SMALL TOWNS: Stockbridge math teacher living the dream

A unique journey to becoming a math teacher
Published: Jul. 6, 2023 at 6:25 PM CDT
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STOCKBRIDGE, Wis. (WBAY) - At an age when most teachers are retiring or already retired, a Stockbridge woman is just getting started.

Before the school year wrapped up, we traveled to Calumet County to meet the one and only “Ms. K.” This week in Small Towns, the unique journey she traveled to becoming a math teacher.

Inside Lori Knoespel’s classroom, math instruction is always accompanied by a little humor.

“And this will cover what we’ve learned so far in chapter 11 and what we’ve learned in chapter 10. Oh my God, you got to remember something from a previous chapter. Kill me now,” Lori says jokingly to her geometry class.

Fifteen years ago, a wrong turn in Calumet County proved to be the best mistake Ms. K ever made.

“Obviously I wasn’t paying attention or I was singing a song on the radio and my car went straight and I ended up driving my Stockbridge Schools, which was a hoot because I can remember being in the gym cheerleading for Gibraltar in 1979, I never even knew where this school existed, you just got on a bus and you went. I was like, I know this school. So they had a sign outside that said we need substitute teachers, so I called,” recalls Lori.

One of the smallest school districts in the state, Stockbridge hired Lori as a part-time library aide.

It didn’t take long for students to discover Ms. K, a former social worker, was a math whiz.

“The middle school kids would come down and I was like, ‘Hey, I can help you.’ They’re like, ‘Seriously? You know math?’ Yeah, I know math, and so I started helping them. Well, they started coming down at lunchtime and at points in time I would have 12 kids in the library during lunch to work math problems,” explains Lori.

School administrators, so impressed by Lori, encouraged her to pursue her dream job, offering to support her in getting her teaching degree and license to become a math teacher.

In 2015 she started the process, and just as she was about to finish up, COVID arrived.

“So I couldn’t get my tests in. Everything was shut down. The State of Wisconsin was, well, you have to get this done because you’re on an emergency license and we’re going to pull you license. So it was a nerve-racking time, but as soon as it was opened up I did my tests, passed with flying colors, and the happiest day of my life was the picture of when I went out to my mailbox and got my certificate. I was like, yes, selfie time! It was great,” says Lori with laughter.

In late May, at the age of 62, Lori completed her second year as a full-time teacher.

At Stockbridge, she is the math department, teaching seven different levels of math during the year.

“I think the reason I love math is it’s black and white, there’s no gray; you’re either right or you’re wrong, you don’t have to interpret anything, you can’t offend somebody because it’s either right or wrong,” says Lori.

Ask any of her students and they will tell you, Ms. K is an awesome teacher who is deeply committed and cares about them.

“The amount of time she puts in and sets aside for you is just unparalleled, really. She wants to make a difference, and I think she does that here with each and every student,” says graduating senior Conner Funk.

“She’s always willing to help no matter how long it takes her or if it distracts her from other priorities. She’s always willing to help,” adds graduating senior Maddie Spreeman.

Ms. K’s eagerness to help includes opening her classroom to work with students at night and on the weekends.

“We have kids that are coming from college-level math that have graduated that are coming back, and, ‘Ms. K can you help me with this assignment? I don’t get it.’ That’s what she lives for. I mean, it’s her passion,” says Stockbridge principal Curt Meshak.

“I can bring life experience into the classroom and get the kids to understand when I’m teaching to them how this applies once you leave the halls of Stockbridge,” says Lori about being an older teacher.

And if Lori has her way, she’ll be in the halls of Stockbridge into her 70s, sharing her love for math in her newfound profession.

“I have a quote that I live by, it’s my favorite quote, it’s from Cinderella Story, and it basically says, ‘Don’t let the fear of a strikeout keep you from playing the game,’ and that’s it. I tell my students that all the time, you fail, pick yourself up, it’s not a big deal. You learn from your failures. And that is how I felt at this point in time.

“Yeah it was crazy they were offering me this. Did I have any idea that I could pull it off? Absolutely not. Was I willing to try? What did I have to lose,” says Lori with a smile.