College of Education graduate lands Regional Teacher of the Year Award
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: February 25, 2020
The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (CCBD) bestowed its Regional Teacher of the Year Award upon Portland State University College of Education (COE) alumnus Brian McKenzie earlier this month.

“My peers nominated me for this award, so that’s the most meaningful thing, that it’s from people I view as a positive force,” McKenzie said. “It’s quite an honor.”

McKenzie works at the Pre-K–5 Cherry Park Elementary School in the Portland-based David Douglas School District as a structured learning behavior program (SLPB) teacher at the primary level. The SLPB seeks to help students improve their behavior and become independent, empowered decision-makers, and McKenzie achieves this through relationship building, inclusion, and understanding students based on academic techniques he said he learned from his COE professors.

McKenzie was honored during the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) conference from February 5-8 in Portland. He learned of the accolade a week before in an email from the vice president of the CCBD, and it “did come as a surprise,” McKenzie noted.

The CCBD’s mission is to provide support to children with unique behavioral needs, and the CCBD is a division of the CEC, which is an international professional organization that aims to improve outcomes for exceptional students, such as those with disabilities and the gifted. McKenzie works in Region 1, with active members including: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington (Wyoming is in the region, but inactive). The CCBD leverages the award to recognize “an outstanding teacher who currently works as a teacher of children or adolescents with emotional and/or behavioral disorders.”

McKenzie said that his methods are simple and involve patiently establishing relationships and striving for inclusion for children of all abilities in the general education environment.

“I think one of the things that we always try to do for these kids when it comes to advocacy is include them in the mainstream population,” McKenzie said. “Relationships are a huge thing for me, so I try to really recreate, reestablish, or restore relationships these kids have with adults and to build up trust. So, these kids have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives with adults. I reestablish that trust with adults, but it’s trust that they earn, as well.”

The COE Professors and Practices That Improved His Teaching

McKenzie said his academic skills also come into play. He earned his Master of Education in 2011 from the PSU COE Department of Special Education. He said he appreciated all of the faculty who helped him learn the crucial academic skills he needs to reach children, especially Chris Borgmeier, Ph.D., a Special Education professor who inspired McKenzie.

“Dr. Borgmeier helped me focus on using a systematic approach to understanding the function of a child’s behavior, whether it’s through a formal process such as an FBA or informal, as a conversation with the student, parent, or teaching colleague,” McKenzie said.

The functional behavioral assessment (FBA) process that Borgmeier taught McKenzie is an approach to understanding why a child is engaging in persistent challenging behavior.

Borgmeier said that he is excited for McKenzie and about “this is well-deserved recognition of his hard work and passion for supporting students with challenging behavior.”

“I got to know Brian well when he was a member of the Positive Behavior Support Focus Area while he went through the SPED master’s program here at PSU,” Borgmeier continued. “Though I haven’t been in his classroom, I’ve only heard rave reviews from district leaders and his colleagues about his classroom and the supports he provides for his students. It’s always a pleasure to run into Brian, and it’s clear that he’s always striving to improve his work and be the best support for his students. He’s a tremendous teacher, person, and advocate for many of our most challenging students.”

McKenzie also said he deeply appreciated the direct instruction techniques favored by Amanda Sanford, Ph.D., an associate professor of Special Education. He noted that he still uses those techniques.

“Direct instruction has a lot of nuances to it; it so important to be consistent and have good pacing to keep students engaged,” he said. “Dr. Sanford provided wonderful instruction, great role modeling, as well as giving us opportunities to practice to hone our skills.”

Sanford offered a quick overview of direct instruction as “a systematic, explicit approach to teaching that promotes student engagement and learning.”

“It includes clear explanation and modeling of the content, guided practice, and gradual release to students for independent practice to master the content, colloquially known as ‘I do, we do, you do,’” said Sanford who also explained that the National Institute for Direct Instruction was an excellent resource. “Direct instruction is carefully sequenced to ensure new content builds on prior mastered content to support students to be successful.”

A Model of Mutual Support: How McKenzie Created a Positive Environment

Sanford offered great praise of McKenzie, saying that she was honored to have had him in her classroom and thrilled with the outstanding work he was doing at Cherry Park.

“Cherry Park has a rich diversity of students and has a focus on student excellence, and I’m delighted to hear about your work in this context, championing and supporting students with behavioral support needs,” she said. “I heard about your relationship-first emphasis and know how critical that is in building a strong and reliable support system for students.”

McKenzie said his advice to current COE students who plan to teach in a behavioral classroom is “to focus on building trust and rapport with their students.”

“You are the being the most positive role model when you’re consistent with all of your limits and expectations and you hold them to high expectations,” he said.

Sanford said that perspective is critical to students’ success.

“I also know you champion these students’ academic needs, treating them as scholars and holding them to high academic as well as behavioral expectations,” she said. “When students come to school viewing themselves as learners and seeing that they can be successful academically, it can truly change their futures.”

Achieving that connection can be as simple as playing board games with them, McKenzie explained. He employs this technique because it offers a window into a child’s emotional state, such as whether they can handle disappointment or frustration and how they cope.

He said it’s important to listen to children and believe in them, and that means eschewing one’s own assumptions about work ethic and seeing that a child may be struggling to learn even if his or her attention seems to drift elsewhere. McKenzie said it’s also crucial to know when to leave a child be. He has a sensory room in his classroom that has beanbag chairs and a trampoline, where children can recharge or expend energy.

To create a great environment for his students wasn’t a solo task, though. McKenzie said that he has a lot of support, including from his loving wife and his mother (an educator and a “big influence on” McKenzie), as well as from his colleagues, especially the teacher’s assistants and Principal Kate Barker, he said.

“I’d like to thank Kate Barker and everybody here at Cherry Park for being such a supportive community for kids,” he said. “We have an amazing school.”

Sanford, in turn, said she was thankful for McKenzie.

“I thank you for your work and for acknowledging the value of your reading and direct instruction coursework at PSU,” she said. “Thank you for the work you do every day—it truly changes students’ lives and makes our society a better place to live.”

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