Math Teacher and Coach Matt Barabasz will begin his fourth school year at Fenwick in August.
What is your educational background?
MB: I graduated in 2014 with a BS from Illinois State University in Secondary Mathematics with a Middle Level Education Endorsement. In 2019 I earned my MA from Concordia University (River Forest) in Educational Leadership Program. Right now, I am looking to begin a Doctorate Program in Educational Leadership; currently looking into Lewis University.
What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?
MB: Upon graduation from college I took my first teaching job at Saint Patrick High School. During my first year teaching, I also coached the sophomore football team and both varsity/JV track. The following year I was named the head sophomore football coach and head varsity track coach, which I continued to hold until I made my move to Fenwick.
During my time teaching and coaching, I also gave presentations on different educational philosophies and skills that I have been learning and using within my years as a new teacher. In 2015, I presented “Brain Breaks” at the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics (ICTM) Conference, and in 2017 I presented “The Use of iPads to Create an Engaging Classroom” at the Mathematics Teacher Association of Chicago (MTA) dinner. (Roger Finnell has been on the board of this committee since 1968.)
What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
MB: I am reading Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, which is a tribute to teachers everywhere. I was given this book from my then great mentor and now friend, Chad Cluver. Chad was my corresponding teacher while I was a student teacher at Moroa-Forsyth [near Bloomington, IL]. During the year I spent there, I learned and grew an incredible amount due to Chad and the amount he continued to push and support me. He is currently doing amazing things both in and out of the classroom. I am truly blessed to have a great friend to continually provide me advice and guidance.
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
MB: I have many interests that take up my time outside of the classroom. Aside from continuing my education through completing various grants and courses, I also coach football for Fenwick. Away from Fenwick, still working within education, I am a member of AdvancED, which is an organization that conducts rigorous, on-site reviews of a variety of educational institutions and systems to ensure that all learners realize their full potential.
On a more personal level, I compete in many intramural leagues, football and softball, across the different neighborhoods in Chicago. I love animals and the outdoors. From sixth grade until I accepted my first teaching job, I volunteered and worked at the Park Ridge Park District Nature Center. When I was younger, I would volunteer every Saturday at the Nature Center. Once I turned 16 I took on many roles there. I was hired as a manager to oversee the volunteer staff, run nature birthday parties, run campfires, run outdoor skills courses, and for six years I ran one of their nature summer camps.
Animals have been and are a huge part of my life. In the summer of 2018 I adopted my dog, Bella, and she takes up a lot of my time. Each day we go on a lot of walks and adventures around the city. Also, almost every summer morning I will drop my kayak into the Chicago River and spend a few hours paddling.
When I have time I love to get out my old charcoal and graphite supplies to draw. Art has always been a big passion of mine as well. At Illinois State University, my original plan was to double major in Mathematics and Art; however, the scheduling did not work within the four-year constraint I wanted to complete it in.
Lastly, I am a huge Chicago sports fan. If there is a Bears, Cubs or Blackhawks game on, if I am not there I am watching it.
To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?
MB: Going back to when I was in high school I was a member of Student Council, Art Club, Football and Track.
Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?
- Sophomore Football Coach: 2017-19
- Freshman Football Coach: 2020 – current
- Sailing Club Moderator: 2019 – current
- PAWS Club Moderator: 2019 – current
What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?
MB: The two biggest qualities I see in all the students I teach are determination and self-advocacy. Each year I am continually surprised by how much I can educationally push these students and what they can achieve. Also, I am continually impressed by how much they will speak up for their learning and themselves. It is amazing to see this skill being engrained with so many of our students. So many people are okay being passive and not speaking up for themselves; however, at Fenwick the students advocate for themselves and their learning and will not settle for anything but the best.
When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
MB: There are two distinct things that have paved my path. I remember sitting in my sophomore Geometry class, thinking, “What the heck are we learning?” This is a typical thought that runs through most sophomores’ heads as they are trying to grasp the brand new concept of Geometry. Mathematics was a subject that I was always okay in. I didn’t hate going to class, but most of the time, like most students, I felt lost and confused. It was in the Sophomore Geometry class where I started to realize [that] everyone is just as confused as I am! Once that reality clicked, I started to put more time into studying with friends and concepts started to click. As we would work together and learn, I gained a feeling of great accomplishment. When something finally makes sense to someone else, there’s this little look that always happens. It is that look and that feeling of accomplishment that partially drove me to the field education.
The second was my grandfather. As a child, I only had one pair of grandparents (my father’s parents both passed when he was a teenager). My grandfather was a man I cannot even begin to describe. Anytime there was something wrong, he was right there with me. He sparked my passion into the arts, being an incredible artist himself, and was always someone I needed by my side. When I was younger, I was always spending my weekends with my grandpa. My grandfather made a huge impact within the educational world. He was a teacher for many years, but then made his way to being the president of a Chicago school. To this day, my grandma shows me articles of the amazing things he had accomplished and all the recognition he gained for his hard work and dedication to the students and families. If I can become half the teacher and man that he was, I will have a very successful career and life. [Note: Matt’s grandfather, the late Dr. Allen Zak, retired in 1991 as superintendent of School District 102 in La Grange Park, IL. He also was a former superintendent of schools in West Northfield District 31 in Northbrook, IL.]
What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
MB: I believe the biggest strength I have as a teacher is being relatable. We, as teachers, forget what it’s like being a kid sometimes. We as teachers forget that we spend our time around many other teachers, who were typically the best students. We tend to forget that the majority of our students aren’t like that, and we need to remember what life is like for a 15- to 18-year-old.
Also, during the school year I try to learn as much as I can about each student individually. What do they have a passion for and how can I show them I care and support them? I try to make as many other Fenwick activities as my schedule allows to see the side of my students the classroom does not typically allow. Only once we can understand each student as a whole person is when we can begin to truly teach.
What are your favorite classes to teach?
MB: I enjoy teaching Geometry. It is a very fun and intriguing course to dig in to and show the applications in our daily lives. It is also where usually a lot of students who struggle find their greatest successes.
What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?
MB: I remember my first year teaching, I had a fifth-year senior who kept on failing his math course and he had absolutely no motivation. This student had many personal issues at home and had involvement with gang activity. I remember that just by acting as myself and talking to this student as a real person, rather than a student, we were able to establish a very tight bond. It took a while; at first I would get him to come in for tutoring about once a month (if I was lucky). After a bit, though, I had him staying after [school] with me several times a week. We would work on his math together and just talk. By the end of the year he was able to finally graduate and he continued to go to a two-year university to become a mechanic.
What challenges face students today?
MB: Proper usage of technology. We grew up in a world where in order to do something, you had to be there in person. Now, things can be sent across the world in a matter of seconds. While this has been an amazing accomplishment, it does not come without a price. Virtual bullying and the need for approval over the Internet is something that exists today that most of us do not have experience with. Students feel such a pressure from society to get as many likes and approvals as possible over the many social-media apps.
I remember being so scared to go to school one day because I had a pimple on my nose; I actually made myself sick. That fear was slightly relieved once I finally faced people and it wasn’t such a huge deal; people still treated me the same. However, in today’s world students have the ability to capture moments and send them across the Internet for the entire world to see. Some don’t realize the impact they are having on other’s lives, and all it takes is a click on the ‘send’ button.