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Koppinger retires after 28 years of teaching math in Dickinson

DICKINSON - "I always tell my kids, numbers are life."

Math teacher Allen Koppinger spent 28 years sharing examples of this fact with his Dickinson Public School District students, but this fall he finds himself away from the classroom after retiring at the end of the 2007-08 school year.

"They think when they get out of school, math is done. But then they start naming off things, and I'll give them some example of where numbers come into play," Koppinger said on the last day of school this past spring. "People that work in an office and use a spreadsheet and then they have to figure out the formulas to put into the cells. Well, there's algebra. There's probably a lot more people using algebra who don't even think of it as algebra."

Math classes are the scourge of education for many students of all grade levels, but math has always been fairly easy for Koppinger.

"I don't know if it's just the logic that it's easy for me to think through things," he said. "I remember in junior high having some competitions and giving us some problems to solve. It was me and another student trying to be the first one done."

Two math teachers Koppinger had while attending New England St. Mary's - Jim Schroeder and Larry Luitjens - truly influenced his future.

"I liked math already, but I thought those two were very good teachers. They made you comfortable in class," Koppinger said. "I felt like I was able to learn a lot of things from them. I kind of pattern what I do I guess from what I saw there."

The reason Koppinger became a teacher is because he wanted to coach.

"I just know the longer I taught, I felt a lot more comfortable with what I was doing. Actually, I got to enjoy it more as I went along," he said. "I got into teaching because I wanted to coach. But now teaching is a lot more enjoyable I think than coaching."

Koppinger started teaching in Hebron, where he coached girls' and boys' basketball and girls' track. In coming to Dickinson, he coached those sports and also boys golf at one point.

"I just was always interested in sports growing up. When I started playing in junior high, we had good coaches. The two math teachers I mentioned were two of my coaches as well," he said. "At that time, St. Mary's basketball and football were really big and so you just got interested in it and I just wanted to be part of it."

Koppinger left coaching and focused on the classroom, but kept in touch with athletics by becoming a starter at track meets. He started the state track meet for seven to eight years, but returned to coaching track at DHS four years ago thanks to conversations initiated by coaches Jay Schobinger and Dave Michaelson.

"The hardest part about deciding was I really like starting track meets. I didn't want to give that up," Koppinger said. "I had been doing that about 12 to 14 years plus the state meet...I knew I had four years of teaching left. I could coach for four years and (after) I could get back into starting track meet again."

Koppinger said the past four years were a great experience in working with the DHS track teams.

"Dickinson traditionally has had a pretty good track program and these kids want to continue that. They love this sport," he said. "That just makes the coach's job that much easier."

In the classroom, however, Koppinger said he enjoyed being in front of the students, which made it all easier.

"I have a lot of fun. I think when the students see you're enjoying what you're doing, it gets them a little more motivated," he said. "You just kind of learn some tricks, especially if you are teaching the same class over and over. You kind of see things that they struggle with in the previous class and you try to make some modifications for the next time around."

Koppinger has a hard time, however, trying to explain exactly what he did while he taught.

"I have this sheet I'm supposed to fill out, a questionnaire about the things I do in the classroom. For me, some of that stuff, you just do it; this is the way it's supposed to be done. It's hard to explain," he said.

One of his biggest frustrations as a math teacher was students are much too dependent upon calculators, he said.

"There are things we learned to do in our head, things we could easily do with paper and pencil because we didn't have calculators," he said of learning when he was a student. "Now, they are just so used to grabbing the calculator, some simple problems they could think about a little bit, and maybe come up with an easy way to find the solution, rather than punching it up on the calculator."

Koppinger said there is a place for calculators, however, especially in trigonometry. When he took trigonometry, trig tables were in the math book, but the new trig books don't have the tables so a calculator is needed.

He also thinks a lot of students don't like word problems in math because there are words they have to read.

"When they have to read and try to get information organized and then come up with an equation to solve, it's just a little bit extra for them," Koppinger said. "Maybe it's the whole logic thing. They just have trouble with the logic of putting everything together."

In all of the DHS math classes, Koppinger believed the instructors' goal has been to make sure the students are ready for the next level of classes when they left.

"Now with the No Child Left Behind coming in, we have this set of standards that we're supposed to make sure we cover. It's really made it difficult for our algebra classes," he said.

There are a lot of standards to be addressed for ninth and tenth grade, he said, which prompted the creation of a two-credit algebra 1 class so more time can be spent on the standards to be covered. Overall, Koppinger doesn't believe the new federal requirements are bad.

"It's just that it would have made it easier for us if some of those standards that are considered ninth- and tenth-grade standards would have been moved to 11th and 12th grade," he said. "It's just kind of a struggle right now and of course, we're going to have to make some changes in our department."

Even though Koppinger taught in the classroom for over two decades, he never had any problems maintaining his interest or enthusiasm.

"One of the nice things about a block schedule is our classes change every semester," he said of the DHS curriculum. "So I don't have the same group of kids all year long. You go through one class and then you get a whole new bunch of kids. That keeps everything a little bit fresher as well."

A challenge for any teacher who's just starting is probably classroom management, he said.

"To me, that's the hardest part of being a teacher, is your classroom management. Manage the classroom so you can present the material without disruptions and that sort of thing," he said.

Discipline in the classroom has obviously changed since Koppinger first taught, as he said today you just have to be a bit more careful in handling situations that arise.

"I know when I was in school, and it was probably true when I first started teaching, if a student got in trouble at school, they were in trouble at home again as well," he said. "That was probably something that was kind of positive for teachers. I know that's not necessarily the case anymore. A lot of times it's somebody else's fault."

All teachers need to earn the trust and respect of their students to help produce a positive outcome, Koppinger added.

"I think the way you do that is be fair. If they know they are being treated fairly, a lot of that other stuff takes care of itself," he said. "At first when you start, it's not as easy to do maybe, because you don't know how to handle every situation."

Koppinger is taking this summer off before he gets serious about finding something new to do. But as he looks ahead to not being in the classroom this fall, he said the thing he'll miss most is being there with the students.

"That's probably what a lot of teachers say when they quit, but that's what keeps you doing it. It's not all the meetings and all of that stuff. It's the kids," he said.