By Brett Marshall
To Anne Combs, teaching Garden City High School freshmen algebra has some simplistic explanations with complex processes, but always with a solution in mind.
That’s the approach the fourth-year GCHS math teacher takes when instructing her freshmen students in algebra and intensive algebra.
“I always wanted to teach German since it’s my native language,” said Combs, who was born and raised in Lauchhammer, Germany, a city located about an hour south of Berlin close to the border with Poland. “I came here and wanted to work in the schools, but since they don’t have German, I had to look at something else. That’s how I came to teach math because it’s something I do love.”
While math may pose many complex issues for students, Combs sees the subject matter in a much different light.
“Math is an organized and structured subject,” Combs explains. “There has to be a solution to every problem. It’s the language of all sciences, combining biology and physics, from English to math — all words have a meaning.”
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1991, Combs was just 11 years old and had known nothing but life in the Communist-controlled East Germany.
“Everybody (adults) had a job in some industry,” Combs recalled of life behind the Iron Curtain. “We attended schools, and in the summer everybody went to a camp of some kind. You didn’t know any other way of life so it seemed normal at the time.”
In 2000, at the age of 20, she moved to the western area of the now combined two Germany’s in Wurzburg.
“I remember going to the western part of the country and the thing that stood out the most was the colors – everything had more color to it – grasses were greener, even the sky seemed more bright. I guess I think in the East things just seemed grey, like a filter had been put over everything. I thought, Wow! I’d never seen anything pink before.”
There she met an American U.S. Army soldier, the resulting marriage producing four children – two girls and two boys. Her children – girls ages 19 and 14 and boys ages 17 and 9 – are all in school today, the three youngest in USD 457 and the oldest at Garden City Community College.
When she and her family moved to the United States, they located at Fort Riley, the home of the U.S. Army’s Big Red One Division. She pursued an Associate’s degree from Barton Community College online before earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in an online program through Grand Canyon University in Arizona. That’s where she also earned her master’s degree in secondary education.
She moved her family to Savannah, Ga, where they lived from 2011 to 2013 and then in the fall of 2014, moved to Garden City.
Combs taught GED students at Garden City Community for a year before going to work at the Kansas State University Extension Office for a year.
She then began as a long-term substitute teacher in USD 457 before securing her Kansas teaching credentials to become a full-time teacher. That was 2016 when she began her high school career at GCHS.
“It’s such an interesting place to teach since we have so many bilingual students,” Combs said. “I’m learning Spanish from them and they’re learning my language, and so I think in some ways they get it (math) very much.”
Combs said the most difficult part of teaching math is that students often times have a pre-set idea of what the subject will be about.
“They can’t get it because they haven’t grasped the concept of a growth mindset,” Combs said. “What they don’t realize is that everybody can learn and get better.”
On the flip side, she said the easiest part of teaching math is that at the end of the day, math just makes sense.
“We all use math in so many different ways, and you really can’t go on to college without some foundation of using math,” Combs said. “Math can be way better for students in problem-solving situations and it makes them more prepared for negativity that can be difficult for them to overcome. I try to be hands-on in teaching with the students as much as I can.”
Freshman students, too, are in that timeless age range where life seems to be on a roller-coaster.
“Emotionally, they’re engrossed with each other,” Combs said. “They’re extremely happy, sad, in love, depressed, all in the same day sometimes. If I can keep things organized and structured for them from the first week of school to the last week of school, then I’ve helped them prepare for their next step in life and in school.”
Combs said she believes she has a good relationship with her students, based upon the upper-class students who now communicate with her and tell her how much she is missed.
“My first class was good kids,” Combs said. “As freshmen they were sometimes terrible. As juniors, they are cool people. I think maybe there’s a disconnect for the students with their parents who are not terribly involved in their school life.”
Recently, Combs said she took one of her classes to the Senior Living facility at the nearby Ranch, where they shared lunch, baked cookies and brownies and had a social gathering with the older residents.
“There were no IPhones, no IPads and they were just talking to each other a lot,” Combs said of the visit to the facility. “It was really amazing to see the interaction they had.”
Combs said the fact that she has three teenagers and one younger child at home helps her understand her students at GCHS.
“I sometimes look at them like I’m their mom,” Combs said. “They’re just kids and we expect them to behave, and we have to help them understand things about school and life.”
If there’s one reason for her level of success with freshmen students, Combs said it is her basic set of rules that she establishes from day one of the school year.
“My students’ created their expectations for a productive learning environment, which are to 1) be responsible; 2) Prepare and Participate in class; 3) Practice self-control,” Combs said. “I have three other rules – respect everyone, don’t trash my room and give your best effort every day.”
Combs also explained how the educational systems differed from Germany to the United States.
“Jobs are a lot more difficult to get in Germany,” she said. “If you want to be a cashier or work in a warehouse where you’re working with stocking items, you have to attend a two-year trade school and be certified.
“The options people have here in America is just a lot different than those that don’t exist over there.”
After the end of Communism in Germany, Combs said the economy took a mighty tumble when free markets took over and the country went from everyone employed to incredibly high unemployment. When she left the eastern portion of Germany, Combs said there was 67 percent unemployment and the biggest work force came in the above-ground coal strip mining around her hometown.
“There just weren’t very many opportunities so it made sense to leave,” said Combs, who returns to her native land every summer to visit some of her family and friends. “It’s something I do to remind myself of where I came from, but I will probably never move back there. America is now my home.”
Combs became a U.S. citizen in 2013 and renounced her German citizenship.
“Everything I’ve done and accomplished has been because of the opportunities I’ve been given here,” Combs said. “There’s so many things, so many freedoms here that you just sometimes don’t appreciate it. But when you’ve lived elsewhere, under different conditions, you know what the freedoms here really mean.”