Kentucky tech teacher is one tough mother to her students
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
IT instructor Debra Gruber is just 5 feet, 2 inches tall, but she strides like a colossus through the halls of McCracken County High School, in Paducah, Ky. Gruber is the sort of teacher we all needed — one who pulls you into their orbit and changes your life in ways you never thought possible.
A combination of Mother Teresa and a Marine Corps drill-instructor, Gruber loves her students and will do whatever it takes to help them achieve success, all while taking “absolutely no (flak) out of them.”
“My mission is to change this world one student at a time,” she said. “I am here to help students learn the skills needed to transition to the world beyond high school.”
And transition they do. “Many of our students are able to walk out of our IT programs and land jobs making more money than I am,” she said. Her students are so skilled that local businesses are now contacting them to create web sites.
Preparing students for the real world
Two powerful and effective aspects of Gruber’s teaching style are an emphasis on employability skills and a refreshingly brutal honesty. “I incorporate employability skills, along with the tech stuff, at every opportunity,” she said. “I tell my students that soft skills matter. Showing up on time, doing your job without excuses, and working with others are very important.
“If you don’t have soft skills, it don’t matter how many IT skills you have, you won’t be able to find or keep a job.”
Tough love is a Gruber classroom trait that new students often find surprising. “I’m a fun, but strict teacher,” she said. Students adhere to firm schedules for attendance and assignments, and those who are late quickly learn that there is a price to be paid.
“They lose points for being late to class and on assignments,” she said. “I’m not most teachers. A due date for an assignment is a due date. And you can’t pull mommy or daddy in here to make me change your grade.”
Gruber is the type of teacher who would blast helicopter parents out of the sky for shielding their students from consequences. She isn’t shy about telling students what their future holds if they fail to perform in the workforce: “The IT world is competitive. If you’re not cutting the mustard for your employer, then you’re out. You’ll lose your job and they’ll get someone else to fill your position.
“You lose your job, and with no severance pay, and you can’t pay your rent and now you’re living in a cardboard box in the middle of winter and its cold as (heck)!”
He creed is “The truth and nothing but the truth” regarding the consequences of non-performance. “I tell them the absolute truth, they need to know it,” she said. “One day they will be working and have a moment of clarity and say, ‘Gruber was right.’ ”
A roundabout path to the classroom
Born and raised in Illinois, Gruber followed a path to IT instruction that was filled with interesting twists and turns. Like many young people, she went through what she described as her “rebellious period.” Fortunately, after a few youthful indiscretions, she found herself in the small town of Paducah where she met Mark Gruber, the man of her dreams. They’ve been happily married now for 30 years.
“It was love at first sight,” she said. “We wanted the same things out of life, and he has always been my inspiration to change and try to make myself better.”
The Grubers are a good team and, like all good teams, they back each other up. When Mark ended up on disability following a motorcycle accident, his role became holding things down at home while Gruber went out to work.
After working her way through a succession of menial jobs, Gruber realized she wanted more out of life and needed to make some changes. “My Dad always said, ‘If you don’t like something, change it.’ I didn’t like the jobs I had to work, and I decided it was time to do something about it.”
While she describes her transition to information technology as basically unfolding without a hitch — “Bing, Bang, Boom! Here I am” — it didn’t play out entirely without challenges. Just as she completed an associate’s degree in science, Mark was diagnosed with bladder cancer and Gruber dropped out of school to work a position managing the tutoring center at a local community college.
Never one to give up in the face of difficult obstacles, she took classes on the side and eventually earned a second associate’s degree, this time in Applied Science with an emphasis on Management Information Systems — a mix of computers and business.
Upon graduation, a professor encouraged her to apply for a position at the Paducah Area Technology Center. She applied and, to her surprise, was invited to interview. “I felt like I had no chance,” she said. “I was afraid they would see my knees knocking the whole time they were interviewing me.”
Despite her fears, Gruber was hired and was soon taking teaching classes to prepare for the coming school year.
Learning about teaching
It was in one of these teaching classes that Gruber learned what she considers the most important aspect of teaching. “The instructor asked what our jobs were as teachers. I threw my hand up and said, ‘To teach the students what I know about the subject matter.’
“He said that was only part of the job. That in a vocational setting we are also the parental contact for our students — we are their first success. That statement really opened my eyes to the concerns of others.”
Gruber realized that many students faced difficult challenges and decided to do whatever she could to help. “So many students come from broken homes and face tough and really bad situations. I realized they needed any help I could give.”
After teaching for 13 years, Gruber was asked to develop and teach in a satellite IT program at McCracken High. “It was the best move of my career,” she said. “I went from having at most 30 students to now having 240 students come through my program.”
McCracken’s technical program has become so popular that one of the business teachers was enlisted to assist Gruber by teaching two sections of website design classes and the digital literacy classes. Gruber readily admits that her program is successful in large part because of support from school administration. She reports to three separate principals, and loudly sings their praises for supporting IT.
“They all work together to ensure my students have the best learning environment,” she said. “Each one supports certification and works hard to get us the resources we need.”
Administration is equally appreciative of Gruber and her accomplishments. “Gruber is a champion of the IT Industry, but more importantly she loves her students,” said Principal Michael Ceglinski. “Her enthusiasm is unmatched. The students have grown to love technology because they see the passion in her.
“I know our kids are gaining the skills they need to be competitive in this global society through these great programs.”
McCracken’s IT program has become increasingly successful in preparing students to learn IT and earn certifications. Gruber uses TestOut Corporation courseware in her classes. In 2016, her students averaged an 80 percent pass rate with TestOut’s PC Pro course — the national average was 70 percent.
She prefers PC Pro over CompTIA’s A+ study material “because of the in-depth hands-on knowledge and the skills it helps the students develop.” She is also a big fan of TestOut’s LabSim learning platform because “the material is lined up and laid out for all you need and the practice questions are applicable to the real-world workforce.”
A special bond with her students
Gruber’s strict and demanding style of instruction is coupled with an uncanny ability to build sincere relationships with students. Her classes typically consist of 30 students — sometimes more, when she can squeeze them in — and they include a wide variety of young people.
“I got all kinds of students in my classes. They range from those with learning disabilities to real computer geeks, and all in between,” she said. “I get the jocks, AP students, music, drama, engineering, business, media arts, and agriculture students.”
Because she believes in the importance of making a connection with every student in her classes, Gruber, within the first week of school, makes it a point to learn and use their names. “It’s important to them that I use their names. It shows respect and helps them know I care,” she said.
Known throughout the school as “Momma G,” Gruber also draws in and supports those who aren’t in her classes. “I once had a girl who didn’t have a mom. She wasn’t in my class, but she was struggling with some personal issues and as a teacher it’s my place to help her any way I can,” she said.
This young lady would drop by Gruber’s classroom whenever she felt the need for a reassuring hug or words of encouragement. “I’m a hugger,” Gruber said. “Hugs, prayers, whatever they need I’m gonna give it. I’m a mom, a teacher and a mentor.”
Gruber is also known for letting her hair down and laughing with students. By her own admission, she has boxed and even “wrassled” with a few students. (Rumor has it that there is a humorous video circulating that highlights her pugilistic proficiency.)
There was also that school trip when her group was busted and fined for accidently setting off a hotel fire alarm — they were cooking pancakes in one of the rooms.
For Halloween, Gruber’s favorite holiday, she celebrates with the students by dressing up in a banana costume, handing out candy, and singing the Buckwheat Boyz ditty “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” (which also happens to be her cell phone ringtone).
During the school year, she somehow finds the time and energy to serve as McCracken’s SkillsUSA advisor, host Girls Who Code and sponsor the National Technical Honor Society.
Assistant principal Matthew Houser, praises Gruber’s influence on the students and how she prepares them for the future. “The kids are getting excited about computer networking, but not just the networking,” Houser said. “They are excited about Mrs. Gruber.
“She is extremely positive and looks for the best in her students. She has been able to motivate students that other educators have had difficulty connecting with at times, and there are dozens of students in this building who consider her their most trusted mentor.”
Of turtles and tanning hides
As full as her schedule is, Gruber does manage to squeeze in some time to relax at home with her family. She and Mark have two sons and are raising their three grandchildren — who she says are “the greatest.”
In her spare time, she enjoys “mind-enhancing” games like Words with Friends and her new favorite, Toy Blast. “I like games that make me think,” she said. “I’m going to fight off Alzheimer’s disease. I want to be that 100-year old lady who can tell you everything she has ever done.”
Gruber also enjoys fishing, working around the yard and … hunting. She is an avid bow hunter and is adept at field dressing a deer and tanning hides.
She likes to window shop for antiques and has a massive collection of ceramic turtles. “I have 800 of them at home and lots more in my classroom. The students love to see who can give me the neatest turtle,” she said.
Gruber is often seen wearing turtle earrings and necklaces. One birthday, her son gave her a live snapping turtle that now lives “somewhere in the backyard.”
Teaching has its rewards
When asked what is the best thing about teaching young people, Gruber has a ready answer. “It’s getting them excited about IT,” she said. “It’s neat to see them light up when they accomplish a task for the first time. I like to see a student that didn’t really like school turn into a student that can’t wait to get to school.”
Gruber is quick to express her gratitude for the opportunity to teach and help students earn IT certifications. “I thank my lucky stars every day that I got chosen to be the one to build McCracken’s program. It has changed so many students’ lives,” she said.
“I believe that if a student can get certs in high school it will give them an easier transition to the next level. The dedication it takes to prepare for a certification gives them the skills needed to go further with their education and careers.”
While she has helped many students, one who stands out in her memory is a young man from a broken home who had “no respect for women.” When other teachers found him impossible to handle, Gruber took him into her class and flat-out refused to tolerate his backtalk or disrespect.
“I really laid into him and eventually he turned around,” she said. The student went on to join the U.S. Marines and was deployed to Iraq, where he received two of the highest non-battle commendation awards for establishing and maintaining network systems. “He is now one of the most respectful men you’ve ever seen,” she said.
Gruber and McCracken’s leadership are focused on making students employable and preparing them for more than just a job. “I tell my students there is a difference between a job and a career,” she said. “A job is what you do to pay the bills, and a career is something you enjoy, something you want to do every day. A career still pays the bills, but you want to do it.
“I wouldn’t quit this job if I won the lottery. I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m making a difference and doing something worthwhile with my life. I was given a second chance when I was younger. I’m gonna make it good.”