Thabiti Brown walks through the halls in the Codman Academy Charter School with confidence.
An air of assuredness might be expected from someone recently named one of America's best teachers, but it's clear that Brown draws his inspiration from a different source. "He's definitely real," says Noble Williams, a senior who has known Brown for four years. "He cares a lot about his students, and he doesn't try to make them like him."
On Friday October 28, Brown received an award from the Milken Family Foundation of California. The award seeks to recognize the "100 best teachers in America" and carries a $25,000 prize. Milken Foundation founder Lowell Milken presented Brown with the award in a surprise ceremony before the school's staff and student body, previous Milken awardees, and dignitaries such as Governor Mitt Romney and Massachusetts Education Commissioner David Driscoll.
"[Comedian] Robert Townsend emceed the ceremony, and he did a bit about how great being a teacher is, and then Mr. Milken stood up and started speaking," said Brown, recalling his surprise during what he had been told was to be a walk through of the school by governor Romney. "That's when I realized this wasn't what they said it was going to be. The next thing I know they pulled out a check, and my name was on it. I had no idea what to do with myself."
That euphoria hasn't worn off, and Brown says he has only begun to consider what he will do with the money, which he will actually receive at a Banquet held in Washington D.C. in May to honor all 100 of this year's recipients.
While he's eager to put some of those funds toward the school and possibly a personal trip to Egypt, non-monetary motives make him most excited for the banquet.
"I think a certain level of prestige and leverage comes with this award, and I can't wait to speak at the banquet in front of senators and a national audience. I have a lot to say about how education needs to change."
Brown's commitment to education is both professional and personal. The son of Panamanian immigrants, Brown grew up in Brooklyn. He credits the education he received at a prestigious public high school in Manhattan and the support of his parents with preparing him for four years of studies at Brown University.
"Brown [University] has a great focus on the art of education, and I really felt drawn to that," said Brown. "I saw lots of my classmates making different choices about their future, but my own goals and the support of my parents pointed me toward education."
After graduating from Brown with an interdisciplinary degree in American Studies, Brown headed back to New York City to pursue a master's degree in education from Columbia University's Teacher's College. He then followed his roots back to Panama, where for two years he was an instructor at the country's International School.
"I was teaching very wealthy children, and while it was great to influence kids who will one day be running that country, I realized that's not why I got into education."
After returning to the United States, Brown followed his heart, professionally and personally speaking, to Boston. He settled in Cambridge, where his high school sweetheart and future wife was studying at Harvard's school of education. In 2001 Brown applied to teach at a fledgling charter school under the direction of Meg Campbell, Codman Square Health Center CEO Bill Walczak, and educational consultant George Brackett.
"I was impressed by the school's small and innovative nature, and I like the idea of a charter," explained Brown. "Whatever we dream, if we can find the funding, we can do it."
Five school years have passed since Campbell, head of Codman Academy, hired Brown to be the new school's humanities teacher. After watching the school's first class of 34 students graduate last May, Brown was named academic dean at a school that now has 17 faculty members and 110 students in grades 9-12.
"Thabiti has made his work as dean an outgrowth of the role he already served as mentor to our students and interns," said Campbell. "He is an extremely inspiring person to be around. He expects a lot from himself, and has a natural ability to influence others to do the same.
Senior Marlon Thompson agreed.
"He has high expectations. He pulled me aside and told me I need to be a leader around here, and I've tried every day to do just that."
That knack for inspiration is at the heart of Brown's passion for teaching, and Thompson believes, made him a perfect choice for the Milken award.
"We're doing some crazy things around here, but innovation and a certain level of craziness go hand in hand," Brown said. "I think that's crucial as we develop a sustainable model for educating our students."