Katherine Zukis knows what it’s like to struggle in school.
For most of her childhood, learning “wasn’t easy,” she admits, and it took her dedication, as well as the support of her parents and teachers, to make her a good student.
Now she hopes to return the favor.
“The challenges I overcame helped me become a better teacher,” Zukis said. “I believe I can make learning accessible to everyone.”
This mindset has made Zukis one of the most beloved and popular teachers at Norton School, where she teaches first graders. Combining an empathy for his students with a creative mind that helps him devise new ways to approach problems, Zukis has continued to focus his energy on his class, especially during turbulent times.
“I feel incredibly grateful to work at Norton,” Zukis said. “The positivity here has really kept us going over the past two years.”
Zukis, who has worked at Norton since 2009, admitted that the pandemic has been “crushing” for educators, as it has been for all students and families, and that life has felt “heavy” at times. This is why she has invested herself in her students and tries as best she can to isolate them from the troubles of the moment.
“How can I, one person, make a difference?” she asked, rhetorically. “I just decided to give my students the most positive experience possible – to make them feel safe and cared for.”
“Everything else will come,” she continued.
As a first-grade teacher, Zukis looks after some of the youngest students in the district, which means that while teaching the essentials is imperative to forming a knowledge base that will carry on throughout of their educational career, ensuring that the classroom remains a “safe space” is imperative.
“You have to ease those anxieties,” she said. “It was very difficult for everyone (the students). I just wanted to be the teacher I wanted for my own children.
“We were able to stay in school most of the time,” Zukis explained. “We were able to (help students) grow. We aimed for social and emotional learning, as well as complex learning, and those strategies certainly helped. At Norton, we focus on asking rich questions and giving students a voice. This was important, especially when I was juggling in-person and remote students. »
Zukis grew up in New Britain and remembers the difficult times she had trying to keep up to date with her learning. Her parents, whom she described as “incredible”, teamed up with teachers at New Britain Public School to ensure Zukis continued to progress, despite his struggles.
This led not only to academic success, but to a desire to pursue teaching as a career.
Zukis attended Keene State College from 2004 to 2008, then earned his master’s degree at Central Connecticut State University. In 2009, she was hired at Norton School but, due to budget cuts, her position was not retained after that first year.
Having attached herself to the Cheshire district, Zukis was heartbroken to leave, but she had to find a position before the start of the new school year. Other towns reached out and made offers, but just as Zukis was about to make her decision, she was informed that a year-long opportunity had opened up in Cheshire, thanks on maternity leave. It was a risk, but Zukis decided to take this one-year opportunity and hope it turns into more.
“I love this community,” she said. “Students go home to families who really care about them. And the team I work with at Norton…they’re amazing.
“I work with some of the most amazing people in this profession,” she continued. “They are here for the same reason I am. We are here for the kids and to give 6 and 7 year olds the best possible experience. »
Zukis acknowledged that she was grateful to have had years of experience under her belt before the pandemic hit, as it helped her through the uncertainty of the moment, especially in the beginning when students been sent home to learn exclusively remotely.
Looking back on how she’s matured as an educator, Zukis thinks she’s pretty much the same person now as she was when she first entered the classroom, only with a little more seasoning.
“I’ve always had a heart,” she says. “That’s what allowed me to pursue my own education. So I always had that. …I’m just a little more polite now.
“At school, I have such a unique position,” she continued. “I can have such a positive impact. It’s something that I really appreciate.