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How Teach For America Launched Our Careers—and Our Marriage

Michelle and Patrick Brown met as Teach For America corps members in Mississippi. Years later, the accomplished couple still holds the mission close to heart.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
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After Patrick's bold move, love was in the air.

When Michelle Skinner caught Patrick Brown’s eye during their first encounter as 2009 Teach For America corps members in the Mississippi Delta, it was love at first sight.

For Patrick.

“I was trying to figure out a way to ask her out on a date without asking her out on a date, so I asked her and a bunch of friends to go out as a group,” he remembers. “But I told the rest of them not to come, so it ended up being just the two of us.”

One trip to Wendy’s and a Harry Potter movie later, they were inseparable.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Michelle says. Since their first meeting in the Delta, the now-married Browns have moved on to graduate school at Harvard, and subsequently, success in the professional world.

While Michelle has used her master’s in education policy to found CommonLit, an award-winning edtech nonprofit, Patrick is utilizing his J.D. as an associate at an international law firm. But the mission to bring educational equity to all students remains an important aspect of their lives.

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Michelle meets with Governor General of Canada David Johnston to discuss CommonLit.

From Jetés to Jets

Michelle’s story begins in New Braunfels, Texas, where her first love was ballet. Her exploits in the studio led her to a college scholarship in classical ballet at Butler University, where she majored in English literature.

“I realized show business was not for me. If you told me four years ago that I’d be running a tech company and flying across the country for meetings at places like Google, I would not have believed you,” she says now.

After two years as a seventh grade reading teacher at Leflore County High School in the Mississippi Delta, and two years teaching in Boston, Michelle went to Harvard University for a master’s in education policy. She soon found her calling doing something slightly different.

Sitting on her couch after graduation, Michelle applied for and won TFA’s 2015 Social Innovation Award by pitching an organization dedicated to improving adolescent literacy rates by providing free resources and the ability to analyze student performance online.

“CommonLit is an online tool where teachers can find resources and track progress in reading over time,” Michelle says. “Our vision is to create a Khan Academy for reading. It’s all free; it’s all open. It’s all flexible with no barriers for people to access it.”

With endorsements from leading literacy experts like Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, CommonLit now reaches about half a million kids across the nation. Perhaps the biggest validation yet of CommonLit’s success came in September, when the company won a $3.9 million grant from the Department of Education for Innovative Approaches to Literacy.

“One of the things I really admire about what Michelle is doing is that CommonLit is focused on giving teachers a serious voice,” says Patrick, who took an alternate route to the Delta and afterward with his career.

Why Harvard Law 'Wasn't Stressful'

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Patrick juggled teaching five subjects at Greenville West High School.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, Patrick was constantly challenged to use his education in a way that would serve others, so he felt Teach For America was a perfect fit upon graduation.

Following his time teaching government, economics, psychology, sociology, U.S. History, and World History at Greenville West High School, Patrick attended Harvard Law School, seeing the legal field as “the best way I could affect broad and systemic change.” He constantly cites his TFA experience as helping him get through it.

“A lot of people think that law school is overwhelming and stressful, and I didn’t. In TFA, you learn to deal with almost anything,” he says. “You have to stand in front of 33 kids, and you’re in charge. You learn how to break things down so everyone can access the information and be on the same page.

“Think about the writing skills and the oral skills you need to be a lawyer. That ability to start from the beginning and break things down analytically is pretty transferable.”

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The Browns continue to grow together seven years after their first date.

Patrick later clerked in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for Judge Thomas Vanaskie before settling into his current position as a second-year associate at a large firm in Washington, D.C., where he now lives with Michelle. Despite being 1,000 miles away from their corps region, TFA is still very much a part of Patrick and Michelle’s lives.

“It’s funny,” he says. “TFA was the No. 1 employer when I went to Georgetown. When I got to Harvard, there were several alumni. When I got to my law firm, the woman sitting next to me was a TFA–Louisiana alum. We’re everywhere.”

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