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Zuzek accepts Educator of the Year award 'as a representative'

Mark Zuzek wants it known. It is humbling to accept the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce Educator of the Year award. He couldn't do what he does without the help and support of so many people, including his family, staff, community people he said.

Zuzek is the Hastings Middle School principal, a position he has held since 1999. He loves what he does.

"I am the luckiest man in the world," he said. "I can't think of working in a better community; I know I'm working in an awesome school with colleagues I love, and with kids who are terrific."

Zuzek used to be one of the kids. A Hastings native and son of Elaine and Jerry Zuzek, he went to public school here. The people and schools began to leave their impact.

There were three teachers after whom he modeled his style of teaching.

One was fourth-grade teacher Arloa Ironside.

"She knew the importance of strong, positive relationships between kids and their teachers," he said. "Everyone in her classroom knew she cared deeply about them."

The second teacher was Dale Wolpers, the middle school communications teacher and play director. He is now an assistant principal in Cottage Grove.

"He exemplified the spirit of playfulness in teaching his craft," said Zuzek. "He also taught the importance of after-school extra-curricular involvement."

The third teacher was high school advanced biology/ chemistry teacher Bob Cruse. He still teaches at the high school.

"He illustrated the importance of deep content knowledge," said Zuzek.

Those teachers were a great influence in his life, and were part of his decision to go into education. Another factor was the kids.

"I decided to go into education because I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives," he said.

After college, Zuzek returned to Hastings to teach science at Hastings Middle School. He taught here for 8 and 1/2 years, then became an assistant principal in South St. Paul for two years.

Hastings is center point

He returned to Hastings to be an assistant principal for one year, before applying for, and becoming, the middle school principal in 1999.

Leaving the classroom and becoming an administrator was part of a natural evolvement, said Zuzek. Plus, he enjoyed working with staff in different areas.

"I found I enjoy being involved on professional committees in instruction and curriculum," he said.

He has experienced similar things being an administrator as he did when he was a teacher. "When that light bulb goes on and they finally understand, I have had the same exact experience, typically in my office or working with staff," he said.

"I enjoy helping to balance the resources of time, space, money and staff with where kids need us the most," he said. "Being a principal is difficult if you do not enjoy conflict resolution. I'm often helping resolve conflict, whether it is teacher and student, student and student, student and parent. I like to think I have a particular talent with scheduling time and communication."

He also enjoys a mentoring relationship with other people. During his principal years, he has supervised 18 people who were completing their administrative licensure.

Still, there are aspects about his position which are not so attractive, and provide more challenges.

One involves students who misbehave to the point where, for the benefit of others and the student's benefit, there has to be heavy consequences.

Another task, dealing with budgetary constraints, is also difficult, he said.

"There are times, for budgetary reasons, people lose their jobs," he said. "I think if that didn't hurt you at least a little - or if you have to expel or suspend one and that doesn't hurt - then you have lost your empathy and sensitivity.

"The simple fact is that cannot be accomplished without a deep compassion for others," said Zuzek. "Compassion is responding with empathy when you realize another is in pain."

Challenges are part of position

The past 12 months have been both interesting and challenging as the Independent School District 200 transitions to a grades five through eight middle school, said Zuzek.

"I'm amazingly impressed by the teachers who volunteer their time and the community members who participate as equal partners," he said. "There has been such a spirit of openness and creativity."

As the process continues, Zuzek reflected on what he has personally gained - and continues to gain.

"I have a profound sense of providence in that I do not know exactly what the middle school will be, but I am 100 percent confident that we will have the best middle school in the state through the efforts of everyone who is participating," he said. "People are doing the tough jobs and doing them well in this process and they have a willingness to listen to every voice along the way."

It is a different, more challenging time for schools now. There are higher expectations for students, there are more challenges for young people, and there are limited resources.

He credits another three people who have influenced him as an administrator. They are former teacher Erwin Christianson; former middle school principal Leonard Schwartz, and former Superintendent Ken LaCroix.

"All three understood about the relationships involved, having integrity, having a sense of playfulness. and doing it with honor," said Zuzek. "This is not Mark Zuzek's school; this is the Hastings Middle School and it belongs to the community.

"Foremost, the success of what we have and continue to strive for, is the quality of the work done before me," he said.

Again, he paid tribute to the community and what the schools mean to it, and how it differs from other communities.

"This is a unique community -- it has very strong support for the schools," said Zuzek. "The schools are a major leg of the community. Every child in this community who goes to the public school goes to the same middle school, the same high school, is a Raider and wears the blue and gold. You can't say that about other nearby schools."