‘I don’t teach math, I teach kids’

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on teachers and staff retiring from New Ulm’s schools this year.

NEW ULM – Despite my being early for our 8:10 a.m. interview, Deb Pribyl, the interviewee, had obviously arrived quite a while earlier.

I found the high school math teacher in her classroom, well into helping students with work. Some of the students were leaving; some were tackling assignments; others were just streaming in.

The picture fit in with one of the phrases administrators recently used to describe Pribyl: “going above and beyond for the benefit of the students.”

Other phrases they used in reference to her include “commitment,” “Integrity” and “hard work.”

During the conversation, Pribyl struck me as caring, professional and pleasant; the kind of comfortable, yet solid, teacher who would help students thrive.

Pribyl is retiring at the end of this school year after 34 years – a professional lifetime – of teaching at the New Ulm junior high and high schools.

Pribyl grew up in Owatonna, attending Owatonna High School. She went on to Mankato State University, graduating with a B.S. degree in teaching mathematics. She was hired, straight away, at the New Ulm Junior High.

She taught three years of math to grades 7-9 under the federal Title I program (an income-based program geared toward struggling students). After Title I funding was cut, she continued to teach math classes at the Junior High/Middle School, for 19 years.

She spent the following 12 years teaching a variety of math courses at the High School, primarily in grades 9-12. She has taught most math courses offered (except pre-calculus and calculus).

Pribyl says she went into teaching because it was the one job she saw people doing daily while in school herself. She liked school, liked her three math teachers, and liked math, so being a math teacher seemed like a good fit.

Pribyl adds that she wasn’t always an A student in math. That “seems to help her” understand the struggles of some of her students.

“It seems to help me teach – knowing how to break it down for them, knowing where they’ve been,” she says.

Another activity that has helped her connect with students is coaching: during her career, she has coached softball and girls basketball.

Pribyl says she has enjoyed the junior-high level students and “their energy.”

“I don’t teach math, I teach kids,” she says. “There is more to teaching than giving out the information… There’s more to it when you connect with a kid…”

“I like what I do, and I like the people,” she also said. “I’ve known some amazing employees: teaching staff, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, administrators…”

Over 34 years, with an average of about 200 students per year taking her classes, she has taught more than 6,000 students.

She has enjoyed watching her students maximize their potential; watching some of them grow from not expecting to like math to loving it, to realizing it is a necessary part of their background and a solid educational foundation.

“I’ve had students who took a couple of years to pass the math graduation test… They continued to work and grow, be the best they can be… and I celebrate that.”

“I’ve also enjoyed watching students enjoy life – dress up on special days – greeting students at the front door on the first day of school – all those things…

“Come next fall, I will miss that…”

Some of her students have grown to be fellow community members, “people I go to church with or attend committee meetings with,” she adds. “It’s a really neat thing!”

Teaching a range of both algebra and geometry courses has helped keep the job “fresh” and interesting, as well, she says. “It’s not like doing the same thing over and over; it makes it broader, in a sense.”

Over the span of her career, her professional field has changed in several different ways, says Pribyl.

“Not so much the kids – kids are kids, they change as you might expect. Even as society changes, they are still neat, fun to teach.”

The way math is being taught, however, has changed.

“There are a lot more concepts, less memorization, and more application,” she says.

After the introduction of sophisticated calculators, for example, students have been expected to move faster past calculation and into applications.

While many changes have been positive, they also have led her to some of her frustrations, she says; not so much with education or the classroom but, rather, with policy makers setting unrealistic goals.

There is a very large range of natural abilities in a classroom, she says. Students are in “very different places” despite being the same age. This makes it a challenge to teach the same thing to all. The brain needs to be mature enough for some concepts (required at an increasingly younger age) to make sense.

Her advice to beginning teachers? Be positive, and be a team member, she says.

She’s seen both teachers who pass through and move on and others who have lasted and grown in their profession. Those who have sought to learn from experience and become a good part of the team have tended to last, she says.

Asked about plans, Pribyl says she will retire from teaching, but will find something else to do.

She will enjoy the change of pace – not being so busy in fall, simply being able to enjoy the fall colors…

With her younger son headed to college, she expects to enjoy having the choice to attend school activities that do not necessary involve her own children, she laughs.

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