South Brunswick High School history teacher Jennifer Bryan is 2021 Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year, putting her in the running for N.C. Teacher of the Year.
Enthusiastic, energetic and innovative are good words to describe Jennifer “Jennie” Bryan, 2021 Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year. Bryan has taught history at South Brunswick High School (SBHS) for seven years, and, as expected, her primary concern is her students.
“She is 100 percent committed to her students or to any cause she is working on to make her classroom, our school or our school system better,” writes SBHS Principal Michael Hodges in an email. He adds that students love her, and parents say, “Can you make sure my student has Ms. Bryan?”
Hodges is grateful she teaches at SBHS. “Students, parents and staff all know the gem we have in Jennie Bryan,” he says.
Because of COVID, Bryan admits this school year is the most unusual one of her 11 years as a teacher.
“It’s awkward teaching through a computer screen,” she says, explaining that the first semester included both in-school and remote classes, but she has made adjustments. “I wanted to make sure the students at home felt like they were part of the classroom. I looked into the camera and tried to make eye contact and called them all by name as they entered the Zoom.”
Her method of teaching history doesn’t follow a traditional path. “It’s not my job to teach historical trivia,” she says. “My goal is to help students understand the causes and effects of events throughout history and recognize and identify similar patterns, trends and themes in history over time.”
Among the enduring themes are innovations and conflicts.
“Humans are constantly innovating from ancient times to the present,” she says, so she asks students to learn what innovations came from, for instance, the Industrial Revolution and what positive and negatives effects it has had. Conflict is another theme, including religious conflicts. What are the sources of those conflicts? she asks her students.
Bryan grew up in Hallsboro and graduated from Whiteville High School. She was in student council, on the tennis team and ran track, played the saxophone in the band and was drum major for two years.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved,” she says.
She donated her saxophone to the SBHS band program but now uses her musical talents singing in the Southport Presbyterian Church choir.
Besides teaching U.S. history and world history, she is on the SBHS Improvement Team, co-advises the student council, is chair of the superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council and coordinates the National History Day competition. She is gratified that one of her students in Pitt County advanced to the national competition in Washington, D.C., having featured Dr. Annie Alexander, the first licensed woman physician in North Carolina. The student didn’t win but later petitioned the Historical Research Office in Raleigh to have a historical marker for Dr. Alexander. The request was approved, and the marker is at 400 N. Tryon Road in Charlotte. Bryan was invited to the 2016 dedication ceremony.
“That was probably one of the coolest days of my life as an educator,” she says. “I don’t expect all of my students to become historians, but National History Day gives them an opportunity to get to do the work of a historian and make a mark on history.”
Academics, of course, is the school’s focus, but she says there’s more to high school than school work. “I want to make sure our students have enriching experiences,” she says. “That involves teacher support.”
Bryan knew she wanted to be a history major at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but wasn’t sure of a career.
“I always loved, loved, loved hearing stories of my family,” she says. “That sparked my passion for history in general. I was able to make it personal for me at an early age. I am mindful of that when I’m teaching. How can I help my students make connections through history in a personal way? It makes history relevant.”
Although her mother, JoAnne Biser, is a nurse and her father, Daniel Biser, is a sports editor, she comes from a long line of teachers, but she waited before choosing that career. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she chose to volunteer with the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky for a year. While there she “realized I wanted to be actively engaged in serving other people,” she says. “I felt like teaching was meeting a specific need, a demand.”
Bryan earned her Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Wake Forest University, was granted a James Madison Fellowship and studied at Georgetown University, where she worked with constitutional scholars.
She and her husband, Kurt Bryan, came to the area after Bryan taught history for four years at South Central High School in Winterville, and Kurt earned his dental degree from East Carolina University. He is the new partner in Bachara and Bryan Family Dentistry in Southport. Their daughter, Chloe, is three.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to advocate for teaching as a profession and for students in North Carolina,” Bryan says. “I would not be receiving this award if it were not for the mentors and colleagues I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years. They helped shape me into the teacher I am today.”
One teacher from each of the eight Education Districts is in the running for North Carolina Teacher of the Year, so Bryan is in the running. The winner will be announced in April 2021.