Kristen Bryan ‘92: Math Teacher or Superhero?

7 mins read

This is the 37th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read the previous article here.

Kristen Bryan is currently doing quite possibly the Biggest Thing out of all Bears profiled thus far: educating the nation’s youth!

The M-A Chronicle editorial staff has ruled that we can’t interview our own teachers for stories. Luckily, I found a loophole by waiting until after graduation to profile Ms. Bryan, my junior and senior year math teacher. I think it’s very fitting that the last story I write for M-A is about a teacher who has been such an amazing mentor and friend.

Bryan graduated from M-A in 1992 and returned in 2001 to join the math department. Now, she teaches AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, and Multivariable Calculus.

Bryan’s classes are known for their difficulty. She runs a tight ship, detracting points from students’ tests for the tiniest of mistakes. Misplaced a negative sign? Lazily sketched a marginally legible graph? Forgot to denote the absolute value of a natural log, or more gravely, omitted the dx after an integral? Another quarter of a point (or likely more) down the drain. Bryan has a strong commitment to excellence and holds her students to remarkably high standards. If one of her calculus courses is in your future, get ready for piles of worksheets, practice exams, and problem sets. 

The numbers attest: last year, Bryan prepared her students so well for the AP Calculus exams that 83 out of her 94 students scored perfect fives. Over the past seven years, her Calculus BC students have an average AP exam score of 4.85. If anyone in her classes scores a four or below, they bring down that average. If you’re currently struggling in one of her courses, you’re not alone—I have definitely been there.

However, at the same time, Bryan brings a great sense of humor and fun to her classroom. Her desk is home to two potted succulent plants: one of them is shriveled and dead with a picket sign that reads, “This plant didn’t do its homework and look what happened to it 😱,” and the other is alive and thriving with a sign that reads, “This plant did all its homework and look how well it’s doing! 😃” Before a test, a student once asked her, “What is your opinion on leaving square roots in the denominator?” “I think they’re radical,” she replied with a smirk and handed him his exam. One of the walls of her classroom is covered with memes, chronicling the challenges and triumphs of calculus. Her lectures are fast-paced and filled with clever jokes—things always seem so much brighter and funnier when you’re sitting at a desk in G-18. 

Bryan as a toddler.

“I think I’ve spent more time at M-A than anywhere else on the planet. I went here, and now, I’ve been teaching here for over 20 years. It feels so familiar! I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” said Bryan.

“I’ve always loved math. I like that it’s logical—it’s a lot of analysis, reasoning, and making connections,” she continued. 

“I also love teenagers,” Bryan added. “When I was getting my teaching credential, they were like, ‘Hey, you’re so small, you should teach middle or elementary school!’ But, I could never do that. They would never get my sarcasm.”

Bryan (left) with her sister Jennifer Trent Miller ’90 (right) at the start of her freshman year.

Looking back on her high school experience at M-A, Bryan said, “My mom worked a lot while I was growing up, and my dad died right after I was born. I was—and still am—really close with both my mom and my older sister. She’s two years older than me, so we would sometimes go to the same parties and hang out with the same friends.”

“My freshman math teacher, Mrs. Fortney, was from Georgia, and she spoke in a Southern drawl,” Bryan remembered. “We used to try and convince her to get off track and tell us personal stories, which we rarely succeeded at. She always wore these proper dresses because her husband wouldn’t let her wear pants, and he also didn’t want her pumping gas. I sat next to this guy Josh Cisco, who I’m still friends with, and he had the biggest crush on Mrs. Fortney.”

Bryan’s senior portrait.

“I remember I sat next to another girl, Devon Beisler, in that class,” she continued. “She was a junior in geometry, and her dad was a big football player on the 49ers. She was super popular, and I really wanted her to like me, so I let her copy my homework. It was pretty scandalous.”

During her senior year, Bryan had Harold Drake for AP Calculus AB—the highest math level M-A offered at the time. She and two other students convinced Drake to teach them the Calculus BC content on the side. “He hadn’t studied the content in decades, so we were all kind of learning it together, which was fun,” Bryan remembered. 

“I remember my friend and I would write long notes to each other during class and then trade notes during the passing periods—there were no texts or cell phones back then,” she added.

“M-A was an open campus at the time, and sometimes, I would cut my third period TA with my friend and go get coffee and blueberry muffins at Croutons on University Avenue, or go to Hobie’s, a restaurant which used to be in Town and Country,” Bryan admitted guiltily. “They used to have plants on the table at Hobie’s, and once, we stole one, took it home, and named it Robert because we were obsessed with Led Zeppelin.”

After M-A, Bryan attended Pomona College. “When I got to college, I realized how good of an education I had gotten at M-A,” she said. “I felt so prepared—especially in my writing classes.”

“I thought I was going to be a doctor my whole life, and I was initially pre-med in college,” Bryan continued, “But, I ended up dropping that and majoring in psychology.”

Bryan during a surgery while working in biotech in 1997.

After college, Bryan worked on the clinical research team for a startup called Fusion Medical Technologies for five years. “I was traveling a lot for work, visiting hospitals around the country by myself,” she remembered. “But, traveling alone started getting less and less fun, so I started thinking about what else I might want to do.”

“I always loved math, and I figured that I wouldn’t mind trying teaching for a little while,” Bryan explained. “So, I quit my job, moved to L.A, and enrolled in the cheapest teaching credential program I could find: Cal State L.A.”

A year later, Bryan moved back to the Peninsula. She started student teaching for M-A algebra teacher Janet Elliot in the fall of 2001, and at the end of that year, accepted a full-time position at M-A.

Bryan initially taught Algebra I and Algebra II, and then took on Geometry and Precalculus. One year, she taught a “Geometry Restart” support class, which she remembers was “very difficult to manage.” As older teachers retired and the number of sections of upper-division math increased, she moved up to teaching Calculus, and a few years later, picked up Multivariable Calculus as well. “I’ve appreciated being able to teach progressively higher math levels over the years because it keeps things intellectually stimulating for me,” she reflected.

Bryan hiking in Switzerland.

In her free time, Bryan said her “three go-to activities” are hiking, cooking, and eating.

“I’m in the middle of making a loaf of sourdough bread right now, but that can be a frustrating venture,” she continued. “Sometimes, you think it’s going to come out perfect, but it comes out a little dense. I like my sourdough billowy and soft, so it’s frustrating when the loaf comes out of the oven and I cut it and I’m like, ‘Dang it!’

A loaf of Bryan’s homemade sourdough bread.

Every Tuesday after school, Bryan rushes off to cook family dinner for fifteen members of her extended family who live across the Bay Area. “Nineteen years ago, my sister had her first kid and everyone wanted to see the baby so we had dinner together,” she explained. “The tradition kind of just stuck after that. Every week, we all meet up for family dinner. It’s fun. Everyone’s so spread out, so otherwise we wouldn’t see each other.”

On her favorite books, Bryan said, “I feel like you can’t really have just one favorite! There’s a lot of books that I’ve loved. Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is so devastating. I also love The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, about a boy growing up with his dog.”

Bryan’s dog, Mr. Felix, taking a nap with his best friend after a walk.

Bryan’s advice to current M-A students: “Relax more. Enjoy life. It can be a very high-stress place where we live, and I think it’s important to maintain some perspective about what’s really important. Also, be nice to people! Sometimes, teenagers can be so oblivious to how they affect others. When I see that somebody feels hurt by the actions or comments of their peers, it makes me feel really sad inside. I just want teenagers to be kind, even to people they might not really know well. Help make the world a happier place.”

Bryan with her Multivariable Calculus class at prom.

In her Multivariable Calculus course, a few days a year, Bryan’s homework assignment is to “do a good deed.” “I want the kids to make somebody feel good—to do something nice that they wouldn’t have done anyways,” she explained. “The next day at the beginning of class, I have everyone share what their good deed was.”

“I like how smart the kids at M-A are,” Bryan added. “They challenge me. I like that kids question me on things that sometimes, I don’t even know the answer to and have to go look it up. I think I’d be bored with apathetic kids who weren’t asking questions and thinking hard about what I was teaching.”

Bryan and me at my senior prom.

A Note From the Author:

Goodbye, M-A! I’ve had so much fun writing this column, and I’ve had so much fun at this school. Thank you to those of you who’ve read my stories, to all of the peers, teachers, and staff who have been so kind and inspiring to me these past four years, and finally, thank you Ms. Bryan, for everything.

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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