Science isn’t necessarily the most engaging topic for middle schoolers. But Jill Zastrow makes it fun, according to her students at Carondelet Catholic School in Fulton.
She engages them with a warm up as they walk into her class. She uses funny accents and changes the volume of her voice. She asks students about what helps them learn and for feedback on her class.
“When I get into the science room, it’s a lot of fun,” said Carondelet sixth-grader John Dolan. “It’s just so engaging.”
Zastrow’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last month, she was named K-8 teacher of the year by the Minnesota Independent School Forum, a statewide organization of 152 private schools.
“She’s just really a kids-first teacher, so she really values them as individuals,” said Carondelet Principal Sue Kerr. “She just puts herself into everything she does.”
Zastrow has worked at Carondelet for the past two school years, after spending time in the St. Paul school district. She described her teaching style in a variety of ways, from energetic and passionate to adaptive and “planned but whimsical.”
She said her aim is to instill a love of science in her students so they can engage in the subject in high school.
“My kids have a lot of freedom to exercise autonomy, but in a way that they can make mistakes and it’s not the end of the world,” she said.
Zastrow said her goal was to saturate the science program at Carondelet in her second year at the school. She started a robotics class and club and volunteered to lead a partnership program with the Minnesota Zoo, for which over 60 students signed up.
In addition, Zastrow has been instrumental in creating a grading system for students receiving special services, according to nomination letter Carondelet sent to the MISF. She also coaches soccer at the school and started a yoga club and an enrichment class that aims to get kids more engaged and aware of global issues.
She said her philosophy with teaching is to expose kids to as much as possible. She encourages kids to try things even if they are just slightly curious, which she says is a natural way for them to figure out their passions.
That philosophy mirrors her entrance into teaching. A college soccer player, Zastrow said she didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career, noting forays into pre-med, nursing and architecture. Her interest in education came from teaching English to first-graders in France, something that inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in the subject.
“I knew that teaching was kind of my calling,” she said.
Zastrow said she liked how natural teaching felt and how much she laughs when she’s around kids. She said it fits her personality, adding that she enjoys how every day is different.
Her students appear to appreciate her passion and energy. Seventh-grader Ava Shirley said Zastrow really listens to her students has a positive attitude that makes learning fun.
“Everybody is really focused on what she says,” Ava said. “She brings everybody together with her bubbliness.”
John Dolan, the sixth-grader, said Zastrow’s class is engaging from the beginning. She gives the students multiple ways to learn ideas, he said, and always covers topics at least twice.
“It’s just really easy to learn in that classroom,” he said.
Zastrow was the third Carondelet teacher to earn the honor since 2011, joining elementary school teacher Brigid Berger and middle school teacher Josh Nutter, who now works at Ramsey Middle School.
The Minnesota Independent School Forum also recognized Carondelet’s Director of Admissions, Megan Hower, with its 2017 behind the scenes award, which recognizes “the quiet and essential work of an individual who supports the school outside of the classroom.”
Hower manages the school’s marketing, website, social media and other special projects in addition to her admissions work. Kerr, the Carondelet principal, said that Hower does many things that keep the school running but go unappreciated.
“She’s kind of a secret weapon for us,” Kerr said.