October 13, 2016
(Updated: March 29, 2017)
(Mickey Bryant with students during the 2011 Summer Institute. Photo credit: Mara Duquette/ Center for Inspired Teaching)
This October, Inspired Teaching spoke with Mr. Milton (Mickey) Bryant. A 2011 Fellow of the Inspired Teacher Certification Program, Mickey is a teacher and instructional coach at Ketcham Elementary School. In March of 2017, Mickey was honored as one of the seven winners of the Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching.
Inspired Teaching: Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Mr. Bryant: As a kid, I had a lot of issues – behavioral or different gaps in my education – because I moved around so much. My father was in the military and he was abroad for four years when I was a teenager. I had a high school teacher who mentored me when my father was out of the country. He was a key figure in my life. He really supported me and my siblings when we were having difficulties through high school. Even through college, he kept up with me and made sure I stayed on the right track.
After graduating, I became a college football coach. I would go out to high schools and recruit kids. I noticed that they had tons of gaps in their education, like I did. I wanted to help. I decided to go against what everyone told me – I was twenty-four and on track for a great career as a coach – and become a teacher.
What drew you to the Inspired Teacher Certification Program?
I liked the ideals behind Inspired Teaching. Inspired Teaching is focused on the whole child. That connected with me because as a kid, I needed someone to connect with me on a social-emotional level. Other kids need that as well.
That’s really the foundation for all success in the classroom: really building strong relationships with the kids, making them feel welcomed and respected. One of my kids told another teacher that he felt like I loved them and cared about them more than I just cared about the answer. That’s really what I believe in.
If kids feel comfortable and they’re in a space where they feel safe, they’re much more likely to succeed. People say, “I want kids to take risks.” Excuse me, but kids aren’t going to take risks or do all the stuff you want if they don’t feel safe or like you value them. I want my students to know: I value you as a person. It takes a while. I spend a lot of time building relationships, coping skills, and so on – but when they get it, they can apply those skills to the work they do.
Inspired Teaching had a lot of ideas about the whole child and how all children are good and this and that. It was great to hear. Honestly as a first or second year teacher, it didn’t feel realistic. I was overwhelmed with everything I had to do. But as I got better as a teacher, that foundation came out more and more. I thought about things like, ‘How do you speak to the children?’ I spoke to children, at first, the way adults had spoken to me – not cursing or yelling like they did, but a very strict, no-tolerance type of approach.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Inspired Teaching comes to the forefront now for me. I had always believed in what they taught me, but I didn’t know how to make it work in my setting and I didn’t see anyone doing it, so I didn’t know if it was feasible. Over time, people would push me and it came out more and more.
Kids are kids, no matter where they come from. They all want and need very similar things. By speaking to them in the right way, you can elicit certain responses. I like how Inspired Teaching went about talking about kids.
When you go into a classroom to observe, what do you identify as the characteristics of a really great learning experience?
I get to observe people every day. I’m happy when I see a classroom where the kids are excited. They don’t have to be overly excited, but at least engaged, asking questions and having some kind of discourse. I hate going into a classroom where the teacher is doing all the talking. The person doing all the learning is the one doing all the talking.
I really like classrooms where teachers skillfully design a lesson where the kids are able to dictate, explain, manipulate some things, have some kind of discourse or debate, go back and forth with different types of potential solutions – really engaging kids. Lessons need to be like that. I’m looking for high-level questions – not guiding kids to the answers, but pushing forward their thinking. I don’t think all classrooms should be the same or look the same, but all classrooms should be fun and meet the needs of the students you’re serving.
As you look back on your career in education, what personal growth makes you the proudest?
The greatest compliment I ever received was that all the children feel loved and cared about. I’m proudest of learning to deal better with difficult children. I have a student who has been in trouble three times this school year. Last year, he was suspended three, four, five times. He was put into PIW [Psychiatric Institute of Washington], the hospital ward for elementary students, because he would bite people. He attacked the assistant principal.
Two weeks ago, his mom walked into the building and picked my brain for an hour and a half. It turns out his interactions at school have seeped into his behavior at home. After spending time in my classroom, he’s doing a lot better. His mom said to my principal, if someone else is having trouble with my child, don’t have them call me first. Have them reach out to Mr. Bryant.
A lot of the reason why is stuff that I’ve learned from Inspired Teaching about how to deal with people in crisis and how to be successful. The most rewarding thing in my career is that I’ve learned how to deal with people better.
I see a lot of new teachers and even veterans who need support in this area. In moments of crisis the first thing they revert back to is, “I’m the teacher, I’m the boss, I’m in charge; you stop and do what I say.” That makes people get in even a higher state of crisis. It doesn’t help.
What major challenges do you see in education right now?
We have huge deficits, gaps between ethnicities, racial gaps. Even greater than that, there’s a class divide. Poor children do worse in school. A big reason why we have these inequalities in education is because the resources are divvied out differently to different schools or families. A lot of our families aren’t able to advocate for themselves the proper way to get the resources that they need. Wealthy families know who to call, what to do, what button to push, to make sure their kids get x, y, or z. If that doesn’t work, they’ll donate money. Poor people don’t have the time or money to give away stuff. That’s a big problem in education.
I think we have a problem with testing. We need to be smart about how we’re testing, how often we’re testing, and the actual things we’re doing in the school to promote student learning. It shouldn’t all be book stuff. Promote curiosity. Promote inquisitiveness. I want the best test scores, but I want students who are thinkers more than test-takers. If you can’t think, you’re going to get the procedural stuff right, but when you have to evaluate something, you’re not going to have a clue.
This interview has been condensed and edited at the approval of the interviewee.