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Thinking Like a Student

Mary Jo Zell’s former students send her pictures of poetry anthologies on their dorm room night stands, telling her the book “makes all the difference.” One student returned from college and shared a new-found love for poet John Donne.

“I think I did it right because kids aren’t generally reaching out about metaphysical poetry,” Zell jokes about poet Donne.

Knowing poetry is good for the soul – particularly when embarking on adulthood – Zell, an Advanced Placement® English teacher at Keller High School in Texas, works to instill a lifelong love of the literary form. 

As NMSI’s June Teacher of the Month, Zell says teaching is “never about power and control. It’s always about sharing the classroom. Sometimes we lose sight of that. We’re all in this together.” 

By thinking like a student, she adds, teachers can have this collaborative learning experience with students in their classrooms. This requires teachers to ask themselves how they would feel going home after school to “write a thousand notes next to 50 pages.” As a teacher, “You’re going to go home and have dinner, and this kid is going to copy text for the next seven hours,” Zell says. “It’s not a reasonable request.”

Keller High Principal Lisa Simmons appreciates Zell's focus on individualized learning for each student. "When a student makes a mistake, she works with the student to help them learn why they made the mistake and how to learn from it," the principal says. "She remembers that students are kids and teaches with a growth and grace mindset." 


Another way to connect with the classroom is remembering that good teachers are good students. “There is a craft to instruction, and it often means studying,” Zell says. “I spent many-a-night reading ahead when I started teaching.”

Along with individual learning, Zell understands the benefits of teachers learning and studying together in teams. “Support is very important in this career,” she says. “I think NMSI is a support system for teachers. Mentors are support teams for teachers.”

Speaking of mentoring, Zell has a passion for helping other teachers succeed. She leads fellow teachers at Keller High as the department chair and coaches teachers around the country as a NMSI trainer, a role she’s had for more than a decade.

“If I can influence a brand-new teacher, if I can change someone’s mind to stay in education and if I can influence a student or make them see something differently, that is so much larger than anything I could have done in the corporate world,” Zell says about her love of teaching.

While admitting it can be difficult to wake up on a Saturday morning after working all week to travel to a NMSI study session, seeing students have lightbulb moments keeps her going. “It’s allowed me to make a difference beyond my own community,” she says. “It’s such an opportunity to give them my best for the one hour I get them in the room, and when they say, ‘Oh my gosh. Can I stay with you? That was the best. Now I understand it.’ It is so worthwhile.” 

Zell knows what it’s like for teachers to not feel valued, so she believes “teachers need to find value in other places. Sometimes that’s in a training or college session or working on a Saturday or volunteering – doing something to feel valuable. I think NMSI offers that to a lot of teachers, and that’s what makes it great.”

Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email marketing@nms.org to tell us how they are making a difference in math, science and English education for their students.