For One Teacher, a Really Shiny Apple | Teachers College Columbia University

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For One Teacher, a Really Shiny Apple

TC alumnus Bryan Jackson receives one of Chicago's highest honors
TC alumnus Bryan Jackson receives one of Chicago’s highest honors

By Siddhartha Mitter

When the knock came on his classroom door, Bryan Jackson (MA ’03), a third grade teacher at the Latin School of Chicago, assumed it was another security drill. The city was readying to host last May’s NATO summit, and the school, a prestigious institution on the Near North Side, had been advised it was a high-profile target. There had been a lockdown drill just the day before.

“And then the door pops open,” recalls Jackson, “and the first thing I see is the barrel of a camera.”

Into the peace of post-lunch “quiet reading time” strode a horde of friendly invaders: A television news crew. Jackson’s mother and father, from Milwaukee. His sister. Latin’s head of school and its director of the lower school. Colleagues. In all about 60 visitors packed into the room. 

Bryan Jackson, this is your life? Better, actually. They were there to bestow a Golden Apple Award, which is a major deal in the civic culture of the Windy City. Conferred on 10 Chicago-area teachers every year since 1986, the Apple includes a cash prize, a sabbatical semester at Northwestern University, and induction into an academy of past recipients. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn each joined this year’s surprise announcement teams. The group in Jackson’s classroom included the Golden Apple’s founder, philanthropist Martin J. Koldyke.

Jackson had known he was in the running. Nominations for the award are kept anonymous, but the 600 nominees are then asked to submit a series of essays. From that group, the selection committee picks 32 finalists for intensive scrutiny.

“They send a team to come watch you teach,” Jackson says. “They interview parents, students, staff, colleagues—they are there all day.”

Jackson says his approach to teaching is rooted in a couple of simple principles.

“First, you’ve got to keep a smile on your face and teach with enthusiasm,” he says. “You can sell water to a fish if you present it the right way. Present it the wrong way and you’ll lose one kid, and that’s one too many.

“Second, the kids teach me, and they teach other kids, so I always think about multiple forms of intelligence, and how best to tap them.” To that end, Jackson says, he uses any and all technologies available. 

Jackson’s antennae for different kinds of potential may stem from experiencing the evolution of his own interests. When he was younger, teaching third graders was never on the list. 

“I wanted to design the next great suspension bridges,” he says. His initial major at the University of Minnesota was architecture. He even studied Japanese to prepare for a school in Japan that specialized in bridge engineering.

All that changed when, to fulfill a course assignment, Jackson found himself teaching engineering concepts to an elementary school class. In another program, he taught about bridges by transforming two elementary classes into mock architectural firms.

“I just fell in love with being around kids,” Jackson says. “I got a sense of what I would want a teacher to do with me. It was natural to transfer to the school of education.”

In Minnesota, Jackson says he learned the fundamentals of being a teacher. But it’s at TC that he says he discovered the philosophy of teaching. “TC allowed me to become a reflective teacher,” he says. “Every year, every day your kids are going to be different. What are you going to do to catch up with them?”

He credits four of his TC professors—Marjorie Siegel, Lin Goodwin, Celia Oyler and Michele Genor—for helping him become “a teacher of integrity and purpose.” And as one of only two men among the 70 students in his master’s program cohort – and as the only black man – he was forced to become comfortable with who he was. 

“I learned to have confidence and clarity when speaking on tough issues,” he says. 

At Latin, where Jackson has taught for the past eight years, the environment is quite different from the Harlem public schools where Jackson taught kindergarten while at TC. “My professors told me that wasn’t the whole world,” he says.

He says he loves everything about the school, but expects to seek new challenges down the road. With its academy events, its seminars and the appearances it requests of its honorees, the Golden Apple, Jackson says, will help him no matter what shape his future career takes.

“It’s a catapult into the true essence of good teaching,” he says. “You’re constantly going to be around individuals that make you say to yourself, did I really earn this?”

That’s a question his former students can help him answer, should he ever have any doubts. After his award was announced, Jackson says, 13 students from his first year at Latin, all of them now juniors in high school, dropped by his classroom to sing “Lean On Me,” a song he had taught them. Another wrote from boarding school: “Mr. Jackson, I knew eight years ago that you were one of the best teachers. What took them so long to figure it out?”

That recognition, Jackson says, moved him at least as much as the award did.

“It allows you to see that the impact you have on these kids is so much bigger than you even imagine.”

Published Tuesday, Jul. 31, 2012


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