Robert Gebel, the Midway Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, surrounded by some of his sixth grade students at Byrne Elementary School. --Greater Southwest News-Herald photo by Cosmo Hadac

Robert Gebel, the Midway Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, surrounded by some of his sixth grade students at Byrne Elementary School. --Greater Southwest News-Herald photo by Cosmo Hadac

Challenging minds, changing lives

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Gebel named MCC’s Teacher of the Year 

By Tim Hadac

Speak with parents of students at Byrne Elementary School about Robert Gebel, and you’ll hear their insights into the character of the man recently named the Midway Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Teacher of the Year.

“His passion for teaching and helping his students is outstanding,” said Desiree Alonso. “He goes above and beyond in every way. Mr. Gebel connects with all his students and really makes learning enjoyable, but still maintains firm rules. He made a big impact on my son, and we are grateful to have been able to have him as an educator.”

“Mr. Gebel is an excellent teacher and an amazing person in general,” added Maribel Garcia. “All three of my kids have had him over the years and all agreed he’s one of the greatest.”

GSWNH MCCTeacherOfTheYear 121622

Robert Gebel, the Midway Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, surrounded by some of his sixth grade students at Byrne Elementary School. –Greater Southwest News-Herald photo by Cosmo Hadac

Deonna Morano describes him as “a fantastic educator. He is always respectful toward the children and establishes a relationship of mutual trust, as well as teaching them with passion and excitement. He approaches his lessons as though the kids are intelligent and capable (because of course, they are!), and holds high expectations while encouraging them to work to their potential.

“He continually wants to expose the kids to more than they already know and more than they’ve experienced, in terms of culture, society, music, ways of life, opinions, theories, literature and more,” Morano continued. “He is firm when necessary but can be seen racing the kids and playing football at recess and generally enjoying his class. He sees the best in his students but is not afraid to set the bar even higher than expected, so the kids can rise to the occasion.

“He commands respect in his classroom because he is consistently giving it back. I could not think of a better teacher for my child, especially at the age he is now, when influences are so crucial to development. He is a gem, and Byrne is lucky to have him.”

A son of the Southwest Side

Gebel grew up on the Southwest Side, graduating from Peck Elementary School in West Elsdon. He then attended Curie High School, but left school to work a print shop job with Arthur Andersen & Co., which was one of the nation’s largest financial accounting firms.

Years later, he changed his career path, earning his GED and then attending Moraine Valley Community College and earning a degree in elementary education from Trinity Christian College.

His first year as a teacher at Byrne was 2012. He was influenced by seventh grade teacher Kristy Papczun.

Working with her was “a fantastic experience,” Gebel recalled. “It reaffirmed some of my beliefs about connecting with students to make learning fun. Something that makes a student want to come to school rather than just saying, ‘Oh great, I have to go to school.’”

But Gebel’s primary influence in his decision to become a teacher was a man he met about 30 years earlier at Peck.

“His name was Jack Zahora, and I had him for fifth, sixth and eighth grades,” Gebel recalled “He was a great teacher and a strong, positive male role model at a time when I needed one.

“His example had such a profound and positive impact on me that years later, when it came time for me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, he’s who I thought of,” he continued. “I thought if I can do for students what he did for me, I’d feel a sense of satisfaction—so these kids can go on to have a better life, to help form a strong society, that’s the key. That’s why I’m a teacher. I mean, if he could help me in the way he did…there probably are students out there today who need to build their confidence, to become self-sufficient.”

Teaching is an art

Now in his 11th year at Byrne, Gebel teaches language arts and social science to sixth graders at the school.

“I love language, and I love literature,” he said. “And I like the trust and the autonomy my principal gives me, so I can be creative.”

He describes teaching as an art, and he enjoys teaching his students critical thinking skills that build upon the rote learning they experienced in their earliest years in school.

“It’s important to treat students with respect. If they feel that, they’ll respond well. And at the same time, I challenge them and try to impress upon them the importance of what we’re doing,” Gebel said.

“I often tell my students, ‘You can do this assignment to work for a grade, and that’s fine. But I’m not really interested in that as much I’m interested in changing your life.’ And when you say that to students…they’re not used to hearing that, and when they do, the intensity of the classroom does increase. It picks up, because there’s really a sense of the high stakes involved. The kids think, ‘Hey, I’m doing something really important here.’”

Gebel said he enjoys challenging students, as well as them challenging him to be a better educator.

He added that being the father of a seventh grader (his son, Alex) gives him a firsthand knowledge of the pressures both students and parents are up against with class assignments, homework and more.

Teaching is ‘a dream’

He also enjoys exposing his students to the world beyond the classroom.

Teaching “is a dream,” he said. “It’s so much fun to go to work, to be able to experience these moments where you see their lights in their heads pop on, to introduce them to things they’ve never thought of before.

“For example, we just had a trip to the Symphony Center, where the musicians played various pieces of wonderful symphonies: Beethoven’s Fifth, some Mozart, some John Williams. To have them go in that building, to see the architecture, to feel the room, to sit on the red crushed-velvet seats and look at the artisanal work done on the terrace—all those things and then see the symphony live in front of you—that’s something I never had a chance to do. I didn’t know about that until I was well into my adulthood.”

Gebel’s goal is “to show them the world is so wide, so vast, so full of possibilities…and it’s not worth moping around. So let’s get up, get going and find something new to learn, to explore.”

In the years ahead, Gebel would like to teach seventh or eighth grade, “to get into deeper literature like George Orwell or To Kill a Mockingbird or Fahrenheit 451. I want to throw the gauntlet at my students and challenge them with some really complex stories.

“I want them to be good…no, I want them to be great people, to feel good about themselves, to enjoy their lives more and to understand the value of learning and the impact they can have on the world.”

4 Comments

  1. Natalie on December 16, 2022 at 1:21 pm

    He deserves this and so much more! A favorite and beloved teacher in our home!



  2. Robert Deckinga on December 16, 2022 at 4:08 pm

    Congratulations, I’m glad that I hired you.
    You have a real passion for kids and it is evident.
    I started teaching 6th graders about 50 years ago and loved every minute. Best Wishes to you and your career. You are making a positive difference in the lives of your students and they will remember you for the rest of their lives.
    Sincerely with Best Wishes .
    Mr. D



  3. Aaron Browning on December 16, 2022 at 11:32 pm

    Congrats on your accomplishment. You’re in a unique position to add to your achievements during teaching career. The students will always remember what fun they had participating while under your creativity & tutelage…big smile Mr. B



  4. Jeff Zajkowski on December 17, 2022 at 6:10 am

    Rob, this is your purpose. You’ve found the zone. Keep up the great work!
    Jeff Z



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