Stout Scholar is a ‘dedicated and passionate math teacher,’ hired before graduation

Follow O’Brien’s senior year as she steps from the court into the classroom
Stout Scholar Erin O'Brien crosses the stage at commencement. She'll soon start her career as a math teacher in Tennessee.
Abbey Goers | May 22, 2023

UW-Stout inspiring graduate and Stout Scholar Erin O’Brien began her job search for teaching positions in April during spring break and accepted a position the same week.

“I wanted to go somewhere, and now’s the time to do it. I don’t have anything holding me back,” said O’Brien, of South Haven, Minn. “I thought, ‘I could apply anywhere.’ And then, ‘Oh, my god. I could apply anywhere.’”

O’Brien’s mom suggested she pick three places that interested her, but also places her mom would want to go on vacation. O’Brien chose to research Colorado, Utah and Tennessee.

With a passion to help others find joy in math, O’Brien, an applied mathematics and computer science major with a concentration in math education, will teach either Geometry or Algebra 1 at LEAD Southeast High School, in Nashville, Tenn.

Erin O'Brien, commencement, 2
Erin O'Brien and Chancellor Katherine Frank / UW-Stout

O’Brien, a fourth-year member of the Blue Devil women’s basketball team, graduated with honors, Summa Cum Laude, on May 6, one of 1,173 graduates.

She will move to Nashville in early July, shortly after completing her student teaching at Ellsworth Middle School in June.

The Stout Scholars Scholarship awards three outstanding incoming students each year with $5,000, renewable for up to four years, for a total of $20,000. Stout Scholars represent UW-Stout’s commitment to students’ success in their studies and their career readiness.

This is the fourth and final story in a series following O’Brien’s college experience at UW-Stout. Fellow Stout Scholar Nathan Thompson, double major in applied science and mechanical engineering shared his experiences as well.

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‘Creating a positive learning environment for her students’

O’Brien completed her field experience last fall at Menomonie High School, observing in Dwight McNaughton’s Algebra Calculus AP classes. She was able to teach two algebra lessons. “It was a good experience being in the classroom again, since I hadn’t been in a high school classroom since I was in high school. We worked on arithmetic and geometric sequences, finding patterns in a list of numbers,” O’Brien said.

Erin O'Brien, commencement, 4
Erin O'Brien celebrates her graduation near the Bowman Hall Clock Tower / Erin O'Brien

Through her Multiculturalism in Education course, O’Brien observed math classes at Barron Middle School. She also worked with 10 to 12 students in the Expanding Learning Opportunities Program, in the English as a Second Language classroom.

O’Brien began her student teaching internship in Ellsworth in January, in an eighth-grade math classroom. Her co-op teacher, Karen Beard, was hired at the same time. “I’ve really been enjoying it,” O’Brien said. “Because we both came into the new classroom together, I got to hear Karen set her classroom expectations, and we go to talk together about our wants and goals for the students.”

Beard and McNaughton believe O’Brien will be an excellent teacher and an asset to LEAD’s math program, as she takes initiative working with students.

“Erin is a dedicated and passionate math teacher that cares about the success of all students in her classroom. She is an energetic and enthusiastic individual, and it carries over into her creating a positive learning environment for her students,” Beard added.

After teaching much of the algebra course through her internship, O’Brien is confident and prepared to lead her first classroom in Nashville.

“Eighth graders are a tough group. They feel like they’re top dog in middle school, but they’re basically freshmen,” she said. “I once heard that if you can teach eighth graders, you can teach any group of kids. They’re good kids but they like to test your boundaries.

“It’s also about trying to find ways to bridge gaps with them. The pandemic really hurt young students’ education and social experiences. So, how do we prepare them for algebra when some of them don’t have other basic skills?” she added.

For students who need additional support in math, Ellsworth has an online Foundations in Math program, which students can take at their own pace. O’Brien helps to set up students with the program.

She is also working with Spanish-speaking ELO students at Ellsworth, teaching them math in English and Spanish, with added activities to help in their speaking skills, like playing hangman using math-associated words. She finds the experience very rewarding, as LEAD Southeast High School is very diverse and has a high ELO population, she said.

“I’m really excited to be able to work one-on-one with students and helping to find resources and figure out a plan for what they need in math,” she said.


Erin O'Brien, Bestow the Stoll ceremony, with mentors Amanda Rogers and Laura Schmidt
Erin O'Brien with her mentors Amanda Rogers and Laura Schmidt at the Honors College Bestow the Stoll ceremony / Erin O'Brien

O’Brien worked as a teaching assistant in the Math Teaching and Learning Center for five semesters. This spring, she received the Student Employee of the Year at the annual Leadership Awards. Her mentors Professor Laura Schmidt, director of the MathTLC, and Learning Center Specialist Amanda Rogers joined O’Brien at the Bestow the Stole ceremony for the Honors College.

“Erin has been a fantastic student during her years here at Stout, and I have truly loved getting to know her while she has tutored for us in the MathTLC. She will be greatly missed,” Schmidt said.

Erin continually balanced her coursework, TA position, and other involvements, and her passion and dedication was always evident in all areas. She is a natural teacher, leader, role model and mentor. We are very excited for her next chapter and know she will continue to do great things,” Rogers added.

A surreal victory capping off four years

O’Brien played center for the women’s basketball team for four years. The team won its second through 11th games, including a Senior Night match versus UW-La Crosse. “My parents were at the game,” O’Brien said. “We won in double overtime. In four years, we’d never beaten La Crosse. It was exciting.”

Erin O'Brien, Senior's Night, with her parents and Coach Hannah Iverson
Erin O'Brien with her parents and Coach Hannah Iverson at Senior Night / Erin O'Brien

The team started the season with all members returning, except 2022 graduate Lizzy Olsem. “It was hard to fill Lizzy’s shoes. She was a great leader for our team,” O’Brien said. “We all kind of took on a role in leadership this season, and it all flowed.”

The highlight for O’Brien this year was the 63-45 victory over UW-Eau Claire on Feb. 15, when UW-Stout became Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference co-champion, the team’s first regular season conference title in 16 years.

Blue Devil women's basketball highlights / UW-Stout Athletics


With former teammate Olsem in the crowd, O'Brien scored at the buzzer to give UW-Stout a 17-14 lead heading into the second quarter. “The sections were packed. The game was one of the highest attended games in WIAC for women’s basketball,” O’Brien said.

“It was announced at halftime that Whitewater had lost to Platteville. But we were still in the locker room, so we didn’t know that the game we were playing against Eau Claire turned into a battle for a share of the WIAC championship title” O'Brien said.

“Toward the end of the fourth quarter, the student section was chanting ‘WIAC champs,’ and Lizzy kept holding up a ‘No. 1’ finger, but we didn’t know what she meant,” O’Brien added. “We found out within the last two minutes of the game. It didn’t seem real because you want it so bad, and we actually met our goal to cut down the nets and be WIAC champs.”

The team celebrated each other and the season at the annual basketball banquet. “It was hard saying goodbye. This team is so much more than its talent. We love each other with all of our hearts,” O’Brien said. “Your team is your family, and that’s really true here. We give each other love and grace and support what each of us wants to achieve.”

Women's basketball team, WIAC title, 1
Blue Devil women's basketball team shares the title of the WIAC championship / UW-Stout Athletics

She added that even though she struggled and sacrificed a lot – taking a step off the court in her junior year to cheer her team on from the bench to be able to focus more on her academics; giving up free time to be at practice and traveling for games; and struggling with the toll it took on her body and mental health – her four years as a student athlete helped more than it hurt.

“There’s always these big ifs,” she said. “Maybe I would have been healthier if I didn’t play – that was a big question mark for me last year. But you don’t want to give up and that makes it hard. And all those hard things made the championship feel even more surreal.”

O’Brien is thankful for her counselor, Kyle Kershek, in the Student Counseling Center. “Kyle helped me develop the skills I needed to make sure I stayed healthy mentally. He made me feel heard and helped me work through my struggles throughout my four years here at Stout,” O’Brien added.

Meeting her academic goal was priority

This spring, O’Brien was one of 56 to receive the Scholar Athlete award. Recipients must have a cumulative 3.5 grade point average in the semester preceding their final season of eligibility.

Scholar Athletes receive a medallion, and a large action poster of each senior will be displayed in the Sports and Fitness Center during the upcoming year.

“Academics and my education have always been the most important part of my time here,” O’Brien said. “If academics is truly what I’m here for, then I set a goal to be up there on the wall in the fieldhouse.”

Erin O'Brien and Associate Athletic Director Erin Sullivan
Erin O'Brien and Associate Athletic Director Erin Sullivan at the Scholar Athlete awards / UW-Stout

The Scholar Athlete program is supported by the Office of the Chancellor and the Office of Academic and Student Affairs.

This season, O’Brien played 102 minutes, scored 36 points and had 21 rebounds, with six rebounds during the WIAC championship game. Her career totals are 424 minutes, 163 points and 102 rebounds. She has played basketball since the second grade. She plans to join a summer league and hopes to coach someday.

O’Brien was also vice president of the AMCS women’s group, which held study and game nights and hopes that as a couple of younger students take over the helm, the group stays thriving.

And she also always made sure to take a break for Tuesday Night Trivia at the Silver Dollar restaurant in downtown Menomonie. “It was nice to do some mind exercises, outside of basketball. It’s good to have a separate place to sit with friends and eat a good burger and fries,” she said.

O’Brien’s college experience made her more confident and comfortable stepping out of her comfort zone. Looking back on her four years at UW-Stout, she is proud to have been able to “do it all and have it all. I was able to do athletics and still keep my academics where I wanted them. I’ve always been a high achiever,” she said.

“I had fun on the weekends and at campus events. I was able to find a balance even with many hiccups. When you get knocked off balance – when you’re out of sync – you find your way back. Having people who cared – my professors, classmates, teammates, coaches and counselors – made all the difference.”

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