Downes Elementary School teacher Carla Probst focuses on making students take ownership of their education, making sure they know that an education is a path to opportunity.

“I slowly get them to understand that when the work is hard, you’re learning something new,” Probst said.

Probst, who was named Christina School District’s teacher of the year last month, had an unconventional path to the classroom.

The fourth-grade math teacher became an educator after volunteering as her son’s homeroom mother at Downes, leading to her getting a teaching degree in her 30s. Probst has been a teacher for 17 years in the district, and now serves as Downes’ math department chair.

She observes her students to see who needs emotional, social and educational support, since they all have different needs. She compared the work of a teacher to a lighthouse that scans the room to make sure they can identify students who are struggling and why.

Probst focuses on instilling in her students the idea that they are learning to improve themselves, and that when things are hard, that means they are learning something. She tells students they have a “brain file” as a metaphor to help students understand how they gain new knowledge.

“It helps us become a family. They all know that they are struggling together, and they’re learning together,” Probst said.

Probst focuses on changing the mindset for students so they understand school is important and something they can improve at.

“A lot of kids have this mindset that ‘I can’t do this, I’m not smart. I can’t figure this out,’” Probst said. “But I say yes, you can. You just don’t think you can.”

Over the last year, Probst adjusted her style to the virtual world. At home, she used a Kindle attached to a wooden mount to create a projector that she would use as a display screen, to avoid reading off a slideshow and be more engaging.

“I really have loved the challenge of embracing new technology, and it has become seamless,” Probst said. “Quite a few parents have thanked me for not just posting things and having the kids learn themselves.”

She said technology has impacted how students view interactions with others, as they have less one-on-one peer interaction, hurting their ability to share things about themselves, share or make the rules necessary to have a peer group.

“I think a lot of kids come in not with lower self esteem, but with issues of what their places in the world is,” Probst said.

To motivate students, Probst talks about how education can be a pathway to opportunities later in life, which could be college, entrepreneurship or learning a trade.

“We all know that you work hard when you’re an adult. But if you work hard when you’re in school, you have more choices for you,” Probst said. “Or you can goof off now, and then when you’re grown up, you can work hard and not have as many choices.”

Probst will go on to represent Christina in the state teacher of the year competition this fall.

”Since the beginning of the pandemic, our teachers learned a new style of teaching and unique and innovative ways to connect to students,” Superintendent Dan Shelton said. “The profound impact Carla has had on our students will be remembered for years to come.”

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