February 15, 2012 - By Joe St. Henry
Carl Zoolkoski, MAMSE Teacher of the Year (click for larger version)
Earlier this month, Oakview Middle School seventh grade science teacher Carl Zoolkoski was named Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Association of Middle School Educators.
It's an honor that has never been bestowed on a Lake Orion teacher until now.
Many people in the community would argue that until he joined Lake Orion Community Schools in 1997, it had been a while since the district had an instructor like "Mr. Z", as he is affectionately known by students, parents and colleagues alike.
"Carl exemplifies what is great about this school district," said Oakview Principal John Bernia. "There are a lot of quality people teaching here and he is one of the best, illustrating everything that is right with public education.
"Teachers have taken a lot of flack in recent years, but he keeps going and does things the right way. Carl is what's good about our profession."
Zoolkoski is proud of the accomplishment for which he will be honored by MAMSE on March 23, but he takes it all in stride.
"I'm a big believer in hard work paying off, but in this profession there's no end to the hard work," he said. "There are still things I need to work on as a teacher."
Something he clearly knows a lot about is working with middle school students, starting as student teacher in his native Pennsylvania. After receiving his Masters Degree in Counseling from Michigan State University, he landed his first job as a counselor at Scripps Middle School. Two years later he began teaching science there.
Zoolkoski transferred to Oakview in 2002, when the new school opened.
"I just seem to connect well with kids at this level," Zoolkoski said. "A lot of teachers are suited for a particular age group. My skills and teaching style seem to really work with seventh and eighth grade students."
In addition to his work in the classroom, Zoolkoski thinks the award was given to him for his advocacy efforts to promote middle school education. He has been an active participant and speaker at state and national education conferences for many years. He also meets with secondary education students at Oakland University.
"Middle school is such a pivotal part of anybody's educational experience," he said. "If a kid has a negative experience there, chances are they will go down a negative path in high school. But if they have a positive one, they tend to follow a good path."
Zoolkoski recognizes the importance of focusing on standards and the benchmarking of academic achievement, but thinks government regulation has actually squeezed the "humanity" out of the classroom.
"We need to look at each child and his or her individual needs, rather than just focus on what books say we need to teach and how," he stressed. "I try to merge the need to reach certain academic standards with building a relationship with each student."
Zoolkoski admits this approach sometimes leads to his students "getting off track" during class.
"It's not always easy, but I rein them in," he said. "Everyday is a challenge with seventh graders and I wouldn't want it any other way."
This year, Zoolkoski's passion for teaching is evident in how he teaches his four classes of seventh grade science students.
"They are all in the same grade and team but, more so than in the past, each of the classes has a real unique personality," he said. "It's the same content, but four different lesson plans each day."
In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Zoolkoski also helps manage the STAR program at Oakview, trains students that participate in the high school's Bully Busters program and coaches cross country and track at the middle school. He also is the advisor for both the LEGOS Club and Polar Dragons Running Club at Oakview.
Many people around Lake Orion, including those in the music ministry at St. Joseph Catholic Church, know the middle school teacher also has a passion for music - both as a composer and performer. He has produced musical CDs, sings at various charity events in the community and even belts out the Star Spangled Banner at school athletic events.
He also enjoys traveling, having visited countries throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. Last year, he explored Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Kids come first, however, whether Zoolkoski is working in the classroom, track, church youth group, or just catching up with former students who see him around town.
"I guess I leave an impression on them," he said, noting Lake Orion is his adopted hometown. "But, they also have left one on me."I'm just grateful to have had the chance to teach them."