Alumna dedicated to equity in education, honored for leadership
by Sal Nudo
May 19, 2015
Education alumna Jeanne Zeller is one of 10 recipients in Illinois to receive an Outstanding Beginning Teacher Award from the Illinois Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
While in high school, Jeanne Zeller wasn’t sure she wanted to become a teacher. Still, she spoke up earnestly about issues happening at Barrington High School, and she was passionate about the education system.
Zeller’s career path became more focused at the University of Illinois. Her first course within the College of Education’s Secondary School Teaching Minor—she thinks it was EPS 201—ultimately led her to becoming a teacher.
The teacher assistant who taught the course, Dr. Erin Castro, Ph.D. ’12 EPOL, encouraged student dialogue about larger social justice issues within the education system.
“It sparked something in me,” Zeller said. “I knew, however, I could never fully understand or be an effective agent of change until I was in the trenches myself.”
Zeller is deeply in the classroom trenches now, working as a writing teacher for seventh- and eighth-graders at Edison Middle School in Champaign—and she is flourishing. Two years after graduating from the U of I she is one of 10 recipients in the state of Illinois to receive an Outstanding Beginning Teacher Award from the Illinois Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (IACTE).
Dr. Mark Dressman, who nominated Zeller for the award and has 25 years of experience in the field of teacher education, said Zeller is perhaps the best and most accomplished pre-service teacher he has ever worked with. In fact, he considered Zeller more of a colleague than a student while he collaborated with her on three courses within the secondary teacher education program.
“She was that forceful in her leadership and that knowledgeable and talented as a ‘student,’” he said.
Professor Dressman said Zeller’s leadership qualities were particularly evident on a westward service-learning trip he took with her and other students to Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Ariz. Dressman observed Zeller numerous times as she worked with students in small groups and classroom settings.
“Her openness to examine a prior day of teaching and then to come prepared the next day to implement new strategies that addressed problems and built on the successes of the day before were impressive,” Dressman said. “She is a proactive educator who is destined to become a leader among any group of teachers with whom she works.”
A James Scholar and UI Bronze Tablet honoree, Zeller serves as a member of nearly every literacy and curriculum committee at Edison and within the Champaign Unit 4 School District. Dressman said Zeller talks with vigor about the challenges and opportunities at Edison, while relating the work she and others do to adapt a standardized curriculum catered to the unique needs of students, both in terms of the curriculum’s structure and its content.
“Talking with her and reading through her résumé, one would think she had been teaching 10 years with a master’s degree. She graduated just two years ago from Illinois,” he said.
Zeller said it was a “surreal” experience to even be nominated by Dressman for the IACTE award, adding that the professor’s courses showed her there were other methods of teaching than what she experienced in traditional U.S. classrooms.
“He replaced what I knew about teaching environments with teaching that is culturally responsive, in an age where we desperately need it. I would not be the teacher I am today without his early influence,” she said.
Zeller said she is appreciative that the Unit 4 School District allows her to have a say in matters—not always the case in other districts—and that she works down the street from a major university. She embraces the challenges and savors the small and large victories that come with her career. Every day, Zeller strives to be the best teacher she can be and is thankful she took the right career path to help children grow.
“I came to the U of I unsure I wanted to be a teacher, and I left knowing there wasn’t anything else I’d rather be,” she said.
Discover more about the College’s Secondary School Teaching Minor.