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Power Puncher
Power Puncher

Dynamic Kentucky IT educator hits above her weight while helping students find success

Calvin Harper
 IT instructor Debra Gruber is just 5 feet, 2 inches tall, but she strides like a colossus through the halls of McCracken County High School, in Paducah, Ky. Gruber is the sort of teacher we all needed — one who pulls you into their orbit and changes your life in ways you never thought possible.

A combination of Mother Teresa and a Marine Corps drill-instructor, Gruber loves her students and will do whatever it takes to help them achieve success, all while taking “absolutely no (flak) out of them.”

“My mission is to change this world one student at a time,” she said. “I am here to help students learn the skills needed to transition to the world beyond high school.”

And transition they do. “Many of our students are able to walk out of our IT programs and land jobs making more money than I am,” she said. Her students are so skilled that local businesses are now contacting them to create websites.

Preparing students for the real world

Two powerful and effective aspects of Gruber’s teaching style are an emphasis on employability skills and a refreshingly brutal honesty. “I incorporate employability skills, along with the tech stuff, at every opportunity,” she said. “I tell my students that soft skills matter. Showing up on time, doing your job without excuses, and working with others are very important.

“If you don’t have soft skills, it don’t matter how many IT skills you have, you won’t be able to find or keep a job.”

Tough love is a Gruber classroom trait that new students often find surprising. “I’m a fun, but strict teacher,” she said. Students adhere to firm schedules for attendance and assignments, and those who are late quickly learn that there is a price to be paid.

“They lose points for being late to class and on assignments,” she said. “I’m not most teachers. A due date for an assignment is a due date. And you can’t pull mommy or daddy in here to make me change your grade.”

Gruber is the type of teacher who would blast helicopter parents out of the sky for shielding their students from consequences. She isn’t shy about telling students what their future holds if they fail to perform in the workforce: “The IT world is competitive. If you’re not cutting the mustard for your employer, then you’re out. You’ll lose your job and they’ll get someone else to fill your position.

“You lose your job, and with no severance pay, and you can’t pay your rent and now you’re living in a cardboard box in the middle of winter and its cold as (heck)!”

He creed is “The truth and nothing but the truth” regarding the consequences of non-performance. “I tell them the absolute truth, they need to know it,” she said. “One day they will be working and have a moment of clarity and say, ‘Gruber was right.’ “

A roundabout path to the classroom

Born and raised in Illinois, Gruber followed a path to IT instruction that was filled with interesting twists and turns. Like many young people, she went through what she described as her “rebellious period.” Fortunately, after a few youthful indiscretions, she found herself in the small town of Paducah where she met Mark Gruber, the man of her dreams. They’ve been happily married now for 30 years.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “We wanted the same things out of life, and he has always been my inspiration to change and try to make myself better.”

The Grubers are a good team and, like all good teams, they back each other up. When Mark ended up on disability following a motorcycle accident, his role became holding things down at home while Gruber went out to work.

After working her way through a succession of menial jobs, Gruber realized she wanted more out of life and needed to make some changes. “My Dad always said, ‘If you don’t like something, change it.’ I didn’t like the jobs I had to work, and I decided it was time to do something about it.”

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October 2017