Spotlight: Brian Allman (WV '19)January 30, 2020
Brian Allman (WV ’19) spends a lot of time talking with his sixth graders about their interests outside of school. “I am genuinely interested in their lives, but I’m also looking for ways to work it into a social studies lesson,” he says. “They have to be able to connect to the material.” Brian won his Milken Award at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School (BUMS) on November 7, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: The projects and simulations in your classroom bring history to life for your students. Why is hands-on learning important when it comes to understanding history?
Brian Allman (WV ’19): Students learn in so many different ways. It would be detrimental for me as the teacher to assume that they can all learn in one uniform way.
Hands-on assignments bring history alive. Reading about an assembly line is fine, but it isn’t going to have the same academic impact as actually setting one up in the classroom and revolving my lesson around it. Looking at a diagram of a trench is okay, but it’s not the same as re-enacting trench warfare in the classroom. Students learn best when the content is fun and presented to them in a relatable way. If I’m excited about it, they are more likely to be excited about it as well.
I’m constantly talking to students about their interests. I do that because I am genuinely interested in their lives, but I’m also doing it because I want to try to figure out a way to work it into a social studies lesson. They have to be able to connect to the material. Projects and simulations make concepts more concrete and, in my opinion, easier to learn and remember.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Brian: I definitely didn’t take a direct path to being a teacher. Education is something that has always been important to me. I’m so thankful for having parents and grandparents who valued education and set me up for future success before I even started school. I knew that education was important and I also knew that it was something that could never be taken away from me.
I’ve always known that I want to work with people and I’ve always had a passion for history. I actually went to college with the intention of entering the medical field. I took the required courses and did well in them. But I felt like something was missing. I knew that my heart wasn’t in it. At the time it was a difficult decision, but I changed my major to education. It ended up being the best decision I ever made. The rest is history.
MFF: How was your first year?
Brian: It was a whirlwind. I actually got hired one day before the start of the school year in Upshur County. In hindsight, it is hard to imagine how I did it. I’ve grown so much as an educator since then.
Before that, I had actually completed my student teaching and subbed extensively at BUMS. So it was much easier than if I had been walking into a building where I wasn’t familiar. I already knew the staff and understood the culture and climate. I was so excited! If I had been able to pick my dream job coming out of college it would have been sixth grade social studies. I was lucky enough to fall into it.
My interdisciplinary team and my coworkers were great. They assisted me in any way possible. I faced challenges just like every other first year teacher, but there was always someone there to help me through it. I will never forget my first group of students. We had so much fun learning together that year.
MFF: What do you like about middle school students?
Brian: Middle school students are the best! There is no other time in life like it. Every day is a new adventure. There is so much going on in their world at this age. They are growing in every possible way—physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. We’ve all been there and I personally don’t forget the trials and tribulations of being that age. Deep down these are kids that are trying to figure out who they are and how they can navigate this crazy thing we call life.
Middle schoolers crave positive reinforcement and guidance, even if they won’t admit it. I’m one of the first male teachers many of my students have ever had. Being a consistent and supportive role model is the one part of my job that I take the most pride in doing. I’ve also found that if you take the time to make a sincere connection with the student they will work to their absolute best ability to try to please you.
MFF: Sixth grade can be a time of tremendous change in students’ lives. What differences do you see in your students from the beginning of each year to the end?
Brian: Sixth grade is an enormous transition year for my students. In fact, there are very few transitions in life that carry the weight of the one students bring to middle school on their first day. It’s a monumental change—and some students are more equipped to handle it than others.
As a sixth grade teacher at the only middle school in my county, I get students from seven different schools. Many of these students are coming from very tiny elementary schools, and now they find themselves at the second largest middle school in West Virginia. That can be overwhelming.
I’ve really embraced being on the front lines of this transition. It is a huge change, but my students need someone who is going to be there to help them through those challenges. They enter sixth grade with reservation, but over time they find their footing.
There are many challenges facing our students, but middle school is a time of change and incredible growth in so many ways. Being able to play a part in my students’ lives at such a critical juncture isn’t something that I take lightly. They’re not ready to take on the world independently by the time sixth grade ends, of course, but they’ve taken steps towards growing up. Self-confidence comes in waves at the middle school level, but it is usually higher at the end of the year than the beginning.
All of my students are special in their own way. So often in middle school, students try hard to fit a mold. I really try to show students that there is no mold. There is only one of them, and that is enough. Who they are is perfect and they don’t need to change it. They need to embrace it.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Brian: I was blessed with incredible teachers growing up. I’m very proud to be a product of public education in West Virginia. Winning the Milken Award actually inspired me to reach out to a dozen of my former teachers and mentors. I wrote each of them a personal thank you letter. This is an incredible honor, but I also know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the fantastic teachers who got me here. I may be the recipient of this Award, but it is just as much theirs as it is mine. I’ve also been given the opportunity to mentor two of the best beginning teachers I’ve ever met as well as work with many future teachers from West Virginia Wesleyan College. These young educators keep me current in educational practice.
I’ve also got wonderful coworkers. My girlfriend of many years, Marisa Meadows, works here and I see the amazing job she does every day with some of our most challenging students. It was awesome being able to have her there on the day of my notification. She motivates and inspires me on a daily basis. I also have the honor of working across the hall from my teaching mentor, Carol Shenuski. She has been in education for 47 years. I’ve been picking her brain since I got hired. I’m also fortunate enough to work with an interdisciplinary team at my school. The women I work with are amazing and help me be the best teacher possible on a daily basis. It is a model that is incredibly beneficial to students and teachers alike.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Brian: It’s a day I will definitely never forget. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m not easily surprised. We had known for weeks that we were going to have important guests in our building, but I never dreamed it was going to be an assembly for me.
It’s obviously an incredible honor and a career-defining moment. I’m still processing the magnitude of this award. I love my job and I try my absolute best at everything I do because that is what my students deserve. That being said, there are so many good teachers at BUMS, in Upshur County, and all across West Virginia. This could have gone to any of them and it would have been rightfully earned.
I didn’t enter the field of education for the recognition, but it does feel nice knowing that other people pay attention and realize what you are trying to accomplish.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Brian: Their response has been nothing short of amazing. The number of high-fives, fist bumps and hugs I received that day solidified that I have chosen the right path in life. Middle school students aren’t the most forthcoming with their praise, but they made sure to show me, in both words and actions, how excited they were for me. My students are still talking about my Award. I hope they see that education opens doors and it might be them standing up there one day.
Many of my former students have also reached out. My very first group of sixth graders are seniors in college this year. The fact that my students still want to talk to me and have some sort of a relationship after so many years tells me that I must be doing something right.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000?
Brian: I’m not completely sure. My students have already figured out a thousand different ways for me to spend it, but I envision myself using at least part of the Award to give back to the field of education in some way. I definitely have a desire to eventually pursue a doctorate degree in our field. While there isn’t any set timetable for that to happen, this Award will make it more attainable. Investing in my own education will inevitably trickle down to all of my future students. Education truly is a gift that keeps on giving.
My girlfriend and I also love to travel, so I can see myself using some of the money for that as well. As a social studies teacher who currently teaches U.S. history, I feel like I can more effectively teach about certain topics if I have visited the locations in real life. You gain a sense of appreciation by being there and learning about it in person. I feel like I’m in a better position to instruct students about it in a meaningful way, since many of them may never get the opportunity to see it themselves.
There are also a million practical ways I could use the money. Those continue to float through my mind as well. This is a life-changing amount of money for a teacher in West Virginia. I want to make sure I use it in a way that is going to pay dividends for years and years to come.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Brian: I think success means something different to every person. In the classroom, I know there are some students who may achieve at a certain level and I would celebrate their monumental accomplishments. There could be other students at that same level in which I facilitate a conversation about working to their fullest potential.
All students, or people of any age for that matter, are different. I think it’s critically important to take the time to get to know students on a personal level so that I can best meet their academic, social and emotional needs. Everyone is good at something and it is important as an educator to figure out what that may be for every student in your classroom.
I think it is also important for my students to see that I don’t excel at everything and that I make mistakes just like they do. Modeling is an important practice and I want my students to see the work that goes into setting and achieving goals. You can’t always win the race initially, but you have to celebrate the accomplishments until you get to the point where you can.
Growth is a very important term when analyzing success in an educational setting. If there’s improvement and you are making steady progress towards a goal then you are heading in the right direction, be it as a student or a teacher. I have high expectations in my classroom and I do try to set a high bar for myself and for my students. I’m a firm believer that you need to practice what you preach. I sum up all of my classroom expectations by asking students to give me the best version of themselves each and every time they step foot in my classroom. I hold myself to that same standard and I’m confident that my students see that.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Brian: As much as I love social studies, more than anything I hope that students realize that my classroom is a safe and loving place for them. It’s a place where they are free to be themselves at what can be a tumultuous time in their lives. My students aren’t going to remember every single lesson they did in sixth grade social studies, but they will remember how they felt while they were there.
I also hope my students see a positive male role model and teacher who is there for them and will continue to be there for them long after they walk out of my classroom for the last time. A lot of work goes into building positive and lasting relationships with students. Those relationships shouldn’t end just because the students no longer sit in my classroom on a daily basis. I hope that my students realize that it was okay to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s the only way that we grow in life.
Social studies sometimes gets unfairly labeled as a dry subject. There isn’t anything more fun! I hope I present information in a way that sparks an interest. Not all students are going to be passionate about social studies, but all of my students need to be productive citizens for the rest of their lives. From an academic standpoint, I hope that my students realize how important it is to be engaged in the world around them. I also want them to realize how important it is to reflect on our past in order to maximize our potential as a society in the future. Social studies education is more important than ever because it’s a critical component of any successful democracy.
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