Bill Brown's students at the Institute of Notre Dame call him "the Spanish Nostradamus," a seer of social trends.
He introduced them to the Macarena six months before it became a dance craze at Camden Yards. He brought back a Ricky Martin poster from Puerto Rico for his classroom before "Livin' La Vida Loca" made the singer a sensation.
But the Spanish teacher at the East Baltimore girls school, who yesterday received a national teaching award at a convention of Catholic educators, never saw it coming.
Brown and six other teachers and administrators from across the country were presented with distinguished educator awards by the Secondary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association, which is meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center through tomorrow.
Brown, 48, won the award for being "a powerful force for transformation of attitudes, both in his teaching methods in his classroom and in his work with the Conflict Mediation Program, which he initiated," said Brother Michael Collins, president of the secondary schools executive committee, who presented the award.
"Sometimes, it can get boring teaching about the objective pronoun," said Brown. "But it's also about communication. You can link things for students."
The awards were bestowed at the same time as a national Catholic teachers group released a survey at the convention showing what it called "the faith gap" between salaries earned by public school and Catholic school teachers.
The survey by the Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic School Teachers showed the average starting salary for Catholic school teachers is $19,993, well below the national average public school starting salary of $25,735. The maximum salary for senior Catholic teachers, many of whom have master's degrees and some doctorates, averages $40,571.
In addition, when administrators were queried about the reason for staff turnover, 90 percent mentioned salaries as the major factor.
"Going into Catholic schoolteaching, you know you're not going to get a public school salary," said Rita C. Schwartz, the association president. "However, when you see what our Catholic schools' teachers are making, the church owes them a just wage."
Robert Kealey, executive director of NCEA's elementary school division, said he had no argument with the teacher's association's contentions.
"We are trying to make sure our schools are affordable for all children. But we are dependent on tuition," which accounts for 70 percent of the funding for elementary schools, and slightly more for secondary schools, he said. "This is one reason we have been pursuing very actively parental choice in education," which would let parents send their children to Catholic schools through such things as public vouchers.
Brown started as a middle school teacher in Baltimore public schools before moving to the Institute of Notre Dame.
Before becoming a high school teacher, though, he spent 17 years in Venezuela as a lay missionary and consultant teaching photography and communications. He also worked as a peace educator and became an expert in the nascent field of co-operative games, writing a textbook in Spanish.
After his father's heart attack, he and his wife Pam moved with their two children back to his hometown of Baltimore. After teaching two years in a city middle school, he decided to move to Catholic schools. He likes the freedom, he said, to move beyond the set curriculum to talk about faith-based aspects of Hispanic culture, like the Day of the Dead celebrations and the veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"My connection with Latin America involves a lot of my faith," said Brown, who also leads a young adults group for Latinos at St. Michael Catholic Church in Upper Fells Point.
His eclectic approach to things spiritual and educational is reflected in Brown's classroom, which is filled with colorful clutter, from a black-and-gray blanket with bold geometric patterns he hung to hide peeling paint, to a map of Latin America painted by his students, stuffed animals and pictures of Hispanic food, people and culture.
"He's helping the young women in our school to understand people of other cultures, particularly Hispanic culture," said Sister Mary Fitzgerald SSND, the Institute of Notre Dame principal who nominated Brown for the award.
In addition to classroom work, Brown started a conflict mediation program at the school, in which he has trained students to work to solve their own disputes. "He sits in as a moderator and doesn't get involved, unless the students can't handle it, which is very, very rare," Fitzgerald said.
"Anything I teach, it's about teaching them to become subjects, not objects," he said. "I want them to become the authors of their lives."