Ask an Antelope: Associate professor Ted Rupnow shares love for math with future teachers

Ted Rupnow uses his own experiences to prepare future elementary, middle and high school math teachers.

The associate professor taught in Illinois, Nebraska and Niger, West Africa, before transitioning to his current position, giving him a wealth of knowledge to share with UNK students.

“I have taught nearly every course my future high school teachers will likely have to teach,” he said. “I worked with students who were in complete opposition to school to those who are far more academically gifted and motivated than myself. I have helped students learn in some really difficult conditions and some really great conditions.”

The Rock City, Illinois, native earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics/secondary education from Trinity International University in 2008, a master’s in learning and technology from Western Governors University in 2011, and a doctorate in math education from Illinois State University in 2016.

Why did you decide to teach math?
When I went to college, I was majoring in philosophy and thinking about becoming a pastor, but I found that I missed math. I did not want to give up a career with a direct social impact on people, but I realized that I needed to find a career that also connected with my love of mathematics. Teaching mathematics became the natural choice to combine a love for math and a desire to connect with and impact people.

Tell me about your experiences teaching high school math:
I student taught in North Chicago; I taught for three years at Ralston High School near Omaha; I taught for two years at Sahel Academy in Niamey, Niger, and I was a paraeducator for a year at a substance misuse treatment facility in Normal, Illinois.

In North Chicago, I had a lot of students caught up in gang violence. This even came into the school and, at times, my classroom. Being from a rural area, this helped broaden my perspective on the purposes of schooling and mathematics.

At Ralston High School, I taught courses from pre-algebra through AP calculus. I also coached girls track and worked with the Math Club there. It was a wonderful experience with some great colleagues but there were a lot of difficult lessons for me to learn as a beginning teacher. I was constantly working to learn how to help struggling students, motivate the unmotivated, connect with students from a variety of backgrounds and communicate mathematical ideas in meaningful ways.

At Sahel Academy, I taught all the high school math as well as a physics class, an economics class and a biblical leadership class. Because this was an international school, I taught students from five continents and a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. After our school flooded, we moved into a large house and used the bedrooms as classrooms. On days when the air conditioning wasn’t keeping up too well, I would teach in a 90-degree classroom with a painted piece of plywood as my chalkboard.

As a paraeducator, I worked with students on science and mathematics coursework in hopes that they could either rejoin the school system without falling behind during their treatment program or work toward a GED in place of a traditional diploma.

How did these experiences prepare you for your role at UNK?
One of the biggest things that I have taken from all my experiences that I try to pass on to my preservice teachers is that learning happens in relationships. When I cultivate positive relationships with my students, they inevitably learn more math from me because they are more motivated, more engaged and connected to the content I bring to class.

My first goal in every class I teach is to provide a safe and inclusive space for my students. My second goal is to provide them with experiences of success in a math class. So many people find math classes to be uninviting and places they associate with failure. But I believe every student can learn math and I try to make that happen for every student.

Why did you decide to work at UNK?
UNK is a university that has its priorities in line. We focus on teaching students first and foremost so they can be successful when they leave here. We also care about the whole student and not just their academics or their athletic ability, or some other isolated aspect of who they are. I am also glad to work at a university that produces high-quality research but stays focused on the primary goal of educating students.

What courses do you teach?
I teach courses for preservice teachers including Math for Elementary Teachers I and II, Middle School Math, Inquiry and Proof in 9-12 Mathematics and Advanced Study in 9-12 Mathematics. On occasion, I also teach graduate courses for practicing teachers.

All of these courses help our preservice teachers more deeply understand the mathematics they will teach and develop the skills to communicate mathematical concepts to students in ways they can understand. We talk about things they will actually teach in their classrooms and how to make math accessible for all of their future students.

What sets UNK’s math programs apart from other universities and colleges?
Our math programs at UNK allow students to connect with professors who care about their learning. Our math teaching program provides our students with more experiences in advanced mathematics and more practical experiences in middle and high school classrooms than most other colleges or universities. In comparison with other programs, our students have as much as twice as many hours of field experience in middle and high school classrooms to give them real-world experiences that will prove invaluable as they prepare to teach math.

What do you love most about your job?
I love the relationships. I love seeing students grow in their math achievement. I love seeing attitudes about math change for the better. I love seeing students get excited as they are about to enter the field of education and pass on their love of mathematics to another generation of students. I love bringing my faith into the classroom by showing each student that they matter and that I care about them as a whole person, including their success in my class and their future career.

Share a fun fact about yourself:
My wife and I have four children – Elliott, 6; Josiah, 4 1/2; and twins Quinton and Maxwell, 2 1/2. My oldest was only 3 1/2 when our twins were born, so we had four children under 4 for about four months. Kudos to my wife for giving birth to four children in such a short time frame.

“Ask an Antelope” is a Q&A series highlighting UNK faculty and staff and their impact on the campus and community.