Elizabeth Zoellner, Commonwealth Elementary School in Fullerton
Elizabeth Zoellner’s son was only 2 when she first became a teacher. Last year, her son graduated from law school.
“My teaching has definitely evolved over the years as I helped my own child navigate the educational system,” said Zoellner, who has spent her entire 26 years in education at Commonwealth Elementary School in Fullerton. “I want all of my students to have the same opportunities as my own child has had, so I work to give them a strong foundation to continue to build on.”
It’s an evolution and passion that is plainly demonstrated every day to her students, colleagues and supervisors. And it’s why Commonwealth’s previous principal, Anita Lomeli, nominated her for this year’s Top Teacher award.
“In my tenure of over 11 years as principal, Ms. Zoellner stands out as one of the most patient, caring and expert teachers I have had the privilege to see in action,” Lomeli said in her nomination essay. “I love walking into her room to see students highly engaged, focused and learning.”
Though Zoellner seems almost destined to teach, working in education was actually her second career.
“My college degree was in Management Human Resources and I was working for an insurance company in Human Resources, but found myself to be unfulfilled and began to search for a career where I felt truly needed,” she said. “I had a few friends who were working in education and after talking to them, I realized that this was an area where I would feel like I was truly making a difference.”
She took a leave of absence from her job and went back to school to earn a teaching credential.
“I soon realized that helping students learn and have fun while they were doing it was what I was really destined to do with my life,” she said. “I took the leap and have never looked back.”
Jean Summy, interim principal at Commonwealth, has seen Zoellner in action during the challenging times.
“When faced with the challenges of remote learning and hybrid classrooms, Ms. Zoellner devoted countless hours setting up her home classroom and new learning platforms that would be easily accessible to kids and parents, in-person and virtual,” said Summy. “She also provided assistance to colleagues about how to best deliver engaging lessons in such a challenging format. Her circle of influence reaches [not] only her classroom but the school as a whole and she welcomes the chance to take on leadership roles on the Commonwealth staff.”
Darlene Naslund, who has worked with Zoellner for 25 years, said she exemplifies what all teachers should do for their students each year.
“She has to adapt each year to the personalities/social challenges/varying academic levels of her students,” said Naslund. “I know for me, she has been a voice of reason, a strong tech support and a great resource for my grade level changes over the past many years. … She has a quiet manner that is a calming factor in her classroom. You can walk in at any time and the students are quiet and working on expected lessons whether it be in whole group, small group or one on one.”
Zoellner, who currently teaches first grade, has taught kindergarten through third grades over her many years at Commonwealth. It’s the kids that keep her coming back day after day.
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“They make me smile every day,” she said. “They constantly surprise me and keep me on my toes. I love to see their faces when a lightbulb turns on for them, especially when they begin to understand a concept that they have been struggling with.”
Though the pandemic certainly posed challenges, she did her best to overcome them.
“That first year we left school with so much uncertainty and my challenge was keeping students — and their families — engaged in a brand-new format while I was trying to learn so much about new ways to deliver instruction,” she said. “Last year the challenge was hybrid instruction and trying to maximize engagement with students learning in three different locations. I love having all students back in the classroom this year, but find that students definitely have different needs than students had prior to the pandemic. Students are having to learn to work and play together in different ways and have great social and emotional needs.”
She said that first year she dove into learning how to record lessons on Screencastify and used Seesaw extensively for students to be able to respond.
“Last year, I learned to add more brain breaks to Zoom learning and find that I continue to incorporate more now,” she said. “While I have used morning meetings with my students for the past few years, I have found them to be extremely necessary to help meet the needs of students this year both in terms of social-emotional learning and fostering a growth mindset.”
Even through all the challenges, she knew she was in the right place.
“I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else with my life,” she said. “Even during the challenging times, or perhaps especially during the challenging times, I know I am making a difference in the life of my students. They need good teachers more now than ever.”
By Jessica Peralta