Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Kevin Tobe (MI '15)

April 6, 2016

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Math teacher Kevin Tobe (MI '15) switched his career path from engineering to education when he realized he liked helping friends with their problem sets more than fusing together circuit boards. He received his Milken Educator Award at Haslett High School on November 24, 2015.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education? 

Kevin TobeUnlike many of my colleagues, I did not grow up wanting to be a math teacher. This truth was awkwardly juxtaposed against an eerie ability to perform dazzling mathematical feats as a small child. During my childhood, math was not something to be learned; it was a preordained gift. I was the second-grade student awkwardly trudging down to the fifth-grade math class every day, the third-grader banned from playing "Around the World" with my peers, and the preschooler tallying up my mother's grocery bill in real time as the items cascaded into the cart.

Math continued to come naturally to me, and as I headed off to college the selection of a major was an easy choice: I was going to be an engineer. This was my predestined path, my passion and calling. Except that I started to find my middle-school track coaching job far more rewarding, interesting, and energizing than my statics and thermodynamics courses. Finding creative ways to assist my friends with their math problems was more of a provocative challenge than fusing together a circuit board in an electronics lab. So, midway through my undergraduate career, I was inspired to make a change.

MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?

Kevin: Through my teacher education program I drew inspiration from my classmates who sought to improve the world around them by providing opportunities to the disadvantaged through education. I compiled an arsenal of innovative approaches to promote deeper mathematical understanding through constructivism from a quirky genius of a professor: Dr. William Rosenthal, affectionately referred to as "Mr. Bill." My ideas of what education represents were constantly reshaped, dismantled, and reassembled by participating in engaging discourse with people who were passionate about making a difference.

MFF: What was your first job?

Kevin: My first "official" job was cleaning and painting the dorms at Michigan State University during the summer. As you might imagine, the condition of the rooms after a year of heavy usage by college students was somewhat interesting. There were also a few curious finds left behind. I remember finding creative ways with my co-workers to make the job more enjoyable and how camaraderie, conversation, and college radio made me forget the unsavory combination of toxic cleaning products, paint fumes, and the humid July and August air. 

I learned that doing a job well, regardless of the position, brings with it a sense of pride and accomplishment. The attitude you put towards your work goes a long way in determining your success.

MFF: Tell us about your first class.

Kevin: My first classes were predominantly freshmen and covered a wide range of ability levels. In a co-taught class called Conceptual Algebra, I had a handful of students with discipline issues both inside and outside of the classroom. Teaching math became secondary to helping this group find their way to make it through to second hour. I also had two classes of Geometry filled with some of the most mature, intelligent, and thoughtful students I have come across to this day. Their motivation and drive for perfection provided a far different set of challenges to a first-year teacher. 

I found out fast that an underrated part of teaching is the physical and emotional demand of the profession.

MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?

Kevin: I try to avoid convincing my students to choose a career path. In a recent keynote I attended, Jamie Casap, the chief education evangelist at Google, suggested that we should be asking students what problem they want to solve instead of asking them which career they want to pursue. This concept fits beautifully into a conversation with a student concerning a career in education. By challenging such a student to think critically about the change they want to see in the world, their thoughts will likely provide a more intrinsic motivation for becoming an educator.

Also, I like challenging students to think about the impact of technology and what education might look like five to 10 years down the road. What are the challenges facing educators and what innovative approaches might you be a part of in initiating and implementing change?

MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Kevin: The week after the presentation, we had a talk in class about the spotlight shining on all of us. One could easily view the increased attention as a burden and a stressor. Conversely, some view expectations through the lens of opportunity. The students started to see their work and ideas as something of interest to people beyond the walls of Haslett High School.

MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Kevin: The time (or times) each day when an interesting question or comment pops up and changes the direction of the conversation or lesson. The innovative thinking of my students is inspiring and brings out the best in me as a teacher. I love the challenge of trying to navigate through a sudden change in course. It is amazing to watch a student find their voice and realize the power of their words, their thoughts, and their ability to problem-solve.

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Kevin: First, and foremost, I would set up a scholarship fund. The prohibitive cost of college has limited opportunities for a large segment of our school population. It is maddening to listen to stories of highly talented and motivated students forced to make college decisions based solely on financials.

Also, I would look to improve the work environment of our building. Our classroom spaces could use a little bit of 21st-century upgrading via technology, student-centered furniture, and perhaps a geometry-themed maker space. Improvements could be made to foster student creativity and problem-solving capacity. Also, as a selfish track coach concerned about injuries, some of the money might have to go towards resurfacing our track!

MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?

Kevin: I hope they say: "Mr. Tobe believed in me when I had a hard time believing in myself. He helped me find confidence in my abilities as a person, not just a math student. His bizarre fusion of math, stick-figure drawings, and pop culture sparked an interest and curiosity. It also made me question his sanity. To this day, I am not really sure if he listens to Kesha or if it was all a clever ruse. I know every time I stepped into his class, Mr. Tobe gave me his best effort, cared about my well-being, and wanted nothing more than to see me find my place in the world."

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."

Kevin: When former students, some of whom never wanted to say a word in class, take the time to send along a heartfelt thank-you, an update on their lives (some good, some bad), or a memory to a person who possibly helped them more with making it through life than with trigonometry. 

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