Save for the big stack of papers and coffee mug in his hands, Ryan Brown blends right in as he hurries down the locker-lined hallways of Hoffman Estates High School.
Dozens of students wave or say hello when they pass the lively 35-year-old English teacher, who on a recent morning was sporting a bow-tie, green pants and some stylish shoes. He flashes a smile and waves, occasionally stopping to talk before the bell rings.
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It's clear Brown is wildly popular with the students. But it's his impact on their success in and out of the classroom that has earned him recognition by the Daily Herald as one of The Suburbs' Top Teachers, a new distinction awarded to outstanding suburban teachers.
Senior Cheri Wilson called Brown not only a teacher, "but a friend, a role model and a parent to all the students at H.E.H.S." in an email nominating him.
"I have never had a teacher so involved in making high school a great experience for every student, even the ones he doesn't have in class," she wrote. "He guides each student to their own success."
Students and colleagues alike describe Brown as a dedicated teacher who constantly pushes students to be their best.
"He's demanding, but compassionate, in just about everything he does," said English Department Chairman Bob Coakley. "He has very high standards, but if you don't achieve those standards on that first try he's going to … keep working with you and keep demanding excellence and give you opportunities to do it over without penalty."
Last Wednesday, reviewing passages from "Lord of the Flies" was on the agenda for Brown's freshmen English class, but he started the day as he always does, by asking the students to rank, from 1 to 10, "their attitude for the day and propensity to learn." Luckily, they all were in a good mood.
Then, he brought up a paper they had to write about challenges they face. To put things in perspective, he read their responses for a previous assignment about what they were thankful for.
There were plenty of things you would expect a teenager to say, from music and clothes to family and friends. Others, like teachers and guidance counselors, were a bit more surprising.
And then there were the answers that remind Brown why he enjoys working with kids -- like the little things that are done for them, knowing that they're loved and the ability to make mistakes and keep going.
"I want to make sure that you're always, always, always focused on those things because those are the important things," he said to the attentive class.
Brown said he wants his students to make positive changes in themselves and the world around them, and lets them know he thinks of them as more than just a grade.
"I make sure that each of my kids knows that I care about each one of them individually," he said. "I make it a point to speak to each student every day. It sounds easy to do but it is also very easy to just get caught up in your lessons and in the things that you're doing."
Brown drives home that actions today will affect their lives later. He ends every class with, "Have a nice day, and make good choices."
Brown says his drive to be a great teacher stems from his own student experience at Hoffman Estates High School. Prior to graduating in 1995, Brown was focused on becoming a doctor. But a long line of teachers in his family, and a class with now-retired English teacher Kathy Wandro his senior year, worked against what Brown thought was his calling.
"She had a lot of passion for what she was doing and she looked like she was having fun," he said of Wandro, who eventually became his colleague. "That's when I started to re-evaluate what I was going to do with the rest of my life."
Once he knew he wanted to pursue education, Brown was determined to come back to his alma mater one day.
"This is my dream job," he said. "I usually don't even call it work, I just call it school."
That attitude is noticed by students such as senior Joseph Fumagalli, who knows Brown through Student Council, one of the many extracurricular activities he sponsors.
"I don't even see him as, like, a teacher," Fumagalli said. "The relationship has grown kind of like he's our friend. He's like a high schooler at heart."
After graduating from Ball State University, Brown returned to the suburbs and was a substitute teacher at Conant High School. After a few months, he applied for an open position at the school, but was turned down. Brown had never considered teaching elementary students, but he needed a job, so he went to work as a sixth-grade reading teacher at Carpentersville Middle School.
"It was great that I didn't get that job at Conant because I learned so much about teaching and life in general (from the middle school)," he said.
When Brown was hired at Hoffman Estates High School in 2003, he told the principal he really wanted to work with freshman and seniors, which he does by teaching an Advanced Placement English course.
"To see them four years later is awesome," he said of the students he has twice. "Their whole thought process on learning changes over those four years."
Senior Cassandra Summerfelt said Brown recently missed a few days of school for jury duty. His absence, she said, made her whole class realize how much he really means to them.
"He likes to know what his students think and he values their opinions," she said. "We really feel respected by him and feeling so respected by him, we give that respect back."
In addition to his classes, Brown is involved in numerous extracurricular activities. He is the head coach for the boys gymnastics team and in the off-season often volunteers two or three days a week with girls gymnasts. He is a sponsor of the Gay Straight Alliance and PALS/HOPE, a volunteer group, and recently started a peer tutoring program. Other teachers also often ask Brown for help with fundraisers and school spirit events and he willingly volunteers.
"He's got a lot of energy, a lot of positive energy," said Matthew Dowd, assistant Student Council adviser and social studies teacher. "He tries to get (the students) to see the good parts about high school."
Brown gets to H.E.H.S. around 6:30 a.m. and often leaves around 8 p.m., sometimes even as late as 11:30 p.m. He admits his schedule is tiring, but says he is driven by his belief that everything he has gone through and learned throughout his life are lessons he was learning to teach and help others.
"I know there are kids that need me," he says. "It's never about me. It's always about them."