In September of 1977, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States and the cost of a gallon of regular gas was $0.62. The top song on the charts was “Best of My Love” by The Emotions and the first episode of the long-running hit TV show Love Boat aired on ABC. It was also the start of a new school year and a new job for Mrs. Nila Brown, who has been continually serving as a school secretary in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, for the past 42 years.
“I was so excited to become part of the faculty of the very school I just graduated from,” Brown says. “I felt such a great sense of pride.”
A sense of pride is exactly what has fueled her decades-long career in education, she says: Pride in her students, pride in being an education support professional (ESP) and an integral part of the school staff, and pride in working with a talented group of educators, dedicated parents, and a close-knit community that cares about its children.
“But what I take the most pride in is my ability to help,” Brown says. “I feel important when I can help and it is important.”
American Education Week, November 18 to 22, is an opportunity to celebrate public education and honor individuals who work in our schools to ensure that every child receives a quality education. Wednesday, November 20, is Education Support Professionals Day and highlights the varied contributions ESPs make in supporting the whole child. This year, as we head into the 40th year of ESP membership in NEA, we are spotlighting Nila Brown’s 40+ years of service as an ESP in the front office.
The role of the school secretary, says Brown, is to support the entire school family – from teachers and bus drivers to custodians and principals, to students, families and community members.
“The school secretary makes it all work,” she says. “We make everything run. We are at the core of it all.”
Brown started her career at Arundel High School but left in 1989 to become the secretary at Crofton Woods Elementary School, where she has worked ever since.
She’s seen a lot of principals come and go over the years, and “they have all depended on me, on my memory, and on knowing what is important to the families,” she says. “And always, to every family, what’s most important is that we do an excellent job educating their children.”
With providing an excellent education in mind, Brown stays on top of the area’s best tutors and community enrichment programs. She also keeps an eye on what’s going on within the school’s families. She knows about all the mom groups, who walks home with whom, and who is in what friendship group.
“I watch what’s going on, I observe and I learn, and I use that knowledge to help the families,” she says. “I’ve been in the game so long, I definitely know that I’m talking about and they all know I’m looking out for the best for their children.”
And their children’s children. With a career spanning more than 40 years, she’s seen the kids she served in high school become the parents of the kids she then served in elementary school. And then those kids became the parents of another crop of kids she saw getting off the bus.
“The pattern keeps repeating, and I am blessed to know all of these wonderful families,” she says.
The parents clearly feel the same way about Mrs. Brown.
Several years ago she was seriously injured in a car accident when she was thrown from the vehicle. She was rushed to shock trauma in Baltimore where the lead surgeon was a former parent from Crofton Woods. He instantly remembered Mrs. Brown and the kindnesses she’d shown his son while he attended the school.
“He told his staff, you get everything Mrs. Brown needs and you take excellent care of her,” she recalls. “When I got better, he came to visit me. It showed me I was appreciated and how kindness always comes back to you. It takes my breath away just thinking about it.”
A 40-Year Career
What changes have you noticed over the years?
People held the education profession in very high regard when I first started. Educators were treated with much more reverence. They also dressed more professionally. They wore suits and ties and skirts. It was a different era. There were never called by their first names, by parents and certainly not by students. Everything is a lot more casual today.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in kids?
Kids are kids. No matter what color they are or where they come from, a child’s heart is a child’s heart and that’s just the way it is. They have that young spirit, that innocence where they see everything as happy. That doesn’t change.
What’ the difference between working in a high school and an elementary school?
The bigger the students, the bigger the problems. It’s much simpler in elementary school. They get so intense and upset about leaving their instrument or their coat on the bus, and when I arrange to get it back, I am a hero! That makes me so happy to make them happy and it’s so easy. They don’t have the boyfriend/girlfriend problems of high school or the cars or the drama. I didn’t feel like I was able to help as much with the older students. But there are little rewards every day with the little ones and I am so thankful for them.
What is your best tip for a new school secretary?
You can always get the principal to buy you lunch! When parents come in yelling, step in right away and ask nicely, “What can I do to help you?” You get them right when they come through the door. Then they get whatever it is out of their system and then when the principal meets them, they’re nice and calm. Just remember that angry parents are only trying to advocate for their kids. Keep that in mind and help them, and it goes a long way.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
My longevity. Most people don’t stay in their job as long as I have. I’m tickled that I’ve lasted 42 years. It’s also rewarding to be so closely tied to my community. I grew up in right here in the area and I went to Crofton Elementary the day it opened in 1969. So I’ve been here as a student and now as an employee, right here in the school system all along. And though I don’t have kids, I do have grandchildren who I see all the time when I’m in school or out and about. “Hi, Mrs. Brown!” they say. They all remember me. It’s just a little simple thing, but I was nice to them on a day in their life.