When the superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District visited the elementary school where Ruth Weaver Brown taught, she invited him into her kindergarten classroom to see firsthand the challenges she faced.
“I said, ‘There are 32 faces in here. When you look at these kids, who do you help? There’s only one of me. I don’t even have bilingual assistance in a class where half of my kids speak Spanish,’” Brown says.
Asked to suggest improvements, Brown said smaller class sizes. And she worked with the superintendent and his cabinet to develop strategies that would achieve a ratio of 20-1. Brown’s proposal was approved by the school board and kindergarten class sizes at the school were reduced. Next, Brown offered to advise first-grade teachers who wanted to do the same.
Brown is proof that one teacher can make a difference. She taught kindergarten at Montezuma Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., for 25 years, and retired this year after 41 years in education. During her career, she advocated for teachers as a site representative for the Stockton Teachers Association (STA).
When teachers were unhappy about being moved to different grade levels, Brown led meetings and worked with the principal to advocate for the teachers. She also spent extra time establishing relationships among her colleagues.
“Ruth was that go to person. She was the eyes, the ears, and the voice of our Association,” says Ellen Old, president of STA. “She empowered other teachers by providing them with information and reminding them that our Association is all about making their work in the classroom better and more productive.”
Brown says the relationships with her colleagues and with her students made her job a labor of love, and Stockton needed a woman like her. The area is prone to gangs and violence, and Brown knew some of her kindergarteners led difficult lives. She wanted school to be an encouraging place for students, and strived to be a teacher the stu- dents could trust and look up to.
“Every day I would think, ‘what difference can I make today? Which child didn’t have a good morning or doesn’t have a good home? What can I do to uplift them and make them feel like they have potential?’” Brown says.
She showed care by getting inside her students’ worlds, developing a special bond with a family with six children. Brown had taught four of them, and knew the parents belonged to a gang and often went to jail. One morning, the father told Brown the police were looking for him and he might not make it back to pick up his children.
“I told him, ‘you come back and get this baby. You cannot afford to get in trouble, she is already so traumatized,’” Brown says. “At that point, I was asking my husband if I could bring the little girl to our home.”
One evening, the father was shot and killed in his home in front of his family. The school provided counseling and the children made a specific request for Brown. Before and after school, and at recess, Brown was there, freely distributing hugs and “doing anything I could do to make them feel better, to make them feel safe.” The mother brought Brown flowers the last week of school and told her how much she had helped her family. She said Brown had taught her to put her children first.