‘We were just us’: Kansas Master Teacher brings authenticity to Sunflower Elementary classroom

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It’s early Friday morning and eager students patiently form a line at Jessica Brown’s desk. Several want to congratulate the first grade teacher on her new award. Others want to say hi to a beloved former teacher before starting their day.

Emporia State University this week named Brown one of seven 2024 Kansas Master Teachers. The award from her alma mater, where Brown has earned three degrees and a certificate, made her feel over the moon, she said. But the journey hasn’t always been easy.

Lawrence Public Schools first designated Brown a Lawrence Master Teacher in May 2023. The award arrived at a precarious time.

“I love every minute of my job, but last year was just one of those years where I kind of started to develop some self-doubt, like, ‘Am I doing a good enough job?’” Brown said. “Am I truly able to make a difference? Am I really showing up, like I hoped for, because, you know, it’s my mission, that I’m just me, I don’t try to be anything else.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jessica Brown sits on the carpet with her students and classroom pet Morton the guinea pig on Feb. 23, 2024.

Change rippled across the district a year ago. At Sunflower, new building leadership and staff turnover was underfoot. Brown created a portfolio for the master teacher contest at the state level, which prompted her to take stock. She described a heavy feeling hanging over her at the time, including imposter feelings. She decided to approach her new principal, Amanda Green.

“I just remember coming to her and just authentically being like, ‘Here’s where I’m at, in my mindset. And I told her, ‘I don’t feel like it’s affecting my practice, but I just need you to know, like, where I’m at and I’m trying to kind of find my footing again and find myself,’” Brown said.

Brown said she couldn’t pinpoint the exact reasons, but she knew the problems weren’t isolated.

“And my colleagues were having challenges in their classroom, and I could see it weighing on them mentally. And it was weighing on me mentally,” Brown said.

So Brown put in a rebuilding year. She took over her own mental health as a teacher and worked to empower those around her to do the same. She focused on building up others and accepting things as they are and developed a passion for recognizing the mental health needs of educators.

“I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t in it to pour their heart and soul for the betterment of a child, but sometimes we don’t focus on ourselves — almost all the time,” Brown said. “And I feel like, to no fault of the district or the state, and it’s not a problem that way, but I do feel like a piece that gets overlooked as teachers is our own mental health.”

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Brown, 32, said she was able to witness this week how the work had paid off.

“When they surprised me Wednesday, it was the first time I felt pride with that term ‘master,’” Brown said. “Maybe I am that mastery teacher, even though sometimes it still feels so odd to say that.”

Brown has taught for 11 years, including 10 in the Lawrence school district. She is a self-published author and an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) certified teacher.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jessica Brown’s first grade classroom at Sunflower Elementary

Each Kansas Master Teacher receives $1,000 and is recognized during Master Teacher Day on April 3 at ESU.

Brown said she viewed the accomplishment as a community effort to share with her students and colleagues, especially former Hillcrest Elementary principal Tammy Becker, with whom Brown worked during her first six years in the district.

“I am truly just a reflection of all of the people that have been in my educational journey,” Brown said, adding that she viewed the staff at Sunflower as her family.

A district news release included this praise for Brown from a teaching colleague and parent of a former student: “She invests an incredible amount of time and effort into every lesson, response, and question, ensuring that each student feels valued and supported in her classroom. Jess radiates warmth and care, creating an inclusive and nurturing learning environment that fosters growth and engagement.”

Grateful for the acknowledgement and praise, Brown wants all of her former and current students to know she’s always on their side.

“I will always appreciate the little things each day that they teach me because they showed up as themselves,” Brown said. “And they didn’t try to win me over and impress me. We were just us.”

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jessica Brown holds circle time with her students on Feb. 23, 2024.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Morton the guinea pig is one of two classroom pets in Jessica Brown’s first grade classroom at Sunflower Elementary.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Kaw Valley Almanac for April 22-28, 2024

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