by Wendi Wheeler ’06
In high school, Tracy Bibelnieks played the alto saxophone. At Arrowhead Music Camp near Duluth, Minn., she met Miles “Mity” Johnson, celebrated conductor of the St. Olaf College band.
“We were in rehearsal,” she recalls, “and we just weren’t getting it. The piccolo player had an important part, and just didn’t get it.” Mity stopped the rehearsal, stepped off the podium, stood for a moment, and then stepped back on the podium. Without saying anything, he began to sing the piccolo part. “I remember being captivated by the deep and powerful insight into the music Mity conveyed as he sang.”
That was the first time Bibelnieks understood teaching as a way to translate one’s passion into an educational experience for others. “I left camp inspired and committed to pursue music.” She said to herself, “I’m going to St. Olaf to major in music and I will be the principal saxophonist in the St. Olaf Band under Mity.”
That’s exactly what she did. She did not, however, major in music.
She ventured into mathematics, she says, “to get credit for advanced placement she had at the University of Minnesota.” After deciding not to major in music, the only constant from one semester to the next was a sequence of math courses. At the end of her sophomore year, she took a mathematics theory course for majors. Her professor asked her why she was taking the course. “My reason,” she says, “was no more than [because] it was the next course in the sequence. I thought he was going to tell me I had no business being in the class.” Instead, he said she was excelling in the course and suggested she be a math major. With that, he said, she could go to graduate school, get a PhD, and teach.
The idea of teaching reconnected her with the desire to understand something deeply and use her passion for the subject to teach others. “My teaching style,” she says, “conveys my passion for the relevance, beauty, and application of mathematics. I hope that it draws students into learning mathematics. More than that, however, I hope it draws them in and motivates a desire to reflect on their own passion and talents, mathematics or otherwise, and encourages students to embrace the possibilities that lie ahead.”
After graduate school at Clemson University in South Carolina, Bibelnieks was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota for four years. She then worked as an analytics consultant for IBM.
Then Bibelnieks took four years off from corporate work to raise three sons and a family of goats, rabbits, and chickens in rural Wisconsin. During that time, she continued to stay connected to the teaching community, serving as a substitute teacher in the local high school and working with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on K-12 teacher professional development in mathematics.
She found her way to Augsburg after returning with her family to St. Paul. She was hired for a one-year position at Augsburg at a time when the Mathematics and Education Departments were revisiting how preservice K- 6 teachers were being trained to teach math. She jumped in feet first, she said, investing time to familiarize herself with the research and best practice. “It was almost like completing another graduate degree,” she remarks. With Matt Haines, a professor of mathematics, and Linda Stevens of the education department, she worked to create a professional development program for local charter- school teachers. At the end of her first year at Augsburg, she accepted a tenure-track position in the Mathematics department.
Bibelnieks says teaching teachers to teach mathematics is more than just teaching them more mathematics. “You have to understand how math is understood by children, then translate that into strategies, tools, and lessons that allow for multiple representation of concepts and deep student learning.”
Last summer, Haines, Stevens, and Bibelnieks were awarded a Minnesota Mathematics and Science Teacher Academy grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to provide a professional development program for 6th- to 8th-grade teachers in the St. Cloud and Elk River school districts. Augsburg partnered with Resource Training and Solutions under the direction of Augsburg alumna Rebecca Koelln ’76, ’91 MAL. Together, they provide training and technical assistance to help teachers understand and implement content standards, master the use of multiple instructional approaches, and improve instructional practice as related to student learning and assessment of student learning through use of Lesson Study.
This summer she continues to work with Haines, Stevens, and Koelln to offer a second year of the Teacher Academy. She also recently assumed the position of director of the Minnesota State High School Mathematics League.
Bibelnieks knows there are many opportunities for her outside of higher education. But leaving teaching is simply not an option.
She’d miss the students who fuel her passion for teaching. “They continue to challenge me to bring experiences into my classroom that are meaningful and engaging.” She adds, “Teaching is a significant part of who I am.”