Left Brain, Right Brain, Math and Music for Teacher at The Hun School
By Donald Gilpin
“MOZART OF TEACHING”: Hun School teacher Ryan Brown, dressed in his signature sweater vest, loves conducting, teaching, and doing math. He uses his musical abilities in the math classroom and his mathematical abilities in the music classroom.
As a teacher of math and music at The Hun School, Ryan Brown described every day as “a beautiful mix of left brain and right brain. The music makes my math teaching more creative, and the math makes my music classes more structured, logical, organized.”
Mr. Brown, who has been teaching at Hun for ten years and a year ago won the School’s James M. Byer ’62 Excellence in Teaching Award, attributes his success to his passion for math, music, and teaching. In addition to teaching freshmen and sophomores in geometry honors, juniors and seniors in AP calculus, and an AP music theory course, he also serves as music director of the winter musicals.
“It helps when you really really love what you do, and I love what I do,” he said. The feeling is clearly reciprocated by his loyal students. “He’s one of our most popular teachers,” said Hun Communications Associate Alicia Waltman. “They love him.”
According to RateMyTeachers.com, Ms. Waltman may have understated the case. “Mr. Brown is without a doubt the greatest teacher I have ever had,” read one typical entry. “This is one of those few people who is a master of their craft, like the Mozart of teaching, amazing person.”
Repeatedly described by his students as “approachable” and “likable,” Mr. Brown received accolades for his expertise in his subject matter, his dedication to teaching, and his winning personality. One student enrolling in Hun from overseas recalled, “I remember when I first came to The Hun School, I was terrified of the new surroundings, especially since I had moved so far away from my country. Mr. Brown welcomed me with warmth and made my days more enjoyable. He is my go-to person for math. He never made me feel less intelligent if I didn’t know something.”
Math or Music?
Mr. Brown was born in Southern California “right across the street from Disneyland” and always had a strong affinity for both math and music. “I was an undergraduate in Los Angeles (Loyola Marymount University) and I couldn’t decide between the two so I decided to do a degree in math and music at the same time, and once I finished I couldn’t decide where to go, whether I wanted to do math or music,” he said.
“My big dream at the time was to be a big conductor, to conduct orchestras and choirs and be as famous as I could be,” he continued, “and I got there and I was really excited.” Mr. Brown earned his master’s degree in music at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N. Y., and went on to “conduct a lot of orchestras and choirs.” He decided to continue his quest in the world of music and is currently finishing up his doctorate in music from Indiana University. But at a certain point, more than ten years ago, the allure of math and teaching changed the course of his life. He had been doing some tutoring on the side, but “I really did miss having math in my life,” he said. “I really couldn’t do one without the other.”
His conducting led directly to a desire to teach. “After working with a lot of college students as a conductor, I thought it would be great if I could go back to high school and really mold them. Once they get into college there’s not much you can do as a teacher, but I could go back in time and really teach them when they are so teachable in high school.”
He had met his wife at Eastman, where she was earning her doctorate in conducting, and she had gotten a job at Westminster Choir College, “so i moved out here looking for a job.”
Sandals to Sweater Vest
Mr. Brown described his happy adaptation to the world of math and music teaching at The Hun School. “A substitute job at Hun opened up and as a guy coming from Southern California, I thought, ‘I can’t just come in in a shirt and sandals. Princeton’s a little upper class —maybe a little hoity-toity, so I put on a shirt and a tie and a sweater vest, and I had a great time there. I taught for a month or two and really enjoyed it, and the kids enjoyed it, and after that the students were eager to have me come back so I came back the next fall again as a substitute. They didn’t know my name as Mr. Brown. They just knew me as that guy with the sweater vest. I had to keep up that appearance. Hun decided to hire me back full time in 2008, and ten years later I’m still wearing a sweater vest every day at school.”
Attributing his success in part to the school itself, Mr. Brown emphasized the atmosphere at The Hun School and the small class sizes. ”I couldn’t ask for a better school,” he said. “There are a lot of good schools in Princeton, but there’s something about the Hun School where the relationship between the teachers and students is really like a family. We know each other well. It’s such a wonderful school.”
Keep it Moving
Another apparent secret to Mr. Brown’s success is his constant quest to improve his craft. “I’m always looking at ways to be better,” he said. “I’m never content with how I am as a teacher. I go home and critique myself every day. If there’s a better way I’ll figure that out and I’ll try it. I’ll find a way to make math more accessible. If you really get math you feel so good about yourself, and if you don’t get math you feel like you’re a terrible person, so I just want to make sure that everyone feels good about themselves, and I think math is one of the first steps to do that.”
He described his classroom as much more of a conversation than a lecture. “I’m talking with them about math, keeping it interesting, and because this generation is so saturated with technology and speed, you just have to keep things moving. So I’ll have them up writing problems on the board, then I’ll teach for a bit, then we’ll take a break, then we’ll do group work together, then online practice. They don’t realize that they’re learning. They just know that they’re moving a lot.”
According to Mr. Brown, students’ increasing need for immediate gratification makes teaching more challenging now than ever before. “As the world becomes more saturated with technology, these kids are used to using devices where they can get information so quickly. Immediate gratification is so common that when teachers say this is really important down the line, they don’t understand that. Ten years ago they did, but now it’s hard. You have to adapt as a teacher and make them understand why things down the line are important right now.”
He described how The Hun School works to keep a balance. “We’re always adapting here. We’re way ahead in technology, but we’re also thinking of ways to teach them not just content but skills for life, such as problem-solving, collaboration, and cultural competencies—how to be a person in the world today where you can’t just prepare for a job out of college because that job might not exist in the future. Teaching them these skills really helps them.”
As far as his own future is concerned, 41-year-old Mr. Brown is looking forward to finishing his dissertation and earning his PhD soon — “I’m about 90 percent done” — but has no desire to move. “I’m in no rush to go anywhere,” he said. “I’m very happy where I am. My wife is teaching at Lehigh and she’s happy where she is. My immediate goal is to make my teaching better, keep adapting to this culture of students, always making math and music interesting and helpful for the kids.”
As faculty representative on The Hun Board of Trustees, Mr. Brown is pleased to be helping to plan the school’s future. “I like where it’s going. We’re always looking forward. It’s very impressive. I love being here. I love the students. I love the school.”
And when Ryan isn’t teaching, preparing to teach, or conducting, he can probably be found with his family. While his wife Sun Min is teaching and conducting at Lehigh, Mr. Brown is in charge of their daughter from after school until bedtime.
“Since my wife is from South Korea, I’m always trying to learn the language more and more. I go to a Saturday school at the Korean church where I’m taking language lessons. My daughter and I go hand in hand every Saturday morning and learn Korean together. It’s really fun,” Mr. Brown said.