Teacher of the Year Luajean Bryan: Engineering Greatness

Walden University is proud to have more than 40 state teachers of the year, including Luajean Bryan, currently working toward advanced degrees at its Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership.

Luajean BryanName: Luajean Bryan

Award: 2009 Tennessee Teacher of the Year

Teaches: Math

Teaching Since: 1973

Studying at Walden: Ph.D in Education, Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment specialization

If you want to find Luajean Bryan’s calculus students, look up. They may very well be doing their homework in a hot air balloon.

When her school, which is in Bradley County, Tenn., first introduced calculus classes, enrollment was non-existent. “We live in a rural area where there’s a lot of low income people, and they didn’t really aspire to taking higher level math classes,” she says. “But it’s the only way they’ll have doors open to them in other fields. Without calculus, they can’t be engineers. They can’t go into architecture. They can’t go into a lot of scientific research fields or chemical fields.”

Recruiting kids for the class proved difficult. “They were afraid the tests would be hard. So, in order to get the class off the ground, I started it as a project-based class. They could earn grades through things other than tests and quizzes,” she says. When she announced that, thanks in part to a $10,000 grant through Toyota’s Investment in Mathematics Excellence (TIME), calculus students would go up in hot air balloons in order to gather data on barometric pressure and velocity, enrollment shot up. From there, she went on to design a menu of other exciting ways to help students get excited about calculus, like collecting data about temperature and barometric pressure while spending a night in a cave or building parabolic satellite-like dishes in order to harness solar energy to cook marshmallows.

“You can have the most boring curriculum,” Bryan says, “but if you can put a teacher in there who’s creative and energetic, then some learning is going to take place.”

Getting more of the right teachers in place is just one reason Bryan is pursuing her Ph.D in Education, with a specialization in Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment at Walden. She wants to teach at the university level, where she hopes to inspire more students to teach pre-calculus and calculus, and teach those subjects with the verve they require to keep students engaged.

Teaching was not Bryan’s first career choice. Neither of her parents had more than a middle school education, and they felt their daughter wasn’t going to benefit from college. “‘You’ve had enough education,’ my Daddy told me,” Bryan recalls. “My parents grew up during the Depression and had large families and had to help on the farms, so they didn’t get the opportunities they might have had. They were very intelligent, resourceful people, but they could’ve gone farther had they had more formal education. I noticed that early on and realized that I needed as much education as I could get.”

She dreamed of going to college to learn how to become an engineer. But when her father finally agreed to let her matriculate, he had one condition. “He said, ‘You have to be a teacher. Because I think you would be a really good teacher,’” Bryan says. “He saw something in me that I didn’t even see at the time. I agreed, just to pacify him, thinking all the while, ‘I’ll take math and then I’ll go into engineering and I’ll get a teaching certificate but I won’t use it.’” When a local school asked her to teach math after graduation, she took the job in order to save money for grad school. “I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do this for just one year,’” she says. That was 37 years ago.

“For the first 9 or 10 years I kept thinking I’d stop and become an engineer,” she says. “But then I felt like I was getting better at teaching and was connecting with students in a very meaningful way. I could see that I was doing something valuable: I’m not an engineer, but I am enabling the dreams of others who may dream of becoming engineers. And that, to me, is so much more gratifying than being in that field myself.”