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Teaching Grit, Empathy Is Top Of Mind For One Of State’s Top Educators

Patty Zemke Is 1 Of 5 2022 Wisconsin Teachers Of The Year

Patty Zemke (second from left) poses with her family
Patty Zemke (second from left) poses with her family. Photo courtesy of Patty Zemke

Patty Zemke typically starts her sixth grade health class spending 5 to 10 minutes encouraging her students to get to know one another through silly questions and different activities.

Some things changed when the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures and virtual learning last year. But not Zemke’s emphasis on making sure her students still felt connected.

In some ways, she felt even more connected to them.

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“I got to see the other side of them as far as who’s taking care of their brothers and sisters while trying to hold the Google Meet and obviously met all their pets because what cat doesn’t like to walk across the keyboard?” she said.

Zemke is a sixth grade health teacher at John Muir and Horace Mann middle schools in the Wausau School District. She was recently named one of five recipients of the 2022 Wisconsin Teachers of the Year, an honor given by the state Department of Public Instruction.

“The five educators recognized with this honor are truly committed to their students and have gone to great lengths to support them as learners,” state Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Stanford Taylor said in a news release.

Other teachers who won the award are:

  • Tarah Fedenia, a speech language pathologist for Poplar Creek Elementary School in the New Berlin School District.
  • Kabby Hong, an English teacher at Verona Area High School in the Verona Area School District.
  • Anna Miller, a speech language pathologist at Harmony Elementary School in the Milton School District.
  • Eric Mumm, a technology and engineering teacher at Lancaster High School in the Lancaster Community School District.

In Zemke’s application for the award, she said she wants to create space “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 where they develop skills that empower them to become their best self.”

Students want to be heard and listened to, Zemke said. She tells her students that if they talk to one adult who isn’t listening, that they should keep looking for adults to speak to until someone pays attention. She said it’s important for her to take time each day to talk to her students, because she believes it’s important that they’re heard.

“I just want people to start listening to their children, start listening to their students,” she said. “You learn so much from them.”

Zemke said that although students’ mental health has been a taboo subject for years, social media surveys have shown how significant a problem it is. She said with resources dwindling, it’s often a teacher’s responsibility to help the students.

“I’m OK with that,” she said. “I’m OK with addressing the mental health needs due to making connections.”

Some teachers are afraid of that, she said, worried that taking time out of the classroom to talk about such issues means less time for curriculum.

“We’ve got to realize that just making connections with our students will help them engage and will help empower them to raise their voice and say what they need.”