Zöe Zander, a 2018 Western Carolina University alumna, has received a 2021 Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award presented by the National Council of Teachers of English. Zander, from Charlotte, is in her fourth year of teaching 10th grade English at Union Academy Charter School in Monroe.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, as long as I can remember. I think this is true of lots of teachers, especially teachers who end up teaching young adults or high school students,” she said. “Every grade you’re in, you’re like, ‘I want to teach this grade. I want to teach this grade,’ all the way until high school, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, I want to teach this grade. I’m right this time. I know for sure.’”
Zander graduated magna cum laude with bachelor’s degrees in English and English Education. She’s working on her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “That was always going to be my end goal, to teach high school. English has always been my passion. It’s what drives me. I love literature. I’ve always been a voracious reader. I loved taking classes on books and being able to talk about books and literature and reading.”
Zander said she applied for the award because she wanted the mentoring opportunities offered as an award benefit by the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization she was drawn to while attending one of its conferences as a WCU student. She joined it in 2016. Her goal is to be the best teacher she can be – to every student in every class for the length of her career. Working with mentors will help her achieve that goal, she said.
“I’m always looking to learn more, and the way that I think about it is, I love teaching and I want to continue to teach for a long time and people say, ‘You’re going to teach forever.’ I will, but I never want to have a group of students not get my best or not get me at the best that I can give them,” she said. “It’s really exciting to have a mentor who’s going to help me shape myself and become the brave, experienced, knowledgeable educator I can be, because my desire is to light the flame in all of my students and give them the best experience they can have. I don’t want to wait for that to happen. I don’t want to wait until I become a seasoned teacher to be able to be the best educator I can.”
Zander is biracial. Her mother is Black and her father is white. Winning an award for being an excellent teacher of color was especially important to her because of her own experience growing up in predominantly white schools. “It took me getting into an environment where there were more people of color than there were white people for me to really learn how to engage and be myself without having a mask,” Zander said. “Being of color is a big part of who you are when you’re a person of color and sometimes it feels like it comes second when you’re in a space where the other people around you are not people of color, when you are a literal minority in a situation, which I was for a lot of my education, growing up.”
Union Academy Charter School, where Zander teaches, is nearly 75 percent white, she said, with the remainder primarily a mix of Black and Latinx students. She sees herself in the minority students who attend the school and can relate to their struggles. “Being able to share that experience and have cultural things in common with these students that I can relate to them about is really important to me because I think about how when I was growing up it would have been so meaningful and important to have teachers of color to be role models to me,” she said.
As her own favorite eighth grade English teacher did for her, Zander hopes to do for her own generations of students. “She’s the first teacher who ever really showed me school wasn’t all about textbooks and tests. It’s about becoming a better person and becoming a better you and learning through literature and putting yourself and your passions together on paper,” Zander said.
But in the end, she said, it’s simply all about teaching. “I just think teachers have such immense power to be someone who is a trusted adult who can shape you. I don’t think it’s always about showing someone the right way but showing them the way they can engage in this world and have a place in it and change it where they want to.”