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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Milton Bryant

4th-5th Grade Math, Ketcham Elementary School Washington, DC

What does Milton Bryant’s elementary school math classroom have in common with the college football team he used to coach? A contagious team spirit, a relentless belief in the value of practice, and an understanding that stumbles are inevitable on the way to achieving your goals.

“My passion for teaching was cultivated on the football field,” says Bryant. “My greatest strengths were being able to diagnose what our opponents were about to do and help put my teammates in the best positions.” Later, he moved up the coaching ranks at the University of North Carolina-Central. “I enjoyed recruiting high school players,” he says. “Spending time with them helped me realize the huge impact that education and equity have on their lives. I thought that becoming an educator would allow me to give back to the teachers who saw the potential in me when I didn’t realize I had it.”

Bryant’s ability to forge strong relationships was clear from the start of his teaching career at Ketcham Elementary in Washington, D.C., a school where 100 percent of students rely on free lunch programs and a quarter of students are considered homeless. “My students are no different than kids from affluent areas,” he says. “They are great problem solvers. They’re just solving different types of problems. But they have all of these phenomenal skills you wouldn’t think a 10-year-old kid would have.”

In time, Bryant found that while mutual respect was the foundation of a successful classroom, relationships alone weren’t enough without strong knowledge of math content. Over time, he learned to invest students in conceptual thinking—not just doing the work but thinking deeply about how they arrived at the answer. In one recent lesson about adding and subtracting fractions, his students weren’t just writing down answers, they were measuring sand to create precise timing devices and experiencing a new perception of fractions with the support of their peers.

“His students achieve at levels that they wouldn't have dreamed of achieving prior to encountering his classroom,” says Ketcham Elementary Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger. “Mr. Bryant inspires children to love math and to remove the limits that they and others have placed on themselves.” 

As a result, Mr. Bryant is achieving breakthrough gains with his fourth and fifth graders. Nearby schools typically score between nine and 16 percent proficiency on the national PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam. At Ketcham, last year’s average was 34 percent. In Mr. Bryant’s class, 72 percent of students were proficient—more than twice the school average and four times the average of neighboring schools.

A poster hanging prominently on Mr. Bryant’s wall displays a quote that underpins his philosophy: The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.

“The kids know you’re going to get stuff wrong,” he says. “That’s okay. Practice doesn’t make perfect—practice makes you better. And they know that being great is more than just academics. Being great requires a person to be aware of others’ feelings and doing what’s right when no one is looking.”