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Nebraska Teacher of the Year

Amber Vlasnik works with students Nhin Phun (from left), Tien Tran and Ruth Mbui in an accelerated math class at Lincoln High School on Tuesday. Vlasnik, a teacher and math department chairwoman at the school, has been named the 2016 Nebraska Teacher of the Year by the State Department of Education.

From the time she was a kid growing up on a farm near Malcolm, the 2016 Nebraska Teacher of the Year harbored no illusions about the dedication required to be a teacher.

Nor did she harbor any doubts that it’s exactly what she wanted to do.

Years before Nebraska Department of Education officials surprised Amber Vlasnik with the award Tuesday, she spent evenings in a one-room schoolhouse with her mom. One of two teachers in the small school, Vlasnik's mom dragged her kids along when she graded papers, put up new decorations or planned her lessons.

“I’ve seen my entire life that teaching is not an 8-to-3 job.”

Vlasnik, 30, attended that Class I school and also realized, early on, that she had an affinity for math and for explaining it to others, who would listen to the teacher’s lesson then go to her for help.

“I have loved math my entire life, so it started with a passion for math and making sense of the world through numbers,” she said.

It was no surprise that she went from Malcolm High School to earn an education degree from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2008.

She chose to do her student teaching in an urban school in Houston, where she learned to appreciate diversity -- including what it felt like to be the minority in the classroom -- and that to teach effectively she had to get to know the students.

“I learned a lot about how to connect with individual kids rather than looking at the classroom as one unit of kids who all think the same,” she said.

When Vlasnik came back to Nebraska, she taught math at Southeast High for a year and a half, then joined the Lincoln High staff as part of a grant to raise graduation rates.

For the next three years she was a math interventionist, a teacher who worked with struggling students to master math concepts, earn the credits they needed and, ultimately, graduate.

She was doing what she loved, she said, helping kids find different ways to see problems and solve them, to find ways to tap into their love of solving puzzles, or show them how something in which they had no interest was relevant outside the classroom.

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When the grant was up, she started teaching differentiated algebra and accelerated math.

Students in accelerated math were largely English Language Learners -- kids from all over the world who spoke little English and often had had no formal training in math. So, they need to learn both the spoken language and the language of numbers.

Vlasnik said she learned as much as they did about different cultures and how hard it is to land in a place where you know no one and can’t speak the language.

“A big part of what drew me to Lincoln High was the opportunity to work with students who don’t like math, or wouldn’t identify themselves as someone who would be successful in math -- and to change their minds.”

As the Nebraska Teacher of the Year, Vlasnik will get to visit the White House, and she'll be eligible for the National Teacher of the Year Award and participate in several national professional development programs.

And at Lincoln High, she’ll begin coaching other teachers full time. She’s doing it part time this semester and already misses working less directly with students, but she remembers how much math coaches helped her when she started out.

“I feel I can impact more kids, even if it’s in an indirect way,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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