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Kevin Zerzan ’89, MAT’90

Kevin Zerzan discusses his work at Gladstone High School. (1:38)

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Care for Students Earns Alumnus a National Teaching Award

Dual-flush toilets, a bioswale and labs where students conduct hands-on experiments related to sustainable energy - these are just a few of the "green" features at Gladstone High School.

Kevin Zerzan '89, MAT'90, who has taught science in the Portland suburb for a decade, is proud to be part of a school where sustainability is a priority - just like his alma mater.

Zerzan's contributions toward Gladstone High becoming a certified green school, as well as his teaching passion and care for students in the classroom, recently led him to receive a prestigious honor: a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

He is humble about earning the award, which comes with a $25,000 prize, but when you ask him about his work with students, it becomes clear why he stands out.

"There is an old adage in teaching that says, ‘Students don't care what you know, but they know if you care,'" Zerzan says. "Although a strong base of knowledge is essential to being a good teacher, there is a grain of truth to that saying. Students will learn more if they know their teachers care about them.

"At Willamette, personal relationships with my professors make up some of my fondest memories. Many times I would work extra hard so I didn't disappoint my professors. Smaller schools with small class sizes are a great way to facilitate relationships between teachers and students."

Tradition of Winners

Dubbed "the Oscars of teaching" by Teacher Magazine, the Milken Educator Awards recognize the importance of outstanding educators and encourage talented young people to enter the profession.

Zerzan joins a growing group of Willamette alumni to receive the award, including Elisa Schorr '01 in 2007; Larry Conley MAT'99 in 2006; Hendrea Ferguson MAT'95 in 2003; and Dave Bertholf '90, MAT'92 in 2000.

Putting Research to Use

Zerzan majored in biology before earning his MAT at Willamette. For his master's thesis, he traveled across the state to visit high school science programs - field research for his project on designing the ultimate science lab.

When the Gladstone School District recently passed a bond measure allowing for the development of a new Applied Science and Technology Center at the high school, Zerzan used his master's research to help build the lab he had created on paper.

The facility incorporates numerous environmentally friendly features. Zerzan says sustainability was not a priority at many schools when he was in college during the late 1980s, but he appreciates the strides Willamette - and Oregon in general - have made since.

Both the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club have recognized Willamette as a national leader in sustainability.

"At Gladstone High, we have been working toward the highest level of green school certification, so we are teaching other schools how to be green," he says. "We have reduced our trash and energy use exponentially. It's been phenomenal."

A Rigorous Education

Zerzan keeps his Willamette experiences in mind as he shares his science passion with his own students.

"I have tried to base my teaching on rigor and relationships, just like Willamette modeled for me. The coursework at Willamette was rigorous, challenging and interesting, while the relationships I developed there inspired me to work hard. 

"In my classroom, I have tried to provide an opportunity for my students to experience a Willamette-style education."

Watch a video of Zerzan receiving his Milken Educator Award on the Milken Family Foundation website.