Jake Probst

It’s a big step from instructing soldiers heading to Iraq and Afghanistan how to handle their weapons to teaching middle-school students to unravel the complexities of algebra, but the learning principles are similar. Jacob Probst, who graduated in May 2013 with his bachelor’s degree and certification in exceptional education through the SOE, says his experiences as an army instructor and his SOE courses have both helped develop his teaching skills.

Probst, 27, served nine years in the Army, including one year in Iraq looking for bombs, before coming to UWM to earn his education degree. He is still active in the reserves as a combat engineer/senior small arms instructor. Choosing special education as a career grew out of the same values that led him to enlist in the army. “I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunity, and felt a need to contribute and make a difference.”

Probst is from a family of teachers. His wife, Kirsten, is an early childhood special education teacher in West Allis, and his mother, mother-in-law and sister are also special education teachers.

“I’ve always been around teachers; it’s just something I was naturally drawn to.”

Probst brings special empathy to his teaching because of his own experiences. “I had some struggles in middle school and high school, but I always had someone to mentor me through all that. Special education is challenging, but I really like the transition aspect, getting kids ready for life after high school.”

He’s developed his own learning techniques to overcome areas where he felt his skills fell short – public speaking and rifle marksmanship. He’s now comfortable in front of a classroom and ranked number three in the State Rifle Championships.

“So when students are struggling, or don’t understand how they’ll ever use some knowledge in ‘real life,’ I can help them figure out a way to learn,” says Probst.

Probst also occasionally shares his own “teachable moment” — blowing up the family kitchen an hour after high school graduation. Since he wasn’t an underage drinker, he decided to bring entertainment – in the form of a giant, homemade smoke bomb to a graduation party.

Unfortunately, he was distracted by some drunken visitors (not related to his graduation) who showed up unexpectedly at his house. He thought he’d pulled the simmering smoke bomb off the burner before going to check out the situation, but not so.


He’s enjoyed his years at UWM. Faculty members and his student teaching supervisor continually encouraged him to challenge himself. “It can be difficult, but I can see how it’s preparing me to be an exceptional teacher.”

He also appreciated the opportunities to take some fascinating courses outside his major such as Native American studies, winter survival, scuba diving and negotiation.

Probst found the presence of other veterans at UWM, and the campus veteran’s center and organizations, a bonus. “As an older student and a veteran you’ve had different experiences than the 18- and 19-year-olds in your class. Sometimes it’s nice to just have coffee and talk with another veteran.”

A few weeks before Probst graduated, he was offered a job teaching middle school special education at Pilgrim Park Middle School in Elm Grove. The week he graduated, he and his wife bought a house in Waukesha.

In mid-September their daughter Emberlee was born.

“Taking rigorous courses at UWM required self-discipline, time management, and prioritization. Those skills have carried over to life after college and allow me to live life to the fullest.”