We are delighted to speak with Brian Conroy and thank him for taking the time to do this interview.
Brian Conroy holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Folklore from San Jose State University. He taught theater, public speaking, debate, and fifth grade for 35 years in the Moreland and Evergreen School Districts; and storytelling at San Jose State University. In 2013 he was named San Jose/Silicon Valley Teacher of the Year. He is listed in the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers and was inducted into the Santa Clara County Youth Mentors Hall of Fame. As a storyteller, Brian has performed at theaters, colleges and festivals in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle and Barcelona, Spain. He is the author of You Don’t Hear Me Complaining, I’m Just Sayin’, Stepping Stones, and the children’s book, Prince Dighavu.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
Brian: The inspiration evolved over several years as I grew up. My mother operated a licensed child-care center out of our home. Because of this, I had the opportunity to work with children at a fairly young age. During college, I worked for the City of San Jose Recreation Department. At first I ran an after-school program, organizing games, activities and sports. After a year or so, my role changed to directing plays for young people. These experiences gradually convinced me that teaching was the right profession for me.
Your talent for telling stories is displayed in the books you have written: “I’m Just Sayin’” contains short stories that reflect on the idiosyncrasies in our world, and “Stepping Stones” is an anthology of wisdom-filled folklore. How and when did you start writing these books?
Brian: I’ve been writing since I was in high school, where I was a contributor to our school’s literary magazine. Early on, I wrote predominantly poetry. I also wrote short plays, producing my first original play when I was sixteen. I continued to write and produce plays for young people when I worked for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Early on in my teaching career, I got involved with the storytelling community, performing as a storyteller. Though some of the stories I told were traditional stories, I gained a reputation for telling original humorous stories. Many of these stories could be labeled as revisionist folktales, in which I would deconstruct a well-known folktale in order to convey a feminist, ethical or pro-environmental message.
One of the monks at the Buddhist monastery where I practiced discovered I was a storyteller, and asked if I could adapt some Buddhist wisdom stories to make them more accessible to modern audiences. I’ve been telling wisdom stories, fables and parables for over thirty years to Buddhist and interfaith audiences. My book of Buddhist parables: Stepping Stones grew directly out of this work, as well as a recent trip to China.
When I retired from teaching a few years ago, I got into a daily writing routine, which has been a very satisfying creative and intellectual outlet for me. My two volumes of humorous essays, You Don’t Hear Me Complaining and I’m Just Sayin’ were written during these sessions.
You wrote and produced many plays as fundraisers for your school, which were flawlessly acted by your students. How did you come up with these plays and prepare your students?
Brian: My goal was to make the plays relevant for the students, as well as enjoyable. Our plays were based on themes that were of interest to the particular group of students I was working with. In writing and developing the ideas for the plays, I took many of my cues from the students themselves. I tried to understand the issues that impacted their lives, the rhythms of their language, and the kinds of characters that might be interesting and challenging to them. There were quite a few instances when I wrote roles specifically for individual students who had been in our program for multiple years. Once I understood their skill sets, I could tailor roles or songs specifically for individuals.
Our plays were rehearsed over two-month periods as part of an after-school program. Almost all of the students developed their performance skills in the theatre arts classes I taught during the regular school day. The after-school program offered them further opportunities to build on the skills learned in the classroom.
During the shows, did everything go as smoothly off-stage as it appeared to go on-stage?
Brian: The process was always fairly smooth and conflict-free. We worked together cooperatively with the focus on collaboration. I didn’t allow students to become prima donnas or develop attitudes. I emphasized the big picture of working together as an ensemble to create something we could all be proud of.
I typically worked with smaller casts so that each person would feel that his or her role was substantial; that each person’s participation was significant. So often in theater there is a two-tier system of major roles and minor roles. All roles were major roles in our productions.
Having worked in diverse literary genres such as folklore, narrative and drama, which genre do you enjoy the most as a writer?
Brian: I think my favorite genre is the first-person humorous essay. Over the years I’ve discovered and developed my own distinctive voice as a writer. I enjoy the process of putting my thoughts down on paper, refining my thinking on a particular topic as I write.
What was the greatest challenge you faced as a teacher?
Brian: The greatest challenge was also the greatest opportunity: that of making the right connections with students. I worked hard to gain the trust of my students and to create an environment in which my students would feel supported and safe to express themselves, be creative, and grow academically.
Did your teaching change over time?
Brian: As I matured as a teacher, I came to understand my strengths, and I refined these strengths, until I eventually found my own unique style of somewhat unconventional teaching. Most of my teaching methods and strategies were not learned at the university; I learned them by being receptive to my students, and observing what worked and what didn’t. I made a vow to myself early on in my career to avoid getting stale or calling it in. I tried to continually challenge myself by modifying the curriculum for each new group of students.
With your decades of teaching experience, what advice would you give to teachers today?
Brian: Keep things fresh. Don’t rely on outdated methods. Modify your activities, update your lecture notes, try new things. Utilize a variety of learning modalities to appeal to the diverse range of learners. Keep learning and reinvigorating your curriculum. If the teaching is engaging for you, it will most likely be engaging for your students.
What do you plan to write next?
Brian: I’m currently working on two books. One is a series of essays, focusing on myths and legends of musical history from Paganini to Billie Holiday to The Beatles to Prince. I’m in the revision phase of this book, and hope to have it published in the spring of 2021.
The other book is a second collection of Buddhist wisdom tales; a kind of companion to my book of Buddhist parables: Stepping Stones.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview!
About the interviewer: SPEL is an educational startup.“Merscythe: Adventures with the Codue” is a digital textbook with an adventure story and tutorials for introducing students to Python programming.