Release Date: 
Thursday, May 18, 2023

Math instructor Deb Zopf retires after 35 years of making a difference in students’ lives

A headshot of Dr. Deborah Zopf

Dr. Deborah Zopf says HFC has made her a better human being. By all accounts, she has done the same for many students and colleagues over the years.

“Working here has broadened my mind and expanded my horizons,” she said. “I have learned so much about the many cultures, ethnicities, and religions represented by my colleagues and students. I have enjoyed learning about different cultures and backgrounds.”

“We will miss Deb tremendously”

Zopf began teaching mathematics at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College) in 1988. She will retire this summer.

“Our youngest son, who’s a doctor, encouraged my husband and me to retire while we’re still healthy and can enjoy some time together,” said Zopf.

Her husband of 48 years, Mike Zopf, is the Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations at Northville Public Schools. He planned to retire at the same time Deb did, but he has delayed that decision so he can complete some high-priority work.

“He chickened out,” joked Zopf. “Actually, there is still some work at the district he needs to complete before he retires.”

Zopf and her husband live in Plymouth. They have three children and 10 grandchildren. She’s looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren in retirement.

HFC mathematics faculty chair Scott Barnett has worked with Zopf throughout his 25 years at the College.

“Deb has been an incredibly supportive colleague to me from my very first days at HFC,” he said. “Deb's work with pre-service teachers and her work with assessment is beyond measure. I am sure that I speak for the entire Mathematics Department here: We will miss Deb tremendously and certainly wish her all the best in retirement.”

Her career path in teaching was set in 7th grade

The second of four children, Zopf was born in Bethesda, MD. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, which resulted in her family moving every three years. When she was 13, her family finally settled in the Metro Detroit area where extended family lived.

After graduating from Gabriel Richard 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 in Ann Arbor. Zopf also completed coursework at Wayne State University, the Galileo Leadership Academy at Oakland University, and the Higher Learning Commission Assessment Academy in Illinois.

“No matter where I attended school, I loved it. I loved learning. I love teaching. I love my job,” said Zopf. “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.”

Working with pre-service teachers is her passion

When she was starting out, Zopf taught for a year at Divine Child High School in Dearborn before taking the next 14 years to raise her children. During that time, she completed graduate work at EMU.

Once her youngest began first grade, she started teaching at HFC, Schoolcraft College, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She became a full-time HFC faculty member in 1991. She was one of 206 people who applied.

Throughout her 35 years at HFC, working with aspiring teachers has been Zopf’s passion. During her early days at the College, 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.

“I attended conferences and workshops that extended over five years. From this, HFC’s Pre-Education Program evolved. Many professors from various disciplines across our campus developed courses in Pre-Education in collaboration with our university partners, Dearborn Public Schools, and Detroit Public Schools,” explained Zopf. “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.”

Zopf mentored Janice Gilliland, the dean of the HFC School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

“When I started teaching at HFC more than 20 years ago, Deb was my mentor in the Math for Elementary Teachers courses. She built a highly respected program, which kept changing with the times,” said Gilliland. “Her relationships with 4-year university partners were instrumental in maintaining transfer of courses and excellent preparation for future teachers. There are hundreds of current teachers that benefited from her instruction and mentoring over her distinguished career.”

Proudest achievement: Developing Pre-Ed Program

Zopf’s proudest achievement during her time at HFC is working with her colleagues at the College and university partners to develop the Pre-Education Program.

“It was amazing to work with people from across the College as we developed courses and programs for students intending to be teachers,” said Zopf. “We worked with faculty from the UM-Dearborn, Wayne State, and EMU to write courses that would transfer to those institutions. We also worked with administrators to develop programs that articulated to their institutions. HFC students were fortunate to have had the programs.”

She continued: “We offered many services to students such as faculty advising, fall orientation sessions, the Future Teachers Association, and an annual conference with the goal of providing important information about the program and the Department of Education requirements for teacher certification. HFC was recognized by the National Science Foundation as ‘A Two-Year College with Exemplary Activities in Mathematics and Science Teacher Preparation’ in 1998. President Emeritus Dr. Andrew A. Mazzara, (HFC mathematics instructor) Larry Smyrski, and I attended a three-day conference in Washington, D.C. to accept the award and share our work with representatives from the National Science Foundation and the 10 other colleges being recognized.”

Always focused on student success

More recently, Zopf noted that she has been fortunate to have worked with mathematicians and mathematics educators at Wayne State University on a Noyce Grant that is focused on preparing pre-service teachers to work in urban settings, specifically Detroit schools. Part of this work was the revision of the Mathematics for Elementary Teachers classes at both HFC and Wayne State.

“We took this work further by implementing ways to not only understand math, but to be able to communicate math in an effective way by keeping journals. The students from both educational institutions would exchange these journals and provide feedback,” she said. “We encouraged them to ask their peers questions and offer suggestions on how to improve their teaching. We saw how our students got better across the semester.”

Zopf is co-writing a chapter on math teacher education called Illuminating and Advancing the Path for Mathematical Writing Research. She will continue working with Wayne State’s Mathematics Education Research Group (MERG), of which she has been a member for seven years, after her retirement (she will also volunteer at several area private and parochial schools).

“Deb's career at HFC was always focused on students,” said Smyrski. “Her development of the Pre-Education programs in the 1990s was driven by her desire to help students make the transition from HFC to a university teacher preparation program as seamless as possible and be at least as prepared to succeed as a university native student. Her passion for student success led to her involvement with college-wide assessment and service on the Committee for the Assessment of Student Learning (CASL). Deb has been a true professional colleague who shared materials and strategies, who sought input on challenges she perceived and actively contributed to the professional life of the College.”

Helping future teachers understand math, so they can teach it better

Zopf's top goal when teaching Math for Elementary Teachers classes is helping her students understand math, so they can effectively learn and teach the subject.

“I have had students tell me how much they hate math, but at the end of 1-2 semesters, they come up to me and tell me that they feel differently,” she said. “They’re able to communicate that in their teaching. If a teacher enjoys their subject, it’s a whole different learning experience for students.”

Zopf has provided a firm yet caring guiding hand with students, particularly non-traditional students, who are juggling work, classes, and family.

“I’m willing to help them if they’re willing to help themselves,” she recalled. “I had one student who was suffering from seizures. She told me about her situation, and I worked with her, giving her extensions and helping her out however I could. She sent me a heartfelt email at the end of that semester, thanking me for being so compassionate, for giving her the benefit of the doubt, and for holding her accountable for her coursework.”

“My first impression was that Dr. Zopf is not only intelligent and passionate about teaching but also a warm and supportive person,” said HFC Pre-Education Program Director Dr. Carolyn Casale. “I would distinguish her from our peers by the depth of her experience in the field of education. She approaches intellectual inquiry in a comprehensive and insightful manner and can often see things that others miss. She is passionate about pre-education and has extensive academic and professional experience.”

“It’s nice to see what they learned from me carry on”

Many of Zopf’s former students have reached out to her, congratulating her on her retirement and thanking her for the difference she made in their lives.

“I sent my personal email address to some of my former students. They’ve been very kind,” she said, clearly moved. “It’s wonderful to learn after so many years that some of them have become a principal or head of their school’s math department. It’s nice to see what they learned from me carry on. It’s fulfilling to know they’ve learned math and teach math in a deeper, richer way.”

HFC mathematics instructor Dr. Rama Chidambaram has been impressed by Zopf's impact and dedication.

"Dr. Zopf cares a lot about HFC faculty and students. She is one of the first faculty members to welcome new members. She treated her colleagues like family,” said Chidambaram. “Dr. Zopf inspired and encouraged all of us through her service to the College. As she was contemplating retirement, she worked tirelessly for the last two years, including summer, to rewrite the HFC mathematics education curriculum so that the College and the students are ready to meet the new state standards for teacher certification. Her work with CASL for more than 20 years as a member, chair, and co-chair will continue to influence how we do assessment at the College."

Zopf’s last day is Monday, Aug. 18. Until then, she’s taking the time to finish creating resources for the Math for Elementary Teachers courses, leave behind various resources for her colleagues, and clean out her office.

“I know I’ll cry on my last day, even though I’m comfortable with the decision I made,” she said. “I don’t want to be the teacher who doesn’t like their job anymore. It’s best to retire when you still love your job and people don’t want you to go. That way, you can look back at your career with happy memories. It’s psychologically healthier to leave knowing you’re doing a good job and you love your craft. I’m leaving knowing that I did a good job my final semester. I know I’m leaving things in a good place. I will leave here on my last day, despite the tears, grateful for my many years of teaching at the College.”

A note about HFC retiree stories

We value the contributions of all our retirees. When we become aware of a colleague's official intent to retire, we reach out to them to ask if we can write a story about them, to share their contributions and allow others to recognize and appreciate them. Some of our retirees decline to participate in the retiree story series. We respect their wishes and their privacy. If there is a retiree whom you want to see recognized, and we have not done a story about them near the end of their time working at the College, you can talk to that person, or reach out to HFC Communications. We will let you know if the person has declined to have a story published. In some cases, we might not be aware of their plans to retire.

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