As a parent of a son with autism, Autumn Frazee Brown ’23 has always valued the importance of great educators. A longtime advocate for her son, she has seen the positive impact teachers have had on his life—ultimately influencing her own decision to pursue a master’s degree in education at SUNY Potsdam.
“He’s an adult now. He’s independent, he prepares his own meals, pays his own bills, and I’m very proud of that. A lot of that comes because he’s strong, but a lot of that comes because he had help along the way, and it wasn’t just me, it was his teachers,” Brown said. “These disabilities aren’t going away. We need to prepare these children to live in the real world, and I want to be a part of that."
Brown’s whole life has been dedicated to helping not only her son, but other children with developmental disabilities. After he was diagnosed with autism in 1997, she spent the better part of two decades working for organizations focused on improving the lives of people facing a variety of learning challenges. From the Autism Society of North Carolina and Families First in North Carolina, to working as a teaching assistant in public schools and one-on-one with students in special education classrooms, helping others has always been her top priority.
“Everything I’ve done—all the advocacy work, paid and unpaid—it all began with my son. When I found out that he had autism, everything from there forward really revolved around how we could prepare him for the future,” she said.
After spending many years down south, Brown returned to her roots in 2012, moving back to Northern New York, and landing a full-time job as an administrative assistant in the Canton Central School District office. But her true calling, to mentor children in the classroom, has always been at the forefront of her mind. “It’s a very good job, a secure job, but I really miss working with the kids. All those years that I was away I worked with people with disabilities. The only place I ever felt very comfortable was working with the special education students,” she said.
Last year, Brown decided to make her dream a reality. She discovered SUNY Potsdam’s fully online MST program in childhood education, which perfectly accommodated her busy schedule. “My youngest son finished high school and joined the military, so the time was right for me to focus on what I really wanted to do. I didn’t realize how possible it was to go back to school, but it was a smooth transition with lots of support,” she said.
"SUNY Potsdam has a great program, and I couldn’t be happier. It was the best decision I ever made."
Although it’s been two decades since Brown has taken any college-level classes, she quickly found her comfort zone with support from SUNY Potsdam faculty Chad Graham and Vicki Hayes. “They got me going, gave me a confidence boost right from the start. I had them each for two classes in the spring semester and it was just what I needed. It’s a virtual program, but we have regular meetings. The professors are very supportive,” she said.
The online program has allowed her to continue working full time for the district, while completing the coursework in her asynchronous classes during nights and weekends. “It’s the only way that it’s been possible for me. When I get home, I jump right into it, take a short break for dinner, and generally work right up until bedtime. I try to get as much done ahead of time on the weekends as I can. It’s a lot of work, but totally doable and worth it. My husband is very supportive, and I don’t have kids at home now, that’s the biggest part of it. I’m at a good place in life, I have the focus,” Brown said.
This semester, she’s taking six classes on topics ranging from teaching literature to children to effective classroom management techniques. As she prepares for her student teaching placement next semester, she’s completing a field experience in a local first-grade classroom this fall. “I’m learning a lot of resources that I’ll use later. I’m also taking a Teaching Elementary Math class this semester, which I think is going to be really beneficial for me, now that I’m going to be teaching Common Core math,” she said.
“It’s definitely something that I’ve had in my nature my whole adult life, to help those with special needs.”
Last semester, Brown completed a children’s book as part of her Literacy 1 class with Carolyn Stone. “Steven Finds Meadowbrook” recounts the journey of a tiny snapping turtle who hatched two weeks after his siblings, and is trying to find his way home. The baby reptile launches into a series of conversations with other animals while searching for Meadowbrook. “This really happened at my house. We live by a creek where it was getting ready to freeze. I didn’t think he was going to live, so we moved him to Meadowbrook in Harrisville where we live. He has all kinds of adventures. He runs across a frog, and a blue jay warns him that there’s danger. It teaches children about some of the critters in the Adirondack area,” she said.
Originally titled,“Sam Finds Meadowbrook,” she changed the title to honor her late father, Steven. “My father became ill at the beginning of the spring semester, and was in and out of the hospital. Part of the project was to narrate it. I couldn’t leave my father, so I read it to him and recorded it, and that’s how I finished my project, reading it to dad,” she said.
At every turn, Brown has continued to support her family. Whether it be an ill parent or a child with autism, her love and support for them is now being extended to the classroom as she launches her career as a special educator teacher. In May 2023, she will receive her master’s degree in childhood education, and then complete a certification in special education, which will open the door to teaching opportunities around New York State and the country. She plans to remain in the North Country after getting her degree, and fill a vital need for teachers in the region.
“There’s a shockingly high demand for teachers. It’s not just the school I work for, it’s all around. I know when I started in the district office six years ago, we would have a pile of applications for an elementary position, but it’s not like that anymore. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “And then we have SUNY Potsdam right here, so I really hope people take advantage of this great resource. I encourage anybody to take that step, and not be afraid to make that phone call to the admissions office. I never waited; I got an immediate call back. They’ve been great.”
Article and photos by Jason Hunter