September 15, 2021

Teacher of Year Patty Zemke: Creating A Space Where Students Feel Safe

Teacher of Year Patty Zemke: Creating A Space Where Students Feel Safe Featured Image

Wisconsin 2022 Teacher of the Year, Patty Zemke, says building connection with students is the key to effectively conveying essential health lessons to the sixth graders she teaches.

Zemke, a WEAC member and one of the state’s five educators selected for the Teacher of the Year honors, works at John Muir and Horace Mann middle schools in the Wausau School District. She is a National Board Certified Health teacher and serves on the Wausau district’s “Leader in Me” Lighthouse committee and the “Real Talk” committee.

“I aim to create an environment where students feel safe to share their dreams, a classroom where students develop empathy to learn from and inspire one another, develop grit to keep striving and develop the skills that empower them to become their best self,” she said. We learn together in health class all the time.”

WEAC President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen visited Zemke’s Wausau classroom to see firsthand how health teachers approach the complex and essential role they have in Wisconsin’s Public Schools.

Building Safe & Supportive Schools

In a time where schools do not have enough social workers, counselors and psychologists, Zemke has run trainings for safe and supportive schools in her district. This training has equipped staff with the knowledge of how to respond to difficult situations the student might be experiencing and if needed, how to approach the adult in that student’s life.

For students entering adolescence, Zemke said one of  her responsibilities is to help them develop their decision-making and communication skills. “We focus on skills more than the content,” she said, noting that the list is long of situations in which young people will find themselves.

With all of the difficult situations adolescents face, learning how to talk respectfully about tricky subjects is important, she said. Her class goes beyond saying no, instead developing plans of how to stay out of those situations in the first place, how to communicate their needs, and how to advocate for their decisions. “A big part of that is figuring out who a trusted adult in their lives is,” she said. 

“Students want to be heard; they want to be listened to,” she said. “Giving them the grit to push forward is important. I tell them, if you tell one adult and they don’t listen to you, find another adult. And don’t stop until someone listens.”

“Every single class period is an opportunity to connect with students; that’s where connections are made,” Zemke said. “If people think about their favorite teacher, it’s the teacher who took time to get to know them.” she said, adding that it is an opportunity for students to connect with each other, too, and that empathy often comes after listening to what other students have going on in their lives.. “Sometimes when we are vulnerable with each other, students who were doing sleepovers and having fun over the weekend learn that, ‘Wow. There’s a kid in my class who was going through something.’ When I was at my sports tournament, that student was at the hospital visiting their mom.

Zemke said there have been gains in allowing students to discuss mental health without stigma. “Mental health has been taboo for many years,” said Zemke, who is in her 26th year of teaching. “Now, we’re realizing mental health is really an issue. I want people to start listening; start class talking with and  listening to the students. We have to realize making connections with our students will help them engage and empower them to ask for what they need.” 

A New Window into Students’ Lives

The pandemic created a whole new environment to teach sixth grade health, but in some ways Zemke said it opened a new window into her students’ lives – and theirs into hers. “I got to see the other side of them,” she said, adding that engagement increased as all students had space virtually to chat with her and each other during class. “I had breakfast with my students and taught nutrition,” said Zemke, who has been known to have nutrition messages printed on local grocery store bags. “I also got to see which students were taking care of siblings, who had cats and dogs that like to snuggle. I met their families as my students were figuring out who a trusted adult is and how to get their view on things like drugs, nicotine and alcohol.”

Community Involvement

Zemke hopes to advance the building connections concept throughout 2021-22,  advancing discussion and action to help students open up to each other and the community.  She added that the community plays a part in helping youth build empathy and resiliency. “The community has to be involved with the school and they don’t necessarily know how,” she said. Zemke sees her role as an ambassador to open those avenues by facilitating interaction between young people and the community.  One student-led project she’s thinking about would be creating “staycation packages” for struggling families.  “We must recognize that not everyone has great things to do over a break, and we might be able to help,” she said.