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147 Reasons to Love USM

147 Reasons to Love USM

There’s no fame and glory in teaching. Those who pursue the profession are not chasing monetary rewards, public validation, or even bathroom breaks. They teach because they are called to it. Drawn 
to the lightbulb moments, the achievements big and small, the laughter, the chaos, and the pride in knowing that they played a role in their students’ success. 

At University School of Milwaukee, we are fortunate to have supportive parents, passionate students, beautiful facilities, and ample resources. But none of that would matter without our teachers, all 147* of them, who make this school the special place that it is. We profiled a handful of teachers from each division, and asked them to share what they love about their job. Their answers might surprise you.

*For the purposes of this story, teachers are defined as employees of USM during the 2022–23 fall semester who regularly interacted with students as a function of their role. Many individuals help to guide and support students, including (but not limited to) substitute teachers, staff members, volunteers, advisors, and coaches. Although they are not profiled here, we are extremely grateful for their contributions.

Jessica Roberts smiles with her student during class.

Coming Home to USM

The people are what make University School of Milwaukee so special. I knew that I wanted to come back to USM and raise my son, Parker [Roberts ’36], in the same community that I was raised in. I love teaching here because there’s a buzz and an energy that’s infectious. The opportunities and experiences that the kids have—I’ve never seen anything like it. It seems like everyone is here because they want to be. The families want to be here, the kids want to be here, the teachers want to be here, and it’s just positive and it’s exciting. So yeah, I knew I had to come back; it was just a matter of when and how. I was really grateful that it happened when it did.

- Jessica Roberts ’06, 1st grade teacher

Mike Engroff holds two cans of shaving cream while engaging students in a fun lesson.

Every Child Can Learn

I attended USM from 1st through 8th grade, and two of my teachers—Judy Bloch and Midge Woodward—are ultimately why I went into teaching. They were the nicest, kindest teachers, and they always cared. My teaching philosophy is based on what I learned from them, which is that every child can learn, you just have to figure out how that child learns. In my class, I try to remind each student: Be who you want to be, always have fun, and remember the Common Trust. In the mornings I try to say hi to as many people as I possibly can so that they feel known and valued. You don’t know how they started their day, and sometimes just a happy smile in the morning will go a long way. 

- Mike Engroff, 2nd grade teacher

Sasha Deveaux smiles while teaching a Lower School dance class.

I Feel It’s My Mission

My parents were public school teachers in Chicago, so teaching is kind of in my blood. My passion was not necessarily to be here at USM; I thought I’d have a nonprofit in an urban area, working with students and keeping them off the street. But here, in a classroom setting, I still see kids who are struggling in some way. I feel it’s my mission to give them a place where it’s okay to just be themselves. 

I find, in the Lower School at least, there is a lot of diversity. Kids with different ethnicities and religions, kids from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and kids with different neurological and physical strengths and weaknesses. Some of the students are very athletic or coordinated, and others are not. But I won’t ask them to do something that makes them feel embarrassed. I think this class is really important for their social-emotional development and that is exciting for me. I hope it gives them confidence. I’m happy that all of my education, my upbringing, and my professional experiences have led me to this place where I can be of value.

- Sasha Deveaux, Lower School dance teacher

Katelyn Peter points to a math problem while helping her student.

Their Energy is Everything

I could give you 10 million reasons why I love teaching. The other day, a little boy opened up a book about penguins. And there was a picture of a huge group of penguins in their natural habitat, and he said, “Woah, that is too many penguins.” It was just so funny. Moments like that—their energy is everything. Because we have small class sizes, I get to know my students really well. I love being a teacher here, but it’s also really cool to be a parent here. My own children are so well cared for and loved and welcomed into the building each day by numerous faculty members. But we do that for every student—we as a faculty really want to make sure that they feel seen, and that’s awesome.

-Kaitlyn Peter, 4th grade teacher

Jason Strains holds his hands together while helping students with a fractions lesson.

Lightbulb Moments

My dad was the biggest factor that impacted my decision to become a teacher. He was a civil engineer for 20 years, but he went back to school to become a teacher. Seeing him taking night classes while my mom worked to support us, seeing the family sacrifice so he could pursue his dream, made a big impact on me. And then seeing him become a teacher and be a happier person as a result, that had a huge impact on me.

This is my 11th year of teaching 8th grade math at USM. Prior to USM, I’ve taught math and science at public high schools and middle schools. Some days are hard, like when you have late nights with conferences or coaching. But the thing that keeps me here is getting to work with students every day. Seeing that lightbulb click, when it all finally starts making sense for them. If I didn’t have that, I think it would be a problem for me.

- Jason Strains, 8th grade math teacher

Michael Matera smiles while standing in his classroom.

Emphasis on Community

I’ve been teaching world history here for 15 years. And I guess one of the things that has kept me here is the strong emphasis on community. I know a lot of teachers will say that they like the small class sizes here and they find it easier to teach. But for me, that’s not true, because there’s plenty of demanding things that come from working here versus working at a public school. For me, the win is to work in an environment where people are inspired to be their best and encouraged to follow through on it. I have never worked with a better group of teachers. And to be at a place that wants that and supports that, to me, is the magic of why I stay here.

- Michael Matera, 6th grade history teacher

Kristi Hall smiles while talking to students in her PE class.

It’s Never Dull

Middle School is hands down my favorite. It’s never dull. The kids are just amazing and they’re always so excited to learn. Just eager to get going and get moving and willing to try new activities or a new lesson that I’m trying. For me, it makes my job so much more fun because I know they want to be here. My class sizes are small, so I know every single student, and I know them well. And what’s super neat with PE is that I’ll have my 5th graders, and then I get them again as 6th graders. And then I teach a quarter of the 7th grade and a quarter of 8th grade. So I have some kids right now as 8th graders that I had as 5th graders. I love the fact that I get to see them grow and develop.

- Kristi Hall, Middle School physical education teacher, track coach, and cross country coach

Ivana Renteria helps a student who is conducting research for a project.

My Opinions Are Valued

I didn’t always know that I would be a teacher. I went to college for nursing but one of my professors convinced me to switch majors to teaching. At the time I was a junior, and nervous to make that jump, but she said I would make a good teacher and I trusted her instincts. I thought maybe she saw something that I didn’t see. I’ve been a teacher since 2007, but this is my second year at USM and I love it here. The administrators are always asking me, what do I think about this, or how do I feel about that program, or what about those books, and I love it. I love that my opinions are valued. It’s such a blessing.

- Ivana Rentería, Middle School librarian

Jess Michels positions her hands while teaching kids how to frame a subject in photography class.

Shared Desire to Learn

What do I like about teaching? There’s so much. I love coming to school every day and working with kids who want to learn. I’m not here to discipline or to nitpick, I’m here for the genuine love of learning. When our baseline is a shared desire to learn and improve, which it is at USM, there’s a ton that we can do. I get excited by the little aha moments. I love when students say, “I never thought I could do this,” or “Do you see how much better this is than it used to be?” It just fills me with excitement. I love to garden and to teach for the same reason—I love to see things grow, including myself. I don’t know what else I would be doing if I wasn’t teaching.

- Jessica Michels, Upper School art teacher

Steve Johnson teaches a Lower School orchestra class while students smile and laugh.

I Love It Here

I came to USM in 2014, after having taught in public schools since 1984. It took me awhile to adjust to the fact that, here, I only had to focus on teaching. I didn’t have to worry about minimum class sizes, an overabundance of paperwork, or metrics. USM just wanted me to teach. My style of teaching is to help students understand the intricacies of playing an instrument, but also to share their love of playing that instrument with other people. They don’t have to be the greatest player—I always tell them, no matter what age, they’re not going to be perfect. But this is my ninth year at USM and I just love it here. Had I stayed in public education, I’d be retired right now. But I’m not going to retire until I’m 65. It’s a nice way to end my career.

- Steve Johnson, orchestra director

Amber Bakkum smiles while helping students in the innovation center.

Teaching Through Encouragement

When I was growing up, I was very good at math. And my mom was really good at math. We liked puzzles, and we always thought of math problems as puzzles. I think of math, and by extension, physics, as just another way to do puzzles. You’re given a set of rules to follow. You have some clues, but not everything. And you have to figure out what’s missing.

That’s how I try to frame it for my students. This is a puzzle, and you can do it. I spend a lot of my time encouraging students, because there’s often a mindset of “I can’t do it.” But the students have, time and time again, with enough grit, risen to the occasion. On our first day in physics class I say, “My goal here is not for you to love physics like I do. It’s to make you hate it a little bit less.” So the students know that I’m not trying to push them into physics, which I think takes a little bit of the pressure off. I tell them, “If you leave physics class feeling neutral about its existence, I will declare victory.”

- Dr. Amber Bakkum, Upper School science teacher and FIRST Robotics coach

Drew Mullen engages students in an English lesson.

There’s Nothing More Beautiful

I’ve been a teacher since I was 22. I just love it. I’ve loved it from the moment I started. After college, I taught English in various public high schools, from California to Milwaukee. But after 14 years I was starting to feel a little burned out. I thought, there’s got to be a different way to do this. That’s when I found out about USM. I’ve been here for 13 years now, the longest I’ve been anywhere in my career.

What I love about teaching is the students. I get emotional when I think about it. High school kids especially have such an inherent interest in figuring out this world and who they are. Most of them are exceedingly hopeful. Most of them want to do right. They want to learn and understand. And they’re really resilient. When they go through something tough and difficult and challenging, and then it clicks, there’s nothing more beautiful. I’ll have a class, and I’ll remember where we started in September, and then here we are in May, and I’m listening to them have a round-table discussion. And I know—and they know—that we couldn’t have done this in September. They couldn’t have done this. That is, I mean, that’s the thing. That’s the hook. That’s the moment when I sit back and think, I can’t believe I get paid for this.

-Drew Mullen, Upper School English teacher

Becca Steinbach laughs while teaching a math class.

Every Year is Different

I student taught in two different public schools—one was a Milwaukee Public Schools middle school, the other one was Shorewood High School—and both of them were really nice experiences. But being here at USM, I just had the sense that it was very, very different. The small class sizes, the resources available, and the type of students that are here are better than any other place could be. As I got a little bit older, and when I started my family, the opportunities for my own kids surpassed anything else that I could have imagined. Even though I’ve been teaching the same classes for years, every year is different. I’m always learning something from the students and I just really enjoy them. I started my career here 26 years ago. I’ve never wanted to leave.

- Rebecca Steinbach, Upper School math teacher

Field hockey coaches laugh while walking across the field together.

From left Sarah Titus ’00, Andrea Burlew ’93, Harriette Engel ’14, and Gretchen Mathews ’06

Enduring Legacy

They each played field hockey for USM. They each graduated from USM. They each pursued out-of-state careers in teaching after college. They each, eventually, came back to USM to teach. And they each returned to the sport they love—only this time as coaches. Although they attended USM in different decades, and they currently teach in different divisions of the school, Andrea Burlew ’93, Sarah Titus ’00, Gretchen Mathews ’06, and Harriette Engel ’14 have formed a close bond thanks to their shared passions for teaching and coaching field hockey.
“There’s definitely a legacy here for field hockey,” said Burlew, kindergarten teacher and varsity head coach. “Which is neat, because it’s not a huge sport in southeastern Wisconsin, so we’re trying to keep it going and keep it growing.” USM’s Middle School field hockey program has seen tremendous growth in recent years. “At one point we were adding girls every week,” added Engel, junior kindergarten teacher and Middle School field hockey coach. “We had to borrow jerseys from the Upper School lacrosse team.”

For Mathews, 6th grade math teacher and Middle School field hockey coach, the connection is especially personal.

Liz Krieg Field, which the teams play on, is named for Mathews’ mother, former USM faculty and varsity field hockey coach Liz Krieg ’79, whose coaching legacy resulted in seven consecutive conference championships and five state championships. “They’re big shoes to fill,” admitted Mathews, “but it’s an honor. She always said that coaching was the part of the day she really looked forward to.”

For the women, coaching allows them to return to the sport they love, and see it being enjoyed by future generations. “I love that my daughter, and Andrea’s and Gretchen’s daughters, can come to practice and interact with the older players,” said Titus. “For them to see that leadership in women’s sports is really powerful.”

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