Nurturing teachers’ quests

101 Houston-area educators were awarded $344,000 this year to pursue studies that will enrich their ability to reach students.

Jennifer Radcliffe
Houston Chronicle

Naomi Brown had a sick feeling as she pulled away from the car dealership in March. Just two months after watching her husband of nearly 30 years lose his battle with lung and brain cancer, she parted with his beloved Ford Expedition and decided on its replacement.

A 55-year-old teacher on a tight budget, Brown settled on a used Toyota Prius. She already was second guessing the choice as she pulled into the driveway of her Sugar Land home, where, for some reason, she opted to brave the mailbox for the first time in two weeks.

On top of the pile of hefty medical bills that she’d been trying to ignore was an envelope, marked with a bright red apple, from the Fund for Teachers.

The letter inside congratulated Brown for earning a $5,000 scholarship to spend part of the summer watching hummingbirds migrate through southeastern Arizona. That was enough to reassure the veteran teacher that she had made the right decision – about the car, about her career, about forging forward with life.

“It was a redemption moment, truly” said Brown, who teaches science at Baines Middle School in the Fort Bend district. “It sort of proved to me that I’m doing exactly what I’m suppose to be doing at this moment.”

Brown was one of 101 Houston-area teachers to receive a share of $344,000 in grants this year from Fund for Teachers, a non-profit group that provides money for teachers to hone their craft through professional development.

Since 2001, the group has awarded $8.4 million to 2,571 teachers.

This summer, for instance, a teacher at the Houston school district’s Rodriguez Elementary studied art in Italy. Also in HISD, two Worsham Elementary teachers studied dolphins in Greece, and a Jackson Middle School teacher studied natural resources in Alaska.

They were among a record 500 Houston-area teachers to apply for the money.

“The reason we do it is because there’s so many Naomis,” said Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of the Fund for Teachers. “If they’re given just a little bit of leverage, they can do much better than teaching to a test.”

While all the award winners returned to their campuses last month with renewed energy, the trip to Arizona had incredible meaning to Brown.

Her 73-year-old husband, Garland, encouraged her to apply for the grant from his death-bed, sensing that she would need something to look forward to. He died in January. By the time her notification letter arrived in March, the recent widow had forgotten about the application.

Brown was almost giddy the day she learned she had won.

She was equally happy early this month as she told a class of seventh and eighth graders about her three week trip.

She proudly showed off dozens of photos of colored birds, rare insects and unusual flowers.

“In nature, most of the males are the colorful ones; not the females,” she explained as she showed a picture of a broad-billed hummingbird.

She told the class how she saw thousands of hummingbirds, helped tag a few birds and even caught a glimpse of two rare spotted owls.

To stretch her grant money, she slept in affordable motels, where she, unfortunately, had more chances to commune with nature.

“I had a whole food web in my bed one night,” she said, recalling the bugs and lizards in her room. “All I needed was a hawk. I needed a top-level consumer in my cabin. That would have straightened things out.”

Brown will use her experience to help her students build a hummingbird nature center on the Baines campus. They also will create a Web site to post pictures and information about hummingbird migration.

The middle-schoolers said they appreciate their teacher’s resilience and dedication.

“After her husband died, she could have quit right there,” said 13-year-old Kristie DePuma. “I hate bugs, but I like learning about hummingbirds.”

Brown said she wanted to teach science since she had a passionate, skilled science teacher as a little girl. She’s fascinated by trying to make sense of the world around her, especially plants and animals.

She was grateful to have the chance to take the Arizona trip – to momentarily escape her grief and refocus on her passion to teach.

“For most of the world, scholarships go to kids like you, not old people like me,” she told her class.

Brown won’t forget this summer’s lessons anytime soon.

“It reminds me that what I do is valued. While it might not seem like it on a daily basis, there are people committed to helping teachers,” she said. “That’s something to remember when you’re pulling your hair out with the TAKS.”