Students in Maggie Gruber’s third and fourth-grade classes learn many things, but none more important than the meaning of the word “yet,” which hangs in large letters at the front of their Hough Street School classroom.
Used as an adverb to mean something is still possible, still achievable, “yet” implies growth, which is the primary job of the young mind, of every mind, as Gruber sees it.
“It changes everything,” Gruber said. “When a child says to me ‘I’m not good at math,’ I say ‘You’re not good - yet.’ The word ‘yet’ allows me to be ever hopeful about children, ever hopeful about myself.”
Gruber, who exudes the essence of every great teacher – a passion for learning – will retire this spring after 30 years at Hough in Barrington District 220. Twenty-five of those years have been spent feeding the ravenous demand for knowledge by high-aptitude learners enrolled in the school’s Extended Self-Contained Program.
The Barrington resident teaches students who test in the top one or two percent in the school for IQ, who are not necessarily tops in terms of academic achievement, but who possess exceptional aptitude for problem solving and critical thinking. Gruber’s kids are not always good spellers or voracious readers. Some of them have learning disabilities. Many need to be challenged, like the student who entered the class reading “The Baby-sitter’s Club” series of fictional novels on the lives of 13-year-old girls.
“But when she saw the caliber of books her classmates were reading,” Gruber said, “she changed. She saw possibilities she didn’t see before. Students see it’s acceptable to have a passion that the other kids don’t understand, because that’s what they see with their peers here in my room. They get permission for excellence.”
That fostering is why Gruber gets so “jazzed” about teaching at Hough. “It’s so exciting to me,” she said. “That’s why I’ve been in love with my job for so long. That’s why the retiring part is so scary. But I will be reinventing myself, I’m sure.”
Gruber, who will spend more time with her grown children and grandchildren in retirement, may pursue a second career, perhaps a graduate degree in theology, study in nutrition, or advanced guitar lessons, will continue to teach about a “growth mindset,” a philosophy put forward by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in the book, “Mindset”. Gruber wears a comically tall hat with flowers sprouting from the top to help her students envision the idea that the brain can continue to grow, form new neural pathways, when it is fed with learning and trying and hard work.
“The mindset that you chose or that you are raised to believe ends up determining so many things, including whether or not your child is willing to accept a challenge,” Gruber said. “If you have a fixed mindset, you don’t like to accept a challenge, unless you can win. If you fail, you don’t want to try again because you don’t want that information about yourself. If you have a growth mindset, when you tackle a challenging task and you don’t do well at it, you continue, you persevere.”
The growth mindset urges parents and teachers to praise children for process, not product. “We can say ‘Billy, you’re such a great writer,’” Gruber said. “But Billy doesn’t know how to be a great writer. We need to capture what it is about his writing that’s wonderful and in doing so, Billy knows how to replicate that in the future. That’s huge for education.”
A native of Oak Park, Gruber was raised by parents who taught in Chicago public schools.
“I grew up never wanting to be a teacher,” she said. “I always wanted to be something more, something greater, a doctor. I think so often people take the path their parents take because they know the route.”
Gruber earned a degree in education, taught kindergarten briefly, then took eight years off to raise three children. When her former husband was accepted into medical school at age 33, serendipity stepped in. “I was standing in line at the library with my kids, 4, 6, and 8 at the time, talking to the librarian,” Gruber recalled. “I told her I needed a job, that my husband was going to medical school.”
The woman behind her, who turned out to be District 220 teacher Judy Eby, overheard and told her about an opening at Hough. Gruber quickly called former longtime Hough Principal, Marie Plozay, who started the district’s gifted education program.
“I didn’t have a resume,” Gruber said. “I didn’t have anything. I just had me.” Gruber taught first grade at Hough for three years and then Plozay asked her to take over the two lower grades of the third through sixth grade self-contained program. She took the job with reservations. But Plozay noted that as a parent whose children had excelled in the program, Gruber possessed valuable insight.
“The first year I had my son in my class, which I don’t recommend,” Gruber said. “He was wonderful, but you can never go home and complain about your teacher when she’s your mother.”
Gruber sparkles after a long day of teaching. She recently relaxed in her classroom’s “den,” a corner spot with a comfy couch, big pillows, and kitschy touches including a hand chair and a curtain of beads suspended from the ceiling.
“It was a fit for me,” she said as she looked back on a career of shaping and sharpening and showing young minds the profundity of possibility. “I loved that I was always learning. That’s my raison d’être, to always be learning. I love learning and growing and developing. Teaching this class, that’s what’s so crazy fun about it.”
The self-contained curriculum rotates every three years, which keeps learning fresh.
“What I love is I never get too comfortable with any of the curricular areas,” Gruber said. “Three years later, you don’t remember exactly how you did it three years before, and you get to rethink it. It’s really important that your curriculum fit your crew.”
If her students have particular interest in art, Gruber chooses more artistic activities. If the interest bends toward science, a unit on oceanography might go longer and deeper than in the previous year. “What has meant the most to me are the opportunities to become part of my students lives,” said Gruber, who once traveled to Arizona to attend the wedding of an especially “dear” student. “I love to go to their ballgames, to their plays, to their concerts, their bat mitzvahs, their Eagle Scout ceremonies.”
Top teachers know a secret, one they are glad to share. “A relationship with your students is what allows you to impact them,” Gruber said. “If they know that you care about them in a broader sense than how they did on a test, they’re more motivated to learn.”
Twelve other District 220 classroom teachers will retire this year. “They all deserve to be honored,” said Gruber, who leads Hough’s Chess Without Borders club, which has raised funds to improve the lives of children in Govindpuri slum in Delhi, India, where Gruber has visited and where, she sheepishly mentions, the Maggie Gruber Computer Center continues to receive donations of equipment.
Children, Gruber insists, gain self-esteem by mastering difficult tasks, not by being told how wonderful they are. Certain to master her own next chapter, Gruber insists that after more than 30 years of teaching, each day is still an adventure.
“Every day is new,” she said. “My kids have challenged me every day to be more, to learn more, and to find the answer.”
From the moment we entered Maggie’s classroom, we were convinced she’d reignite our son’s academic ambition in mere moments. She’d look straight into each student’s eyes with a compassion that reached right down into their soul. Her energy, ideas, and dedication are second-to-none. At Hough, she fostered a strong family feeling, encouraging her students to respect and care for each other. We feel blessed that our son was molded by a true champion in the academic arena.
My mother is generous. She will meet any need she sees. She not only attended nearly every play, sporting event, and other activity I participated in as a youth, but she does this for her students. She loves this community and she has quietly inspired students for 35 years to learn and grow. She is a humble, dedicated, and thoroughly selfless individual. And on top of that, she is really, really fun. I am so blessed to call her “Mom.”
Maggie and I became friends working with students on developing chess, service, and philanthropy. Maggie and I traveled to India to help a little burn victim from the slums of Delhi. Maggie made friends easily and even taught a class to a group of teachers who barely spoke English. I asked Maggie how it went and she said, “I didn’t know how to communicate so I asked them about the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire.” This is how creative, caring, and funny Maggie is as a person. She combines diligence and brilliance in whatever she does.
Maggie has the gift of finding what a student’s strength is and helping them to develop it. Maggie is nurturing and worked well with kids as they transitioned to a new environment. My college student and his friend, now at West Point, came to visit Maggie last year. I overheard the Barrington graduates tell her, “We learned the most during the time we were in self-contained and it was a fun time, too.” That speaks volumes. Her presence will be missed at Hough Street School.
My mother is quite possibly the most generous person I’ve ever met. She once came all the way to Buenos Aires just to make Thanksgiving dinner for me, because she knew I wouldn’t be able to come home to be with family. She has a brilliant mind, something I’ve always admired. There’s no one with whom I’d rather ponder things, and my favorite memories with her occurred when there was little else to do but sit and talk, whether in an auto-rickshaw careening through the streets of New Delhi, or huddled around a bonfire in our backyard in Barrington. She elevates my thinking, and I really treasure any downtime we get to share.
Maggie Gruber is one of the kindest people I’ve known. What made her extraordinary was how much she looked out for her students, even outside the classroom. When I was in her class, I was unexpectedly left without a nanny to take care of me one summer and Mrs. G actually found a special summer camp for me to attend. When she learned that it let out before my parents got home from work, she picked me up and let me stay at her house for a few hours each day. Her encouragement and support taught me resilience. Her enthusiasm taught me to love learning.
My wife and I consider ourselves blessed that our son had the opportunity to be in her class. She instills in children the belief that they can do anything; she believes that, and the children do as well. Her commitment of time, her dedication to each pupil as an individual, and her level of enthusiasm combined with her love of the children and love of the job make her wholly unique.
I have had the honor, privilege, and once-in-a-lifetime experience of working alongside Maggie for the last nine years. We have herded students onto L trains in Chicago, led them through overgrown forest paths, donned pirate costumes to introduce Treasure Island, and stalked the elusive metaphor. She has an insatiable thirst for learning and boundless optimism about the future. Maggie makes no small plans, and her vision of what is possible is brought to fruition by her indomitable spirit and enthusiasm. It is impossible to say no to her. Everyone is caught in her web of energy neatly and perfectly. Maggie’s laughter fills the hallways of our school and her giving spirit graces the walls, and our hearts. She makes me want to be worthy of her respect.
Maggie is one of the neatest people I know. She’s a natural leader who, without cajoling, motivates students and peers to want to excel. She believes in their abilities even if they don’t see their own potential. Maggie provides the inspiration, the tools, and the support needed to achieve success. In addition to being one of the best teachers I have worked with over a 30-year career. I’m lucky to have Maggie as a friend.
(Lorraine Plum is the former Principal of Hough Street School and Director of the Gifted Program.)Maggie eases the transition for children and parents leaving their home schools to attend the gifted program at Hough. Her vibrant classroom is abuzz with intellectual activity. When Maggie designs a unit of study—it is a thing of beauty! She researches, collaborates with colleagues, integrates students’ interests, uses the best resources, field experiences, and speakers to craft totally engaging learning experiences. Love of language and story is captured when Maggie reads aloud. Students emulate these qualities as they enthusiastically embrace and annually perform Shakespeare under Mrs. Gruber’s expert direction. Thank you for being a brilliant teacher!
I first met Maggie about 30 years ago when I helped interview her for a teaching position. Luckily, she became my colleague, and dear friend. Her warmth and honesty draw people in. Maggie also exudes a keen sense of humor, and a sense of spontaneity and zaniness that keep the fun in learning. Maggie’s genuine charm, and profound intellectual curiosity are a model that her students clamor to emulate! She is an inspiration as a teacher, and a blessing as a loving and giving friend.
Maggie Gruber has touched countless lives. The epitome of a dedicated educator and a lifelong learner, Maggie is admired for the wonderful qualities she possesses and incorporates into the teaching profession. Maggie not only challenges her students, but challenges herself to excel. Maggie has truly been a gift to District 220. Her legacy will
continue—in the future successes of her students, as well as all the people Maggie has touched as an educator, colleague, and friend.
Mrs. Gruber was “that cool teacher” who had a pet bunny in her classroom. Everyone seemed to love and respect her. Now, I see why. She has shown me what it means to live a giving and fulfilling life. The way she is respectful and caring towards the people around her is an inspiration. I strive to live my life with an attitude as positive and sincere as hers.
Maggie is a beautiful person, inside and out. Acrostics were a favorite activity in Maggie’s class: Multitudes of students who love learning as a result of Maggie’s passion; Amaryllis bulbs for each student and so many gifts and supplies, all out of her own pocket; Gee, the lights are still on, and Maggie’s in her classroom at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night; Games, puzzles, and riddles – never a dull moment in the classroom; Imagination that transforms the class into Shakespeare playwrights, robotics engineers, and inventors; and Energetic, entertaining, enlightening, enthralling, extraordinary!
I have enjoyed a unique perspective on her teaching career. As an infant, I was a permanent fixture, in the corner of her classroom in a playpen. I attended Hough Street School as a student while she taught down the hall. My brother, sister, and I would spend early mornings, afternoons, and weekends in my mom’s classroom. I loved helping my mom. Some of my most cherished early memories are of my mom spontaneously pulling over to the side of the road and turning the three of us kids loose to overturn every milkweed leaf to hunt for cocoons for her classroom. To this day, seeing milkweeds brings back a flood of wonderful memories.
During college, I used to love to return to mom’s classroom. I would come home early on a Friday, if home for the weekend, so I could surprise her at the end of her day. I used to love those magical few moments where I would stand in the door of her classroom, quietly observing her teaching before she was aware of my presence. It was amazing to watch her – she was always so animated and alive while teaching. I consider myself very blessed to have such an amazing mother.
Mrs. Gruber’s unconditional love and guidance impacted my children and their friends. The programs she has implemented for her students, including drama, chess, folk tale night, and NaNoWriMo, have instilled key qualities in our children. Her compassionate persona sets a great lifetime role model for these children. She is such an extraordinary person in our community and we are so lucky to have her.
Judy Masterson is a writer who lives in Lake County and is a frequent contributor to Quintessential Barrington.
Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share with you exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in the community. For more information about Quintessential People™, contact QB or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits by Thomas) at 847-381-7710 or www.portraitsbythomas.com