Ashley Zeinz is a first-grade teacher at Adler Park Elementary School in Libertyville. She's been at Adler Park for 12 years, the first three as a fifth-grade instructor before moving to first grade for the past nine years.
She joined the Adler faculty after graduating from Illinois State University, and later earned a master's degree in special education from Dominican University and a second master's in educational technology from Concordia University.
Besides teaching first grade at Adler, Zeinz runs Destination Imagination, a program that encourages children to work in teams to solve problems in which they have to think outside the box.
She lives in Volo with her husband and 8-month-old daughter, Charlotte.
Q. What's your secret to success when it comes to working with such young students?
A. I feel that the secret to success is all about building relationships with the students. Of course, academics are important, but I like to build a solid relationship with each one of my students from the very first day of school.
I like to find out about their family, what motivates them, what they enjoy doing, what makes them tick, what after-school activities they participate in, and any interesting facts about them.
I love to connect with them. By connecting with the students and building this solid foundation, they feel like they can trust me and know that I truly do care about them. It's critical for students to feel a sense of safety and care while at school. This is also very motivating for children.
Most children love to please, and get excited when they see they are meeting your expectations in the classroom, which is, in turn, making the teacher happy.
Children are so much more willing to work when they know they are working for someone who is really invested in them. I take time to invest in each one of my students, which helps us form a relationship where they want to work and want to do their best.
Q. What's your favorite part of teaching first grade?
A. My favorite part of teaching first grade is the innocence that 6- and 7-year-olds bring to the classroom. It is so refreshing to see how they view our world.
I also love how much they love school at this age. I am always getting hand-drawn pictures, letters, and even some love notes. Those always bring a smile to my face and make my day.
If I am ever having a rough start to my day, I know that when I enter my classroom I will be sure to get at least 15 hugs and several smiles. It is those moments that I love and cherish!
Q. What's your best piece of advice for parents of first-graders when it comes to helping their children in school?
A. I would advise parents to have patience with their children. Learning is developmental, and for some children it just takes them a little bit longer to meet the expectations of first grade.
Sometimes we put so much pressure on children to excel that we are being counterproductive. It is important to celebrate all of the little successes you see. For example, if your child is struggling with reading but one night looks at a difficult word and sounds it out all by themselves, this should be celebrated.
I think it is also important to note that each child is unique and they aren't all going to learn in the same way. Fair isn't always equal, and some children just need different tools, strategies, or supports in order to be successful. It is OK to have those in place.
The more support we can give children early on, the less they will hopefully need in the future.
Q. Who was your most influential teacher and why?
A. My most influential teacher was my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Schroeder. When I think of second grade, so many great memories come to mind, but what stands out the most is the way she conducted herself within the classroom.
She was a relationship builder. I remember knowing that she cared so much about me and was genuinely invested in how I did on a daily basis. She made a point to check in with me each day to see how I was feeling and what was going on in my life.
Her classroom was a true community. It was a place full of respect, encouragement and care. She is a teacher who I strive to be like. I hope the students in my classroom feel like I did when I was in her class.
Q. What's one thing your students would be surprised to learn about you?
A. I think that my students would be surprised to learn that when I was in elementary school I loved to act. I was in several plays and musicals.
My favorite was "Peter Pan." I loved getting dressed up in the costumes, learning my lines and singing the songs for each musical. I loved singing, and my sister and I would even put on talent shows at home to showcase our talents.
I secretly hoped that one day I would be a famous actor or actress. Looking back, I'm so glad that never happened. I love my job as a teacher and wouldn't trade it for the world.