, which helps. But I do know English; I got my bachelor’s in it. That’s the thing that kept me sane, or grounded, in the beginning. I don’t necessarily know how to deliver the content in the most effective way yet, but I have my whole career to figure that out.
I think the people who say things like, ‘Oh, the future is doomed,’ probably are not in the classroom. Being a teacher definitely requires a certain degree of patience and understanding. Sometimes in class, I have to repeat myself 10,000 times. I could get frustrated when a student says about a book we’re reading, ‘This is boring.’ Or I could remember that he’s 14 or 15. And kids are going to act like kids.