Dr. Adolph Brown has achieved the kind of success most people only dream of. He’s one of the most sought-after education speakers in the country (if you attended the 2016 ATPE Summit, you’re likely still talking about his energetic and inspiring keynote address). He has multiple advanced degrees, and at age 29, he became the youngest tenured full professor in the country.
But if you ask him about his successes, the first thing he’ll tell you about is his failures. Brown was raised by a single mother and grew up in an inner-city housing project. As a child, he never thought he would graduate from high school, much less become the first person in his family to graduate from college. He is quick to emphasize that his success is a direct result of the challenges he faced as a child, and the freedom he felt to fail over and over again before he found the path that was right for him.
Now, Brown has dedicated his life to helping students and teachers find their own paths. His research focuses on childhood trauma and the importance of positive relationships between educators and students.
ATPE talked to Dr. Brown about his research and his advice to educators for the upcoming school year.
Can you share a little about your background and what motivated you to go into the education field?
My mom and dad divorced when I was two. We had a family of five and a one-income household, so we moved to the inner-city projects. My saving grace was the fact that my grandfather stepped in when my father stepped out.
I grew up in an environment where there were murders, drugs, and gangs. I grew up in Virginia, seven miles from the ocean front, but I didn’t see the ocean until I was a late teenager. Parents and guardians didn’t want kids to venture too far out because they weren’t sure we would be welcome in certain areas.
My oldest sibling and only brother was murdered when I was 11, and that was a trying time for me. I’ve always loved learning, but there was a point when school was pretty tough for me because of the background noise. So, enter a village of caring and high-performing educators, teachers, and administrators who took me under their wing. Everyone in my family was an advocate of education. My teachers knew that there was more to me being a good student than just showing up to school. They knew that I came from a home and homes sometimes have issues.
My grandfather only had a third-grade farm school education, where all the grade levels were taught in one room. He told me that he wanted me to be better than him. That stuck with me because of course at that age I didn’t think anyone could be better than my grandfather. I didn’t appreciate that comment from him. But as I grew older, I understood exactly what he meant.
Did you have any teachers who really inspired and motivated you?
In third grade, we had a new teacher. It was her first year teaching, and I thought she was as different from me as night and day. She comes in. She’s dressed well and everyone sees that. And she smells great, so we think she’s rich, and we’re poor. She’s white, and we’re black and brown. She’s Jewish, and I’m a Christian.
Despite our differences, she met us where we were. Because of her expectations, we achieved more in her class. The biggest thing that stuck with me is when she said, “If you come here, if you get to school, then you best believe you’re going to be safe.” It was almost as if she knew what many of us went through to get there.
She said, “I’m going to be here for you. I’m going to push you. I’m going to challenge you. But you’ve got to come to school.” That was the light switch for me in education. I think I was on a decent path, but how productive of a path can you be on if it lacks a formal education?
She told the teachers who came after her that I was a diamond in the rough—that I was a good kid, smart—even though I had one leg in gifted education and one leg in alternative education. I decided that maybe I wanted to continue with my education, though I didn’t know how. No one in my family had graduated high school before.
That teacher’s name was Susan Tolley. She’s now a retired administrator, and we work together.
You eventually became a teacher yourself. Can you talk a little about that journey?
I wound up going to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. I studied psychology and anthropology. I thought I wanted to get into education, but there were some other issues on my mind, popping back up, and those were why I behaved the way I did. I didn’t immediately want to help people before I helped myself. And that’s the crux of my message today: Reflective educators are effective educators.
I got a master’s degree with a concentration in effective classroom management and differentiated teaching strategies and then went on to get a doctorate in clinical psychology. I wanted to teach, and my instructors told me I would make a good professor. I was a graduate assistant and would teach for them sometimes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach young adults, though. I wanted to help people like Mrs. Tolley helped me.
I became a middle school science teacher and, eventually, a general education special ed teacher. I loved it, but I saw educators who loved teaching and loved students get bombarded by so many different things. Simple relationships took a back burner. They were forgetting that if a child knew you believed in them, that child would run through a wall for you. And if they didn’t, they put up a wall against you.
I eventually got a tenure track position at Hampton University, where I became the head of the psychology education department and eventually the dean. I was 29 at the time, and I became the youngest tenured full professor in our country.
It’s really impressive that you’ve been able to achieve so much despite facing so many obstacles in your early years.
I think it’s important to note that I’m successful because I’ve failed so much. That often gets left out of the story, but it’s the most important part.
It used to be OK to fail in school, to have failures. But enter high-stakes testing and all of the sudden, school isn’t as safe to fail in anymore.
I also had teachers who made me believe that I could do anything. I still believe that made the difference for me.
What inspires you now?
My wife and I have a 17-year-old daughter who has hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy. It’s been by far the best educational experience I could have obtained. Being Dana’s dad is what education really is. My wife’s a biologist, so people will sometimes tell us our children are fortunate to have parents who are educators. But Dana didn’t need us, we needed Dana. She’s taught our family so much.
Growing up in today’s world, it would be easy to have seven children with a huge sense of entitlement. Dana’s siblings look out for her. They go into a movie and the first thing they do is look to see where their sister’s going to sit and how she’s going to get there, and they make sure there’s accessibility for a wheelchair. Their compassion has broadened my eyes in regard to people with disabilities in America and how we should stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves in that arena as well.
You’ve worked alongside Colin Powell at America’s Promise Alliance to help improve outcomes for all children in this country. How did you get involved with America’s Promise?
William Harvey, the president of Hampton University and my mentor, was friends with retired General Colin Powell, and that’s how I heard about the opportunity to become youth co-chair of America’s Promise Alliance.
It was difficult for me because I’m an introvert. I just don’t get my energy from people. And then I go to America’s Promise, and I was “voluntold” to participate by Dr. Harvey. He told me that this was an opportunity that I couldn’t afford to turn down.
It was from that point on that my impact became greater. It’s more challenging than anything I’ve ever done, but it’s worth it. My work with America’s Promise is what led to my becoming a corporate and education speaker on leading and learning issues. I love sharing my research. My grandfather used to tell me that true intelligence was being able to talk to everyone. He would say, “You don’t measure anybody.”
Activism to me was being an advocate at the national level, and I’m a part of that now. I just wanted to send the elevator back to the people who weren’t able to ride it with me.
What are you working on now?
In my spare time, I research how to address the impact of childhood trauma on learning because that is the kind of child I was.
When I’m not traveling, I’m writing. I just finished a book called Two Backpacks, which is about trauma-informed relationship building. We all have a backpack that we see, and we all have a second backpack that’s part of our story, too. Some of us have friends of 20 or 30 years that still don’t know everything there is to know about us. Because they’re things that we’re not comfortable sharing—they’re traumas, they’re hurts. The end goal of unpacking our second backpack is pretty much the same for everyone. There’s a little laughter, maybe some tears, but there has to be a whole lot of forgiveness. That book is out now.
I’m also working on a tribute to my mother that’s called “Being a Father Like My Mother Was.” I’ve been working on this for years. I’ve been interviewing my mom and learning more about what she went through to make sure we made it. It’s a pretty big undertaking.
What’s the most important thing you think teachers should keep in mind going into the new school year?
Burnout comes when we feel lonely, like we’re doing it ourselves. If we all got in a circle and threw our problems in the middle, and you found out what other people are going through, you’d want your problems back. You’d realize you’re not the only one going through things. The more we talk, come together, have learning communities, the more strength we have.
Teachers also need to remember the importance of relationship building. Kids need you to know their story. That will help you relate to them. You don’t have to use a specific strategy or technique. Learning may be on the student’s hands, but we don’t realize how much of it is in the teacher’s eyes. What they see is often what you get. If you see all of me as opposed to pieces of me, our relationship and that experience is likely to be greater. Students aren’t the only ones with these second backpacks. We all have them.
Here in Texas, we’ve had a tough legislative session, and it’s not over yet. What advice do you have for teachers like ours, who keep fighting the same battles and often feel like they’re getting nowhere?
I live about three hours from DC, and I am a huge advocate for public education. Education is one of the few areas that people consider themselves experts in by virtue of having been a student. It doesn’t happen in any other profession. People who have had a surgical procedure do not attempt to operate on me. If I’ve gone to court, I don’t try to represent people. That’s one of the battles that we face. Often the people deciding what goes on in our schools and classrooms really have no idea.
There is strength in numbers. Keep fighting the good fight. My grandfather would say, “You know what’s right.” Not everyone has that same ideology, but we know what’s right, and we know what helps children. We know the power of public education, and in knowing it, we have to fight.
Is it tiring? Of course. It’s going to be hard. But as it gets harder, we get smarter. Fight that fight. Stand up for students. Keep the morale in your classroom up. Make sure you’re bringing your best every day. I have yet to be a part of anything worthwhile that wasn’t tough.
Texas is my second home. I’ve seen some of the best educators in the country in Texas. My heart goes out to you for all that you deal with there.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our members?
Take advantage of everything your association offers. ATPE does a great job of bringing people together and providing professional development opportunities. Sometimes we cloak things as professional development, but they’re a great opportunity for us to see people we haven’t seen in a while. I can bounce things off others, and they can do the same. Teachers need to not only be an advocate for public education, but for the organizations that support public education as well.
"Watch Dr. Adolph Brown's 2016 ATPE Summit keynote address on the ATPE Professional Learning Portal."