Get to Know HFC: Dr. Deborah Zopf helps students overcome fear of math
HFC mathematics instructor Dr. Deborah Zopf knew she wanted to teach math for a living when she was in seventh grade.
“When I was in seventh grade, the ‘New Math’ was introduced to schools. I was fortunate because my teacher took a summer course to prepare herself to teach the content. I fell in love with math! We explored and learned the ‘why’ behind the ‘rules.’ I decided then that I was going to be a math teacher. My love for math continued throughout high school. University math was quite different. I was intrigued by the complexity and worked hard to succeed,” recalled Zopf.
“I loved learning”
The second of four children, Zopf, the daughter of an active duty serviceman, was born in Bethesda, MD. Because her father was in the U.S. Navy, her family moved every three years. When she was 13, her family finally settled in the Metro Detroit area where extended family lived. Zopf currently lives with her husband Mike, the Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations for Northville Public Schools, in Plymouth. Together, they have three children and nine grandchildren (with a 10th on the way).
After graduating from Gabriel Richard Catholic High School in Riverview, Zopf attended Purdue University, earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics education. Zopf earned her master’s degree in mathematics from Eastern Michigan University. She earned her doctoral degree in mathematics education with a focus on teacher preparation from the University of Michigan.
“No matter where I attended school, I loved it. I loved interacting with others. I loved learning,” said Zopf.
Some of her other learning experiences that helped her succeed include:
- The Galileo Leadership Academy in Rochester
- The Higher Learning Commission Assessment Academy in Illinois
- Wayne State University in Detroit
Understanding the challenges returning students face
After graduating from Purdue, Zopf taught for a year at Divine Child High School in Dearborn before she and her husband started their family. She focused on raising her children for the next 14 years.
“These were important years for my children and me,” she said. “I worked to infuse a love for learning in them, integrating knowledge of math and science in our everyday activities. The last four of those years I completed my master’s degree at EMU – one class at a time. This experience allowed me to recognize the challenges returning students have – adjusting to academic life while managing family and work.”
When her youngest began first grade, Zopf started teaching at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College), the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Schoolcraft College.
“Working as an adjunct, I was able to take my children to school, teach, and leave campus to pick my children up from school,” she said. “As I maintained a balance with my parenting responsibilities, I was able to readjust to teaching. I was able to meet math faculty at each school and learn a bit about how the faculty worked together, pursued innovative teaching strategies, and engaged in curricular matters.”
Zopf has been teaching at HFC since 1988. After three years of teaching as an adjunct, she became a full-time faculty member. She was one of 206 people who applied, and says she “miraculously” got the job in 1991.
“The HFC faculty was very welcoming,” said Zopf.
Working with pre-service teachers is her passion
Her first-year teaching load at HFC included the Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers class. Because she was only certified to teach math at the high school level, Zopf contacted colleagues at EMU, Wayne State, and UM-Dearborn for their input. From there, she began developing her lessons similar to what students at those universities were experiencing.
“I found that manipulatives – hands-on materials – were being integrated into elementary mathematics curriculum to help children understand mathematics better. With the support of the division director, the Mathematics Division purchased manipulatives and I integrated them into my lessons,” recalled Zopf. “Throughout the years, this collection of manipulatives that I carried in boxes to classrooms evolved into a cabinet of materials, then to a classroom designed to housing materials and facilitating interactive learning strategies in Room G-217 (of the Health Sciences Education Center on the main campus).”
Early in Zopf’s time at HFC, mathematics and science courses for pre-service teachers were being redesigned across the state. Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Education secured a grant focused on the development of content and courses. Universities had teams of educators, and community colleges had 1-2 representatives. Zopf represented HFC.
“For this work, I attended conferences and workshops that extended over five years,” she said. “As a result of this work, the College’s Pre-Education Program evolved. Many professors from various disciplines across our campus developed courses and the Pre-Education programs in collaboration with our university partners, Dearborn Public Schools, and Detroit Public Schools. We worked with professors from EMU and UM-Dearborn on several grants that provided HFC students with opportunities to work with children in the Dearborn and Detroit schools. My work with pre-service teachers has been my passion for more than 25 years. In fact, I pursued my doctoral degree, so that I would be able to do this work better.”
“I love working with our students”
HFC’s Pre-Education Program was recognized by the National Science Foundation as “A Two-Year College with Exemplary Activities in Teacher Education” in 1998 and in 2005. This program provides the first two-years of teacher education found at many 4-year colleges and universities. HFC has articulation agreements with several 4-year colleges and universities.
“Helping students become teachers is very important to me!” said Zopf. “I love teaching! It does not matter whether I am teaching developmental math, STEM courses, technical math, Math for the Modern World, or Math for Elementary Teachers, I love working with our students. I think for the classes we offer at HFC, I have taught those that I am most interested in teaching.”
She continued: “In the early 2000s, we had a collaboratively taught class with UM-Dearborn. For that class, HFC and UM-Dearborn students met each week to develop and teach math lessons at middle schools in Dearborn and Detroit. That class was very exciting. Our students had the opportunity to work with university students and teach lessons – an experience that first and second-year students do not often get. Our students learned so much and were truly appreciative of the experience.”
Taking the fear out of math for students, and working in pre-education
For the Winter 2022 Semester, Zopf is teaching the following classes:
- Mathematics for Elementary Teachers I
- Mathematics for Elementary Teachers II
- Mathematics for Elementary Teachers III
She is working with Pre-Education Program Director Dr. Carolyn Casale to redesign the College’s current Pre-Education Programs. She is also working with several math professors – Dr. Rama Chidambaram, April Falardeau, Nahla Haidar, and Jennifer LaRose – to redesign the Mathematics for Elementary Teachers courses. In addition to teaching and curriculum work, Zopf is in her seventh year as co-chair of the Committee for the Assessment of Student Learning – Institutional Learning Outcomes (CASL-ILO).
"More than 20 years ago, when I began my career at HFC, Deb was an experienced and patient mentor to me. Over the years, she has led many successful projects and collaborations. Deb is a colleague you can always count on for thoughtful input,” said Janice Gilliland, Dean of the HFC School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
HFC student Ashley Johnson had Zopf for MATH 080: Beginning Algebra. She sent Zopf an email, telling her how much she enjoyed her class.
“Returning to college after a 16-year break was scary, and yours was the first class I took because math has always been the hardest for me, so I figured I would do that first,” Johnson wrote. “I am still new and I honestly did not have high hopes of completing (your class), let alone passing your class with an A! You were so patient with our class, and you made me feel comfortable doing math instead of fearing it. It was okay to make mistakes or to ask questions without being embarrassed. I don't think you understand how much that meant to me! You took away the fear I had about school.”
Making a difference leads to a better world
Hearing from students like Johnson only reaffirms that Zopf’s making a difference in people’s lives. She takes pride in their accomplishments.
“Watching our students grow over a semester or sometimes two is so rewarding,” said Zopf. “For the Math for Elementary Teachers students, seeing them learn mathematics used for teaching children, developing their written and oral communication skills, and planting the seeds of good teaching is very rewarding. For the developmental students, seeing them be successful at something they have been challenged by is exhilarating. Seeing returning students like Ashley overcome their fear of math is amazing, and knowing that those first steps at being successful will lay the foundation for future success is the reason why I teach at the College. At HFC, we have so many opportunities to help students accomplish what they may not have been able to accomplish. This job is a dream come true.”
She continued: “The best part of my job is being able to work with people. I love working with my colleagues in the Math Department and across the College. We truly have an exemplary group of people at the College who care about students and work very hard to help them succeed. It is a joy to be able to work with HFC’s diverse group of students. From the students coming from high school who are learning about college to the returning students who are transitioning back to school, our students have so much to learn and so much to bring to the classroom. Helping them is so rewarding. The many cultures our students represent enrich our experiences; this allows all of us to broaden our understanding of people and what they bring to the world. Learning about the many cultures our students represent over the past 30 years has broadened me as a person. It has allowed me to learn about people, cultures, and ways we as human beings can work together to make this world a better place.”