#182 – Activating Possibility, with Jonathan Grant Brown

Unpacking Education May 10, 2023 40 min

In this episode, we hear the story of how Jonathan Grant Brown activated possibility in his life. His story is both heartbreaking and inspirational. Jonathan grew up in foster care after having been abandoned by his mother at an early age. Despite these difficult early years that led to behavior issues in school, his teachers never gave up on him, and he transformed himself into a college graduate with a family and successful career.

As he looks back on his formative experiences in school, Jonathan talks about the “consistent and unwavering determination by educators to just keep helping, no matter how disruptive I was. No matter how many times I cursed or hurt a teacher’s feelings, they just wouldn’t quit on me.”

Jonathan, who is now the Community Engagement Manager for AVID Center, is grateful for the teachers in his life, and these experiences have motivated him to pay it forward. In his work today, he encourages educators to “be brave in activating your community around you and ask for help. And help those who need it, because together, there’s nothing we can’t overcome, and there’s not a student we can’t impact.”

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Anything is possible once you believe you are worthy of achieving it.

Jason Pockrandt, author of The Confident Father’s Guidebook

Necessary Interruptions

Teacher intervention can help break a student’s negative cycle of failure, struggle, and self-destruction. Jonathan talks about the multiple efforts his teachers made to interrupt his negative trajectory. He describes how he changed over time, not because of a single event but through a continual effort from those supporting him.

He reflects, saying, “Honestly, throughout my entire elementary [and] middle school, I always ran into these teachers that again, just for some reason, loved the bad kid. As I got older, I started to kind of look at it through the lens of interruptions—how these different educators interrupted my life because I absolutely didn’t want it. I hated it. I fought it. I ran from it. But for some reason, they consistently and unwaveringly interrupted me because they saw potential, and they wanted to nurture that.”

Listen to the full episode to hear more about Jonathan’s journey and the teachers who interrupted his downward spiral, supported his growth, and helped him become the successful adult and role model that he is today. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Jonathan is a former AVID student, a college graduate, a professional speaker, and the Community Engagement Manager for AVID Center. He has dedicated himself to encouraging students to pursue a successful future by obtaining a college degree. As a product of the foster care system, Jonathan has made it his mission in life to help open doors of opportunity for students and support them when society dictates such doors are closed to them.
  • A Challenging Beginning: Jonathan faced challenges as a young child, including being abandoned by his mother and then being raised in the foster care system. This led to behavior problems in school.
  • Miss Tucker: Miss Tucker turned Jonathan’s struggle with reading into a strength by helping him find his reading voice. Jonathan recalls, “One day, Miss Tucker came up to me and she said, ‘Why don’t you try to change your voice when you read?’ And by putting on an accent or a voice, I was able to slow down my thinking as I looked at the words on the page, and I was able to articulate every word clearly, and so kids started forming circles around me during reading time, and I would read and change my voice for the different characters. So Miss Tucker, instead of kicking that disturbing little kid out of her classroom, she helped me find a love for reading.”
  • You Can Pack Your Duffle Bag: “I wouldn’t allow myself to get close to people, especially teachers, because I hated the feeling you felt when you got pulled away from somebody you cared about. And as a kid who was experiencing foster care, everything was temporary. One of the most common phrases you would hear is, ‘You don’t have to live here. You can pack your duffle bag, and you can leave.’”
  • Keeping a Distance: “Letting teachers like me was a bad thing because, eventually, I was going to like them too, and then I was going to get in trouble, get moved, and then I was never going to see them again, and so Miss Reynolds was one of those teachers. She always looked out for me and always tried to cover for me, but I was the most disruptive in her class because I didn’t want her to like me too much. I didn’t want to feel that love and then eventually get ripped away from it.”
  • Early Trauma: “I learned at a really young age the kind of trauma and damage that can happen. . . . When my little brother and I were really little, my mom took us to a park, and we were hanging out and doing what little kids do, you know, having a good time. . . . And she said she was going to a grocery store to get some snacks for a picnic, and she never came back. And so at a really young age, that concept of ‘You said you were going to do this. You said you were going to take care of me. You said you were going to be right back, and you weren’t’ got instilled in my head.”
  • A System, Not a Moment: “The shift wasn’t a moment in time. The shift wasn’t one person who loved me enough or put up with my stuff enough. The shift was a systematic approach to ensuring kiddos like me always had another opportunity in front of them. And if it wasn’t for educators and the system that was put in place in KISD, Killeen Independent School District, of ensuring that opportunities were consistently drifted throughout our pathway, then I would have fallen off, and I would have taken a different path.”
  • Mr. D Squared: The dedicated persistence of his math teacher led to Jonathan getting involved in the AVID program. Even when Jonathan threw away his application, this teacher posted it back on his locker and said, “You will go to this AVID interview, and I will see you in there.” He would not give up on Jonathan.
  • Miss Tomlin: Miss Tomlin was Jonathan’s AVID teacher and the first person who Jonathan opened up to about his future. She helped point him in the direction of college. Jonathan recalls that she created an “environment where I would feel safe, I would feel confident, I would feel comfortable, and I would open up.”
  • Writing His Own History: After being introduced to the idea of college by Miss Tomlin, Jonathan reflects on how she changed his life trajectory. “In my little head, as a freshman in high school, college was that place that I could go, and I could pretend to everybody there that I was normal, that I was a regular kid that came from a great family with loving parents. And all I had to do was make good grades and take these hard classes, and then I would get to college, and I could write my own history. I could write my own story, and then I would be accepted. I would be loved. I would be okay, and I could break this cycle of generational poverty, of generational foster care, of generational abuse. And as a freshman in high school, I believed her.”
  • Two Paths: “I was luckily enough surrounded by people who were guiding me in a very positive and productive way. My little brother, unfortunately, ended up in a completely different scenario,” reflects Jonathan. “So he ended up in and out of prison, battling drug addiction, alcoholism. I ended up finishing my master’s degree, and buying my dream car, and buying my first home, and then buying my second home. Right? Two brothers grow up in the same place, have the same thing happen to them, and end up in entirely different worlds. And as an educator, that’s what I think about. How many kiddos did I not interrupt that needed it so badly that may have ended up in the wrong environment, surrounded by the wrong people, making the wrong choices, and I could have been that interruption to take them off the path they were on and put them on a path to success.”
  • Developing Agency: “We talk about getting them the academic rigor or experience so they’re skilled up—giving them those opportunities—and the most important is helping them develop agency, knowing it’s my choice to take the next step. It’s my choice to take ownership of this learning. It’s my choice to start to define it. It goes from compliance to engagement to empowerment. That’s what I think student agency is: that empowerment, where they’re starting to decide the trajectory of their learning journey.”
  • You’re Going to Be Proud: If Jonathan could go back in time, he says, “I’d tell my younger self, younger Jonathan, you’re going to be so proud of who you are that you’re going to want to help other people get there, too.”
  • A Plan for Empowering Students: The entire process is wrapped with the idea of building relationships. From there, we should ask, “What is it that I want my students to learn? What skills do they need to deliver on that learning? What strategy can I leverage that will help them practice that skill so that, eventually, they can deliver on that learning?”
  • Reflection Strategy: Jonathan says, “Learning happens in the reflection, so . . . it’s essential that we ourselves, and we also equip our students with the ability to, reflect intentionally.” The 3–2–1 strategy is one approach to use. It includes 3 high-fives (what you do well), 2 whispers (what to become aware of in order to navigate obstacles and barriers in the future), and 1 future (”Is what I’m doing today contributing to who I want to become tomorrow?”).

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What teachers have positively impacted your life?
  • What are the potential causes of poor student classroom behavior?
  • What stories of student trauma have you heard?
  • How can you support students who exhibit negative classroom behaviors?
  • In what ways can you develop a system of support for all students?
  • How can you activate your students’ possibilities?
  • What action steps will you take to support the students you serve?