Seward County Community College English instructor Sharon Brockmann has a soft spot for students who struggle to succeed in college. She’s been there.
“I’m an English teacher who didn’t plan to be one,” she said. Originally a science major at Texas A&M, Brockmann watched her life take an unplanned detour her junior year.
“I got mono, and I was so sick I was failing everything,” she recalled. “This was before (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – the federal law that prevents second-party access to a student’s academic records), so my mother found out when she called the university. She moved me back home and asked the registrar to help her choose a program that would enable me to graduate from college in just one more year.”
Though Brockmann shakes her head wryly at the memory, she appreciates the awareness that grew from life’s interruption of her educational plans. That ability to identify with students who are making the best of tough situations is one reason Brockmann was nominated for the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development award in 2019.
“Sharon genuinely cares about her students,” wrote her nominator. “Before moving to a full-time teaching position … she had many fans in the Writing Center.”
Brockmann’s ability to connect dates back to her first teaching post at a south Texas public district comprised of plantation land from the slavery era. Amid a predominantly Black student population, Brockmann stood out, she recalls with a slight laugh, but the experience moved and inspired her.
Later, Brockmann worked part-time in adult education settings. At one job, she was struck by the determination and wisdom of retired migrant workers.
“These were people in their late 60s, and they were fascinating, interesting people who knew things completely unfamiliar to me,” she said. “It was a light bulb moment for me to realize that education is not all there is to life. These people had a wealth of knowledge.”
When Brockmann arrived at SCCC, she started part-time work at TRiO, the federally-funded program, which offers support to predominately first generation students (parents who did not graduate from a four-year institution).
“These students are smart, but they might not have the non-cognitive skills they need,” Brockmann noted. “We might lump it in with a term like ‘persistence,’ but it’s also a whole set of behaviors that go into learning how to learn, from attendance to knowing how to ask for help. Parents cannot teach us what they don’t know, and that should not be a source of shame.”
The best thing that happened to Brockmann this week? “I have a second-time-around student in one of my classes,” she said. “This person got a late start, had some health issues, didn’t have money to buy the book, and showed up today. Just being there was a huge accomplishment. That made my day.”
Brockmann eventually shifted to the college’s Writing Center, before transitioning to the English department. Her eyes light up when she talks about the “Plus Model” classes that blend developmental composition skills with the full-credit English Comp I content.
“It’s something that’s really exciting,” she said. Rather than taking a remedial approach, Plus Model classes focus on skills that strengthen a student’s approach to learning while guiding them through the traditional curriculum. Make no mistake: Brockmann’s students are not being spoon-fed.
“I believe in having very high expectations and giving people the tools to reach those expectations,” she said. “I try to inspire students to work. All students should be challenged to grow, wherever they begin, whatever skills they bring with them. It’s that whole idea of equity.”
As proof, Brockmann points to a former student who she met years later at a conference; the once-struggling student was in the process of earning a doctorate degree.
“For years, there was this silent assumption in education that students coming in with low skills are never going to become phenomenal,” she said. “But I look at our students, and I see the leaders of the future. They might find the cure for the next COVID.”