Richfield teacher nominated for top award

Marit Oberle
Marit Oberle

Math is one discipline in which incompetence is socially acceptable, almost a badge of honor for some otherwise well-educated adults.

At the least, many seem unafraid to admit their shortcomings in the subject, and Richfield Middle School Math Director Carrie Vala hears it plenty. She calls it a “pretty pervasive comment.”

But some people are trying to change that. Among them is RMS math teacher Marit Oberle, one of 123 nominees for the 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award.

A short time observing Oberle was all that was necessary for Vala, in her first year at RMS, to write Oberle a letter of recommendation for the award.

Vala credits the seventh-grade teacher with creating a “positive, caring classroom where she gets kids to believe they can be mathematicians.”

Oberle uses a number of different approaches in the classroom, but her greatest claim to fame is her use of technology. RMS Principal Brian Zambreno credited Oberle for implementing the “flipped classroom” model for her students.

The strategy focuses on using classroom time for focused instruction, with students getting the general lesson outside of class on digital devices. As she’s pioneered the effort, Oberle hasn’t forgotten about her colleagues, a factor that Zambreno emphasized.

“You really need people that can really go out and blaze the trail and try things, but also support their colleagues,” Zambreno said.

Oberle made sure to thank those fellow teachers when reflecting on her nomination.

“I’m very honored, but quite honestly work with such amazing people here at the middle school,” she said.

Another facet of her teaching philosophy, she said, is to make students “connect with math in authentic ways.”

For example, a big push in seventh grade this year is proportional reasoning. It’s the thought process used when figuring out percentages or comparing units of measurement, but it also applies to the world of art, coming up in terms of scale. For one activity, Oberle took students to the Minneapolis Institute of Art this year to explore the concept.

It’s part of the ninth-year teacher’s efforts to keep her students engaged and active.

“So many learners are kinesthetic learners,” she said.

That means they learn by moving. Students in Oberle’s classroom get many chances to get out of their desks; sometimes she will have them do yoga poses such as the “tree pose” after completing a math problem. It serves as a “brain break,” she said, and it gives them a moment to reflect on their success.

It’s part of Oberle’s refusal, as witnessed by Vala, to just teach by the numbers.

“Teaching,” Vala said, “is an art and a science.”

A 25-member panel will whittle the nominees down to a group of semi-finalist and finalists over the coming weeks. The winner will be announced during a program May 3 at the Radisson Blu, at Mall of America.

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.