|m. zellmer. rip
||[Nov. 6th, 2005|06:03 pm]
Students react to loss of beloved teacher|
Even four months after his departure, ex-Athenian History
Teacher Mark Zellmer is still able to maintain his venerable presence
in the minds of students, as they express both anger and sadness that
he can no longer be, as Senior Mike Tauscher put it, "the connection
between a teacher and a friend."
Zellmer, who was asked "not to return" for the 2006 year,
would have been going into his fifth year of teaching at the Athenian
school. In addition to being a history teacher and filling in as ninth
grade dean for the second half of the 2005 year, Zellmer was also very
involved with the student community. He attended and participated in
Interweave and Debate meetings, and also frequently attended home
sporting events. He formed close relationships with students, and was
often seen after school playing cards with students, or simply talking
with anyone who was willing to listen. Senior Nick Summers, one of
Zellmer's former advisees, summed it up: "He was every student's
Despite his popularity with most of the student body,
those who were close to him say Zellmer was not on good terms with a
lot of the faculty.
"He was completely unorthodox," said Senior Jordan Kahl.
"For the students, it was positive, but teachers didn't like his close
relationships with students, gay jokes, swear words, etc. Him taking
out students to dinner and movies and stuff like that intimidated a
lot of teachers, especially since he was gay."
It cannot be demonstrated that Zellmer's open homosexuality had
anything to do with his unpopularity with some faculty, but students
also say that he clashed with faculty members on many occasions about
school-related issues. Also, his openness with students could make
many teachers who believe that student/teacher relationships should
not extend past a certain point feel uneasy. Whatever the case,
Zellmer's contract to teach at Athenian was not renewed by the school,
for reasons that school officials have yet to announce. When Zellmer
told students that he would not be returning, many were very upset.
"I was shocked," said Tauscher, describing his initial
reaction when he heard Zellmer was leaving. "I know he cared about his
advisory and he would've wanted to see us graduate. Later, when we
found out he was getting fired, a bunch of us wanted to talk to
Eleanor [Head of School], but he called us off… He was an honest guy
who stood up for his convictions and he bit the dust for it."
Reactions were similar even outside his advisory. Junior
Molly Fall said, "I was very upset. I wanted a seminar with him. I
don't see any reason the school would have for firing him."
Despite the outcry in the student body that still exists,
Mark Zellmer himself has come to terms with his situation. He now
teaches at a school in Scottsdale, Arizona and was quick to say that
is no longer concerned about the events leading up to his departure
from Athenian. Rather, he is trying to incorporate Athenian values
into his new school. Zellmer said, "[My new school] has different
aspirations: to this school 'harder is better.' I still have some
Athenian in my blood… I'm trying to find a way to introduce Athenian
stuff to this school and take away stuff from this school that
wouldn't happen at Athenian. I teach like I taught at Athenian. I love
Furthermore Zellmer stated that he would have left
Athenian after this school year in any case, due to a number of
reasons, including increasing cost of living in the Bay Area. "I'd
really intended only to stay one more year. I was going to leave after
my advisory graduated. I am still very close to those kids, and I felt
like I had an obligation to those kids and I still do."
It is because he had that attitude, perhaps, that he is so
missed by students. One is hard-pressed to find a student that has
anything negative to say about Zellmer. Most speak of how he cared
about students and was willing to speak with them on their level, but
not willing to force his way of thinking on anybody.
"I thought he was the perfect Athenian faculty member,"
Summers said. "He didn't care what viewpoint you had as long as you
had a good argument. A lot of teachers at this school will say they
care, but only see you during class. He'd go around and talk to you in
his free time."
Photography teacher Tom Swope, who has been with Athenian
since 1970, backed up this view when he said: "[Zellmer] was a
throwback to an earlier period of the school's history, when the
school's strength was in the quality of student/teacher
relationships." When asked where to draw the line for what teachers
get to say and do, Swope replied, "At common sense and
professionalism. It's difficult at this school, because we expect
students and teachers to form close relationships."
Swope's last point was interesting, because many students
believe that Mark's intimacy with students also contributed to his
downfall. He had been reprimanded for making inappropriate comments in
the past, according to members of his advisory, and there is some
speculation as to whether this is what happened last year. Of course,
in a school that promotes close relationships between faculty and
teachers and reprimands teachers for "acting unprofessionally" at the
same time, many found it hard to define where the boundaries should be
"As long as there's no kind of harm, there shouldn't be
any boundaries," Kahl said. "You have to assume that teachers have
Other students, such as Fall, say that it depends on the
context in which they are speaking. "If a teacher goes on a [personal]
tangent about something, that's over the line," said Fall.
Based on the many different perspectives in the school
concerning teachers' limits, it would seem as though no one can really
know for sure how far teachers are allowed to go. Judy Harrod, Spanish
and Freshmen Health teacher, summed up this issue when she said: "As
we all know, the matter of what is appropriate gets blurry at a place
like Athenian. Sometimes it is hard to determine where the line is, or
where the line should be. Sometimes the line changes or blurs before
our very eyes! We say we teach through relationships, so as long as a
teacher is doing his or her job, encouraging learning, building
relationships with and treating students and adults in the community
respectfully and honestly, there should be no need for the constant
definition of a 'line.' Not knowing the actual circumstances behind
Mark's departure makes it harder to define just where the line is."
Many students, such as Kahl, who asked "how does [Zellmer's
departure] follow any of the philosophies of the school?" believe that
the school is steering away from its original roots and that Zellmer's
departure is just another example of that. Many feel personally hurt
that he left, especially those who would have been graduated by
Zellmer this year. Zellmer, who said he'd like to return if only for a
visit, is not surprised about his departure when he looks back.
"Teachers are the most dangerous people on the face of the planet," he
said. "They're begging people to challenge them."
written by Nate Gartrell. censored by the athenian school.