Building Community: Greenville County’s Teacher of the Year

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In this episode, we’re joined by Lindsay Zika, Greenville County Schools Teacher of the Year, who shares her journey in education – a story woven through different cultures and countries and now rooted in Greenville Senior High Academy. We explore the profound influence of family and passion for language that propelled her into a career with multilingual learners.  Lindsay is interviewed by Catherine Schumacher with Public Education Partners. 

Lindsay and Catherine discuss the unique joys and challenges that come with educating multilingual learners. From her strategic approach to building relationships with students and their families to the collaborative efforts that enhance student successes, Lindsay underscores the indispensable role of community support. Tune in to discover how Lindsay Zika is not just teaching but weaving students into the fabric of the community. 

Transcript

Katy Smith:
[0:00] Greenville County Schools employs 6,000 teachers to serve its 77,500 students, and each brings unique skills and experiences to equip students with necessary skills to thrive in an ever-changing world.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and in celebration of American Education Week, when we’re posting this episode, we are joined by one of those teachers.

Lindsay Zika was named Teacher of the Year for the entire school district.

She’s a teacher at Greenville Senior High Academy, and you’ll hear from her about her passion for working with multilingual learners or students who speak a language other than English at home and how she connects those students to the larger community.

I’m so appreciative of Lindsay for inspiring us on this episode.

She’s interviewed by Catherine Schumacher with Public Education Partners.

Catherine Schumacher:
[0:00] Well, it’s wonderful to be here with my friend and colleague and an amazing

[0:05] educator, Lindsay Zika.
Lindsay, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into the classroom and to being this year’s Greenville County Schools Teacher of the Year?

Lindsay Zika:
[0:16] Yeah, thank you so much. So I think for a lot of teachers, we kind of have that person who inspired us to get into education.
And for me, that person was really my mom.
She is a retired speech and language pathologist and I grew up just watching the way that she would work with her students and their families and meet their needs and make an impact and I knew whatever I did, I wanted to have an impact like her and so her passion was always, speech and communication and, mine has always been language and cultures.
And so after I graduated from college at Notre Dame, I did what was supposed to be a one-year volunteer opportunity, teaching in Belize, just fell in love with it.
I mean, it was hard. It was this small school at the end of a dusty road, but the kids were fabulous, the connections you could make.
One year turned into two, and that turned into teaching back home in California, where I’m from, in Mexico City, in the Dominican Republic.

[1:18] And when I was in the Dominican Republic, I had my daughter, which is, you know, when you have a kid, that changes everything.
And it was, this has been great to move around. It’s been exciting.
It’s been amazing for my teaching. Just working all these different contexts has given me the skill set.
But it is time to pick a place and be there. And just very serendipitously, because of a cousin who works in Greenville County Schools, I was connected with Mr. Jason Warren, the principal at Greenville High, where I’m still working today.
And I talked to him over FaceTime, I was in the DR, and he said, you know, I just have this rapidly growing population of what we now call multilingual learners, but basically students who spoke other languages at home.
And he said, I need someone who knows, ideally Spanish language, which I do, and the culture, because with that, you can build relationships with these students and with their families.
He said everything else we can figure out when you get here, but with that, you have the tools that you need, and that just jived with my philosophy so much.
And so, sight unseen, I accepted, and here I am.
And when I first arrived in 2019, he had written all of us new teachers this little note, and mine said, Ms. Zika, you have such an opportunity to make an impact with this student population.
And I took that really seriously, and just together with the admin, we got to work.

[2:39] He was just very clear that it wasn’t about just teaching English within the classroom.
That is my main job, but so much of it was forming these connections with community partners and bringing families into the fold, and really making these students part of the community.
And then it’s just amazing to think five years later, here I am sitting here as Greenville County Schools District Teacher of the Year because it feels like, I think a lot of us teachers have this mindset where, yeah, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but there’s still so much more to be done.
And I’m excited for all these connections I’m making with people like yourself, just through this role of Teacher of the Year, and what that can mean for my students, and even more opportunities we can create.

Catherine Schumacher:
[3:19] Right, well, exactly. I mean, I think that, you know, the role that you play as, you know, teacher of multilingual learners or MLs, as we’ve started calling them, gives you that really unique perspective on sort of the critical needs population in our schools, and how can we as a community be supportive of that and supportive of you all as the educators that are serving them.
So from that perspective, what message is most important for folks to hear from you about you and what you do and the students that you serve?

Lindsay Zika:
[3:50] I think it’s just so important that we see students for the positive and what they can do.
And that’s true of multilingual learners or any student.
And that’s something we’re actually doing well in South Carolina.
You know, you don’t always hear the positives about education here, but we’re one of three states that’s adopted this terminology, multilingual learner, which can be a mouthful.
But the idea is that we’re focusing on their assets.
So when we say English learner, that focuses on the deficit.
No one wants to be known as the thing they can’t do.
And I’m proud of our state for that.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but I do think we’re headed in the right direction.
And when we support one group of students, we’re supporting everyone.
I think with teaching ESOL, which is English for Speakers of Other Languages, teaching multilingual learners, you know, when we’re teaching English, sometimes there’s misconceptions.
People say things like, oh, I would love to teach that, but I don’t speak Spanish.

[4:50] And most ESOL teachers actually don’t because it’s not about translating the content into Spanish or Arabic, Vietnamese, whatever the language is, so much as making it comprehensible for all students, and that benefits everyone.
So I think it’s really exciting to have these students here in Greenville County because it gives us the opportunity to enrich our teaching and focus on academic vocabulary, and that’s going to benefit all students.
I wish I’d had that focus when I was a student because there were several times in my academic journey where I had faced a harsh reality that oh, I need to up my writing, my speaking for an academic context.
So having these students in our classrooms is really, it’s creating a language-rich environment that’s going to benefit everyone.
And it’s not about bilingual education, that’s great, but that is something different.

Catherine Schumacher:
[5:39] Right, right.

Lindsay Zika:
[5:40] And in fact, a lot of our students don’t speak Spanish, even the ones that people sometimes think do.
We have a lot of students from Guatemala who speak dialects.
There are 25 different dialects in Guatemala, and so they come in, maybe speaking some Spanish, but their first language might be Chuj, K’iche’, and Akatek.

Catherine Schumacher:
[5:58] It’s crazy. Yeah. I mean, I just heard that Superintendent Royster shared that there are 78 different native languages spoken across the district.
And I think that number has grown exponentially just in the last few years.
So we obviously have, you know, we have refugees coming in, we have immigrant populations coming in. And I think it’s such a rich, complex complement, as you said, it makes for a richer school community.
So, you know, when you talk about how do you approach that, you know, you might have a class with kids coming from all over the place, speaking all sorts of native languages.
So what is your first, what’s the first thing that you do? How do you approach that?

Lindsay Zika:
[6:39] Well, I think as a teacher, you have to build relationships with students, no matter where they are from.
And so, with me, I want my students, I need my students to know how much I love them and how much I believe in them.
Yes, I’m going to push you hard, but I will never ask you to do something that I don’t 100 % think that you can do, that I’m not, I’m going to support you in this.
And when students know that they work hard, and this is true of multilingual learners, this is true of all students, that we see them, we understand their goals, we reach out to their family, and with that, we can do a lot of things.
I think it’s important, I love data, to have an objective way we can measure their progress and to involve students and their families, no matter what age.
I teach high school right now, but I’ve taught elementary, I’ve taught middle school.
No matter how old my students are, I always make sure to involve them in their data and measuring their progress so they can take ownership.
I mean, I think we can overdo it with testing a little bit, but it is important that we do measure where they’re going.

Catherine Schumacher:
[7:40] And is that very individualized? I’m just thinking about, you know, obviously everybody knows that our students all take these standardized tests.
And you know, what does that pathway look like for an ML student?
Like what would that, how would that, how is that different?

Lindsay Zika:
[7:55] So when a student enrolls in school in South Carolina, on the enrollment survey, the parent answers a question about the languages spoken at home, and if they indicate that there’s a language other than English, that triggers a screener.
And South Carolina is part of what’s called the WIDA Consortium, which is an organization that…, has the screener, the yearly access test that students take.
And so based on this screener, the multilingual learner program teacher at the school can determine if the student needs a taught class, if they need consultative, what level of service they may need.
And then that student is served with the idea of they meet their growth targets each year.
And this is part of what we see on the school report cards, that section that says ML progress.
And then, ideally, test out reflecting that they’ve acquired the English language skills they need to be successful.

Catherine Schumacher:
[8:48] Yeah, it’s so interesting because I didn’t know that, and I think that’s that image of sort of very individualized education is the goal for every student in every classroom. So that’s really, really interesting.
You know, at Public Education Partners, we really focus on elevating teachers.
That’s sort of one of our core focus areas because we know how important having amazing teachers like you is to student success in the classroom.
So, you know, an important part of that is teacher advocacy.
And we spent some time together this week with the teacher forum, the group of all the teachers of the year from the district, and talking about teacher advocacy and teacher voice.
So you have an audience of listeners here who might not know really anything about what you do on the daily.
So you know, what would you want them to know? What might surprise them that you really want to sort of use this moment in this platform to share?

Lindsay Zika:
[9:35] Yeah, I think people should know how interconnected teaching really is.
We’re not in silos, we’re not in one-room schoolhouses.
What happens in my classroom is enhanced by the amount of partnership and connections I have outside of the classroom walls.
And so I’m going to use an example that you know well, also in your role as a member of the Greenville High PTSA, which is our newcomer group.
So these students come, and it’s my job to teach them English.
What’s really helped to make an impact with them is the newcomer group, where we focus on all of the non-academic skills that they need to be successful.
And that’s been possible by a very generous grant from the Greenville High PTSA, who, even though these are parents who don’t have students who are part of that group, believe in this idea of reaching every child and what do they need.
And these students need, like all students, to feel like they are part of the community.
And so they come, and we welcome them, and with the grant money, we purchase these red Greenville High shirts, Red Raiders.

Catherine Schumacher:
[10:36] So they’re part of the part of the family.

Lindsay Zika:
[10:37] Exactly. Water bottles that say Greenville High, some swag.
And then we have these meetings, and we have snacks because the teenagers, you know, you always have those snacks.
Yeah. So we feed them. And then we invite administrators, district social workers, people to come in and just speak to them about what they need to be successful.
What are the graduation requirements? Attendance policies.
What does it look like to go on and study after Greenville High?
How can they get scholarships?
What schools might be an option for them? What do they need to enter the workforce?
We’ve had Hispanic Alliance come and do Lunch and Learns.
And we’re seeing that our ML graduation rate is increasing, and I think that’s a huge part of it.
And so just knowing that this connection, what I can do in the classroom, I mean, it’s just so…
The impact is so much greater when we have all these different people working together and all the different pieces that come into play.
And I really think every single person in our community has an opportunity to support students and find out, you know, when you know, what is your passion, and how can I tap into this and support this work?
I mean, it’s still like after 18 years in the classroom, it’s just so exciting to think about what students achieve when they’re supported by a whole whole mix of people.

Catherine Schumacher:
[11:52] Yeah, no, I think that’s really true. And I applaud the PTSA at Greenville High, too, because I mean, you see the signage and information that’s being sent home about PTSA now is offered in English and Spanish.
And so it’s that, how do you create a welcoming environment for everybody?
You know, we pride ourselves in this community on being a welcoming and hospital community.
So how are we doing that? How are we showing up for that? And it’s wonderful.
The new conference is such a great group, such a great program.
So well done to you for putting it together.
You know, and finally, I just, I think it’s important to talk about, you know, there’s been a lot of talk about the teacher shortage, a lot of talk about, you know, the challenges that teachers and educators are facing, that districts are facing in finding teachers and retaining them once they, you know, they come in the building.
So I want to give you an opportunity to offer some advice.
So you know, what advice do you have for people who are thinking about becoming a teacher?
So maybe some of these high school students that we see in our, you know, great future teachers program here in Greenville, then also for a young teacher who maybe is just starting out and is kind of a little overwhelmed by what they’re facing in the classroom right now.
What advice do you have as our teacher of the year?

Lindsay Zika:
[12:57] So I think for anyone looking to go into teaching, I always encourage people to remember there’s so many different forms, different types of schools, different ways you can teach.
And so, to really find your niche, teaching high school is very different than teaching elementary.
And myself, I’ve worked in international schools, I’ve taught early literacy, and all of those experiences have just been, they’ve served to enrich me as an educator.
And I think, you know, whether or not the teacher’s new, it’s always good to explore what else is out there.
Not only where can I be most effective, but also where can I be happy so I can stay here and really make this a career.

[13:38] And then for new teachers, really any teachers, just build your community and find your people, your colleagues in the building, the administrators who have your back, the community partners who can support you, and just know that as teachers, I mean, we know our students, they have their strengths, they all have areas where they need help.
And it’s the same for us as teachers. I know I have my strengths, I can support my colleagues when we’re working with multilingual learners in the classroom. And I know I have areas where I need a lot of help, and I know who I can go to, both in the classroom, in the building, outside, in the community.

[14:14] And that’s huge. I mean, like I said, that’s the part that just gets me excited, is working with these other people and building those relationships.
And that’s, when you think about, just as an individual teacher, all the demands on you, it can be overwhelming, because it is a lot.
But then when you remember, this isn’t just on me, this is on me and my people, and we’re gonna work together, and we are going to serve these students.
And just having priorities, both in life, you know, family, health, those have to be priorities, but also as a teacher, you know, there’s not time in the day to do everything, and so I know that those relationships, that’s important.

[14:49] If I don’t have time to get to everything in a planning period, you know, it’s always worth it to make that phone call home, share good news, reach out to a parent, reach out to someone who can support me, and I might not have the fanciest slides in my lesson the next day, but I’ll have done the thing that makes the most impact.

Catherine Schumacher:
[15:07] No, I think that’s wonderful advice. You know, relationships first.
I know that that is a theme that goes through so much. So many of our successful educators, that is what they take to heart every day.
And you are certainly at the top of that list of incredible educators here in Greenville County Schools.
It is the joy of public education partners and me to get to spend time with you all. So thank you for spending time and conversation with me today.
Thank you for everything that you do, and again, congratulations on the big honor of being Greenville County Schools District Teacher of the Year.

Lindsay Zika:
[15:34] Thank you so much.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Kruck20 on Canva.

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