For Lori Bryant, pre-kindergarten teacher and Mustang Education Center’s Teacher of the Year, becoming a teacher was more of a natural progression than a conscious decision. Her mother ran the only daycare in their remote Oklahoma panhandle town. By the time Bryant was 17, she ran the daycare herself one summer.
“When I graduated, no one in my town said, ‘You’re going to go to college,’” she said.
Her high school cheerleading sponsor suggested she try out for the squad at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. She made the squad. She met her future husband, a football player, on the sidelines. She eventually finished her degree in early childhood education at UCO.
She taught kindergarten summer school the year she graduated and then accepted a job at an Oklahoma City elementary school. The building had been a fifth-grade center the year before.
“Everything was geared to fifth graders. There was nothing for little kids. There were big desks for fifth graders in the classrooms and all three of the kindergarten teachers were brand new - entry year.”
That first year she had a kindergartener throw a chair at her. Another kindergartener had a teardrop tattoo because he had witnessed a murder. Her classroom was part of a federal program where she started with 28 students in the morning with no teacher’s assistant and then the lowest 18 stayed for the afternoon while the top 10 students went home.
Bryant came from a country, homogenous life.
“To see that kind of inner city poverty and gangs, I was just shocked,” she said. “You want to take all of them home with you and make it better.”
She taught there for seven years. When her second child was born, she resigned to stay home with her children. She homeschooled them until their oldest child was in middle school.
“I don’t feel like I have what it takes to be a high school teacher so we enrolled our kids,” she said. “I started substituting in my son’s class at Mustang Elementary.”
The job substituting turned into filling in for a special education teacher on long-term leave. The assignment was supposed to be for two to three weeks, but lasted until the end of the year. The principal at the time told Bryant the job was hers if she would take the certification test. Technically, Bryant wasn’t looking for a job, but she took the test and worked three more years at Mustang Elementary before moving to Mustang Middle School for one year to teach sixth grade English Language Arts and to co-teach ELA and math for special needs students.
When the first intermediate schools opened, Bryant moved to Horizon Intermediate.
“I taught one 90 minute block of ELA with 12 lab kids and co-taught five other classes,” she said. “I had 20 on IEPs. After that year of working late so many nights and writing IEPs, I wasn’t enjoying teaching anymore.”
Before the new school year, Bryant found an opening for a pre-kindergarten teacher at Mustang Education Center. She’s been there for four years.
“I love being able to do hands-on learning through play,” she said. “I don’t make them sit down if they’re writing or doing a paper. If they need to stand up to do their work, then they can stand up to do their work. As long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, I don’t care if you’re standing on your head to do it. As long as you’re not bothering the people next to you, and you learn best by standing, then by all means, stand. They need to have the freedom to figure out what works for them, how they learn best.”
Although she gives them leeway to learn their way, from standing to singing or maybe using play dough, she runs a structured classroom. She understands the importance of expectations and routine.
“I think structure and routine are imperative to teach pre-school,” she said. “You have to have structure and routine. They thrive on that.”
Bryant also stresses the importance of the classroom as a safe place where the teacher cares about each one.
“By the time they’re three, their character is already imbedded,” she said. “Everything they’ve experienced is there and imprinted in their being. When they get out of the car to come into the school in the morning I can tell when they didn’t sleep good or if something happened the night before. That’s why it’s so important - love and nurture - let them know there is somebody who will care for them. They learn they can count on me. I will be here.”
Bryant was one of 14 Teachers of the Year for Mustang Public Schools for 2017-2018.