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Teaching Excellence Has Sent Bryan Dickinson '12 All Around the World

By Kenneth Stratton '19 WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26, 2019 - 11:00 AM WNE100

Math and the great outdoors; seems like an unconventional pairing. But it is that kind of “thinking outside the box,” that has earned Bryan Dickinson ’12 several recognitions for teaching excellence, and has sent him all around the world.

“My senior honors thesis had to do with teachers and education policy, but the big takeaway for me was how many kids weren’t getting a quality education,” said Dickinson. From that point forward, it became a driving force for Dickinson to work with children and explore alternative education methods. But he didn’t set out to become a teacher.

Dickinson attended Western New England University for three reasons. To play soccer at the college level, to be away from home in Vermont (but close enough to travel back for holidays), and to attend the regionally respected College of Business and study accounting.

“Obviously, I did not stick with accounting… Business school was not the right place for me,” Dickinson said. As a member of the honors program, Dickinson took the Cities and Societies course with Dr. John Baick and Dr. Ted South his first semester, which convinced him to major in history. “When I declared, Dr. Baick was assigned as my advisor, which I am eternally grateful for,” Dickinson said. At the same time, Dickinson maintained a love of math, which led him to Foundations of Math with Dr. Jennifer Beineke, which he says “continues to change my life.”

Dickinson maintained strong relationships with his professors in both departments throughout his Western New England tenure and beyond. On the math side, Professor Josephine Rodriguez allowed him to tutor in math, while Dr. David Mazur would support him in Linear Algebra and Dr. Ann Kizanis “just about killed” him with Abstract Algebra. In history, Dr. Meri Clark took him on as a First Year Seminar Assistant and opened his eyes to historical research, while Dr. Jonathan Beagle assigned long papers and took him and fellow classmates on field trips. As for Dr. Baick, not only did he advise Dickinson through undergrad, but he continues to advise him through the several career transitions he’s made.

Outside of academics, Dickinson was also a member of One-in-Four, which introduced him to the role of men in the fight against sexual assault. He was also a Resident Advisor which introduced him to the complexity of friendships, relationships and building a safe and positive community space. Through the Mathematics and Science Partnership Grant (MSP), Dickinson and a couple of classmates would serve as Teacher’s Assistants with Dr. Beineke.

“It seemed like the opportunity to do work that was meaningful beyond the university and explore possible career paths,” Dickinson said of MSP. “I had no idea that I wanted to be a teacher, but the work seemed like an extension of the tutoring I was already doing,” he said.

After graduation, Dickinson joined Teach for America, by then determined to “save some children.” Moving out to New Mexico, Dickinson was hired to work in a school in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation. He soon learned that his attitude was naïve and problematic.

“The students there didn’t need me to save them, which was just one of many lessons I learned,” Dickinson said. He saw first-hand the impacts of poverty on student achievement, and the limits of public schools. “In many ways, public schools in Native communities continue to be institutions of assimilation. While teaching math, I realized the lecture model of education was insufficient for engaging my students and I had to develop more of an inquiry model,” Dickinson said. After three years, he would make the difficult decision to move on.

“When I moved to Albuquerque, I was presented with the challenges faced by an immigrant community and students learning English as a second language. Additionally, undocumented students/families faced uncertain futures, which made it hard to plan for things like college and employment,” Dickinson said.

During this time, Dickinson was also a policy fellow with Teach Plus, working with the New Mexico Public Education Department, and legislators to improve mentoring/induction and teacher evaluation.

“So many decisions made at the state and local levels of government have a dramatic impact on what happens in the classroom, yet teachers and students have limited power to influence these decisions,” Dickinson said. He focused on issues such as, pressures from standardized tests, growing child poverty rates and, the proliferation of charter schools.

“As I look to the future, I would like to continue to engage in policy discussions, but as an individual or with a collective of educators united behind a common purpose,” Dickinson added. He continued to teach in New Mexico, but his goal of improving the educational experience of children would take him beyond the United States in the summer of 2018.

“The Teachers for Global Classrooms grant sent me to Colombia to investigate what it means for students to be global citizens,” Dickinson said. “I served in an English class as a native English speaker so that students could practice pronunciations, but then got to participate in their social studies and math classes where they put on festivals to share staples of their culture,” the teacher said. Later that year, he’d be honored at Western New England as 2018’s Young Alumni Outstanding Achievement Award recipient. But he was soon abroad again, this time in New Zealand as a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient.

“I didn’t visit a single classroom, but spent time with climate scientists, journalists, teachers, and mathematicians to get a sense of how math is utilized beyond the classroom,” Dickinson said. “I also used the time to adventure to glaciers, volcanoes, islands, and mountains and gain a sense of how math can be an excuse to get kids outdoors,” he said. Since then, he’s begun developing an “open-source math curriculum based on exploration” at www.pointsofdiscontinuity.com, which he’s hoping to turn into a student research experience.

Back stateside for now, Dickinson made another decision recently that would allow him to continue policy discussions, but remain close to the classroom. By 2020, he’ll be leaving teaching to join Northern Vermont University’s Upward Bound Program as a student development coordinator.

“Teaching is full of joy and heartbreak,” Dickinson explained. He’s seen students excel, and sadly, he’s seen students regress. As he explained, the challenges faced by students and teachers alike are many, but he’s determined – one way or another – to continue innovating and developing new ways to help students achieve success.