11 March 2011

Thanking Ms. Zika

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher named Ms. Mary Zika. At the time, I thought she was way old. I have no idea how old she actually was. (I looked her up recently, online, since in this era of accountability teacher records are available online. She's been teaching for 36 years. She's been teaching longer than I've been alive. That's amazing to me. I've only ever taught in one school that was that old.)

She was single, told us she woke up every morning at 4 to exercise , and she had an honest-to-God Velvet Elvis in her classroom. I'm told that she wrote murder-mysteries for the staff to participate in.

Above her door, there was a simple stenciled sign that said "105 North Tower". The place Dr. Manette suffered for many years in A Tale of Two Cities. Generations of Northwestern High School seniors have "suffered" in her senior English class.

One of the key components of that suffering was a research paper that Ms. Zika made us complete. I did mine on the appearance of aliens in movies over time. Not when they showed up, but how they looked when they showed up. Bit of a nerd I am. (see what I did there? Yoda phrasing in a sentence about aliens. Clever, huh?). This project was one of the hardest I had ever done. I spent hours poring over movie stills (especially from the early part of the last century). I had to go to a college library to get tapes of old radio Buck Rogers shows. She forced us to do actual research, but allowed it to be in a subject where we had actual passion. It gave me skills that I used over and over again to get through college.

In short, she taught me.

She was mean on the surface, but underneath she was kind and funny. If you gave her candy corns, she would use them to turn herself into a vampire. She didn't take herself too seriously, though she got a kick out of suffering. This was a woman who referred to the dead in Beowulf as "crispy dragon nuggets" and Madame Defarge's "knit list". Oh, and that 105 North Tower sign. The image you see at the top of this page is above my classroom door; the Children Here In Labor Despair sign is a little shout out to Ms. Zika.

I doubt very much that she'll ever read this post, in her honor, but I'm going to write it anyway. I'm going to write it because my Student Council kids are collecting teacher appreciation notes at school, and I realized that I never appropriately thanked the people who ended up as influences on my teaching career. Ms. Zika is not the person who inspired me to get into education. (those two men were Mr. Lindgren and Mr. Lantz.) She isn't the person who inspired me to teach what I teach, since I'm a Social Studies teacher. However, much of the success I've had as a teacher is because of things she taught me.

You see, one of the biggest things that teachers in the modern era have to do is communicate well with parents. More and more, that communication is in the form of email. Many times, principals will advise teachers not to communicate with parents via email, because of two reasons. The first is that they are scared to have you saying things in writing that can later be thrown in their faces. (Simple solution? Be honest and do what you say you will do.) The second reason is that many adults, even in education, are poor at communicating with the written word. Because of Ms. Zika, I'm a good written communicator. That has allowed me to build good relationships with my peers and the parents of my students.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank Ms. Zika, in public, using the tools that she taught me. Too often, we read appreciations of famous people, of the rich and famous, of the powerful. I'm trying to do my little part, to thank the  people who gave the most of themselves to help create me as the man (and teacher) I am today.  I just hope that I'm helping students the way Ms. Zika helped me.

So, I encourage you to do the same. Find a teacher who influenced you, and write them a thank you note. You think they won't remember you. I bet they will.

Thanks, Ms. Zika.


  1. Ilia Catharine SmithMarch 11, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    I second that thanks to Ms. Zika. Both she and Mr. Carter were so influential in teaching me to be a good writer (no comma splices in my sentences!), and they both did it with good senses of humor. I'll never forget Mr. Carter's reenactments of the Odyssey. Great post.

  2. Great post! I wish I could find Mrs. Redel, my 4th grade teacher. I tried looking her up once, but didn't find her. She must be REALLY old now, since I think she was in her 60s in the 70s. But I'm inspired once again to try to find her. Thanks for this reminder about the impact great teachers have. Many of you will never get the letters, but know that you have made a huge difference in countless lives.

  3. Ms. Zika was a woman of the world. She traveled to foreign countries in the summer, and taught us that we could reach beyond our own teenage boundaries...She was tough on me, but taught me proper grammar (though I don't use it on almost of the comment sections, sorry Ms. Z)
    She was the best teacher I ever encountered during my days at Northwestern. Funny but with a bite of sarcasm; critical but always instructive, and she had a great passion for teaching us. Thanks Ms. Zika

  4. Chuck MoeschbergerMarch 14, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    I took it upon myself to let Ms. Zika know :-) Here's her reply:

    Please tell your brother (Andy) that I remember him quite well! I thank him for his kind words. As a bit of a side note, I am retiring at the end of this school year---or as I put it, I finally get to graduate after 38 years of being a senior here at NHS.

    (Ms. Zika)

  5. Thanks for sharing it with her. I have some hesitance to send this kind of thing to former teachers. I know they'll like it, and yet it makes me feel a little bit like an internet stalker.

    I'm happy that she finally gets to graduate.