Brandon Thornton ’11, M.S. ’16, was recently named as a Regional Teacher of the Year by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Ten Regional Teachers of the Year were selected by a committee of administrators, teachers, educational service personnel, student support personnel, and past Illinois Teachers of the Year from 102 nominations across the state. Thornton teaches special education at Bloomington High School and is currently pursuing his doctorate in special education at Illinois State. He was also recognized as a College of Education Outstanding Young Alumni for 2020.

We caught up with this excellent educator to find out more about his journey from math teacher to a career in special education, and to hear more about his teaching and this prestigious honor.

What do you teach?
I student taught at Bloomington High School and never left. I taught math for my first eight years, and this is my second year in special education. I decided to go back to ISU in 2013 to get certified in special education just so I could get the background of what special educators know, which is how to reach kids. I had no plans to move into special education, I just wanted to be able to take what I learned and apply this for students in my own math classroom.

However, an opening became available, and I reached out to the principal to see if I should apply. I felt like this was fate, and it made sense for me to transition into a full time special education teacher role to apply what I learned. Once I got the position, I thought I was going to be teaching special education math, but I ended up transitioning to teach special education English. I thought it would be vastly different, and it is, but it’s all about reaching kids. I coach speech and debate as well, so there is some crossover there, but I have been able to apply a lot of what I learned teaching math to this new role.

Throughout my career, I’ve learned that teachers can do anything, especially special education teachers. When I first started teaching special education, I felt like kind of an imposter since I didn’t have that undergraduate degree with a student-teaching experience. I just had the master’s degree, but the transition has actually been pretty smooth. My approach in teaching has always been that I’m there to teach the kids themselves. For instance, I try to not just teach the quadratic formula, but empower the kids to learn the quadratic formula. When I keep that focus, I think I can help kids see that they can learn these complicated subjects with a little bit of push and praise.

What inspired you to become a teacher?
I loved being at school and loved my teachers. My mom owned a preschool, so I was always around kids even once I got home from school. I always knew it was in my future. High school is when it was really drilled into me that I could teach. My teachers were always putting me in a position to do some teaching, whether it was answering questions on the blackboard or staying after school with a teacher and helping get some students caught up. This happened to me, especially in English and math classrooms. In English we would have to create a project and get up and present, and I really liked doing that and the way it made me feel, so I decided I wanted to do that for other kids. I came to ISU because most of my favorite teachers went to ISU.

What do you enjoy about teaching?
I love that you don’t forget your teachers. I like that I have a huge responsibility to affect a student’s future. That was really scary when I was 21, but now that I have been teaching for a while, I embrace that and I like that I can make something happen for students when they need something either inside or outside of school. I didn’t see all of what others did for me when I was in school, but now I love being the person that can make someone’s day and even their life. These things outside the normal classroom are what I will remember once I retire.

What have you learned about yourself throughout your career?
I have learned that I am definitely where I am supposed to be. I had a lot of doubt during my undergraduate years, just being the only black person in my major, and a lot of doubt in my first years of teaching, just wondering if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Initially, I had aspirations to teach abroad. I had been able to experience teaching in several countries as an undergraduate and was also accepted into the Peace Corps, so I thought I needed to go to another country to teach kids that needed it the most. Teaching abroad is still an ultimate dream, but once I started at BHS, I have been able to see that there are kids locally that need that support. I have a purpose right here and I know this is where I’m supposed to be.

Are there any specific experiences you’ve had that stand out during your time teaching?
Most recently I was having a random conversation with a Black, male student who told me that I wasn’t really Black. So I asked him what he meant. He said that I wasn’t a gang banger, hadn’t been in jail, didn’t have a record, etc. First it made me mad, and then it made me sad that he equated Blackness with those things. I also reflected on my role as a teacher, and how I want to shift that narrative and unravel those negative stereotypes. I want kids to be seen and I want them to see that they can become a college student, or become a teacher someday, even if it’s something they may not have previously seen in themselves.

Describe the process for receiving this award.
Every district nominates one person, and our superintendent, Dr. Barry Reilly, let me know they would like to nominate me. I had to complete an application, which included one letter of recommendation from a parent, one from a colleague, one from my principal, and one from another administrator. Then I had to respond to four essays. When I found out I received the regional award just a few weeks ago, it was a total surprise. I got an email from my principal at 3:30 p.m. that he needed me to join in on a meeting with the Regional Office of Education about engaging kids through Zoom. Once the Zoom meeting started, they let me know the real reason for the meeting and congratulated me for being named the Regional Teacher of the Year. I was totally shocked. I couldn’t tell anyone for a long time until they sent out the official press release, and then I could finally let my friends and family know. Basically, all the 10 finalists all got tricked into a meeting where ISBE informed us.

What does being recognized for this award mean to you?
People kept telling me what winning the statewide Teacher of the Year would mean to me. They say it would change my life forever. Even though I didn’t win for the entire state, I already feel changed by receiving the Regional Teacher of the Year. I feel more purpose and more urgency that people in my district thought enough of me to nominate me. Now that I’ve been named Regional Teacher of the Year, I need to make sure that I am continuing to do things to deserve that. It means a lot to me as a black male educator, to have my students see that going to college, or becoming a teacher is a viable option for them. Those are the things that keep me inspired to teach.

Do you have any final words you would like to include?
I love ISU so much. Being able to stay involved with the campus has been really meaningful for me.  I would encourage any alumni to try to figure out a way to get involved with their former department or college. It’s made a big difference for me. I have all these cheerleaders on campus that help support me every day.