My Meandering Journey to Become a Global Educator Part 1 By Jeff Zanger

I met Jeff at ISTE18. He sat next to me in a meeting about global collaboration. What he didn’t realize at the time was that he gave me a very nice compliment about a curriculum I had developed while working for a global ed. company the year before. I had a chance to chat a bit with Jeff during the conference and could tell right away that he was a passionate global educator. What I didn’t realize was the incredible story he had to tell. There’s so much we can learn from this story, so I decided to split it into two posts without having to cut anything. I hope you are inspired as much as I have been. Here’s part 1 of Jeff’s story.


I’m going to Rome in 10 days to speak at a Global Education Conference sponsored by JDO Foundation.  


I’m going to Rome…to speak to educators from around the world about global learning!

I’ve told this story many times, but I still shake my head each time I tell it and wonder “How did this happen?”


I was born and raised, and currently teach in Quincy, Illinois.  It is a small city located on the banks of the Mississippi and is a prototypical river town of the Midwest.  Of my 50 years on this earth, I have lived in Quincy for 45 of them.  I love Quincy for its history, it’s German heritage, it’s predictability and the fact that I know so many of the 40,000 residents.  Quincy is a town where your parents ask “Who are her parents?” when you tell them you want to date someone.   I lived a sheltered existence.  I went to Catholic schools from 1st-12th grade.  I knew a few non-Catholics before enrolling at Illinois Wesleyan University.  The only contact I had with people of color was in athletics.  We were not wealthy, my dad worked in a factory, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.  But we lived on 2 ½ acres, had a large garden, and had all we needed.


I left IWU with a Business Administration degree. I had thoughts of becoming a teacher, but I wanted to make more money.  As I was working as Department Manager at JCPenney, my brother asked me to be his assistant coach for a Catholic high school JV girls basketball team.  After the first practice, I knew that teaching and coaching are where my passion lied.


I went back to school, obtained my teaching certificate, and sent out resumes.  I was hired by Payson Seymour High School in 1996.  Payson is a town of 1700 located 12 miles south of Quincy, and the district is made up of thousands of acres of farmland.  I was the high school Social Studies Department for most of my time there, teaching US History, World History, Government, Geography, and Psychology.  I also coached year-round basketball and baseball at the junior high and high school level for three years before moving into softball for the next 13 years.  I obtained my Education Administration masters and moved across the street to be the principal at the PK-6th-grade elementary school in Payson.  That was the first step out of my “sheltered world.”


I learned quickly that an elementary school is a whole different world than a high school, even when the two buildings are right across the street from each other. The most significant difference I found was that I was able to “see behind the curtain” as an elementary principal.  Whereas high school students in difficult situations show you the face of anger, frustration, disinterest, young students tell their story with no filters.  I learned of abuse, poverty, and neglect.  I learned why the hardened high schoolers that I struggled to connect with acted as they did.  Basically, my eyes were opened wide, and my mind was blown.  I had no idea that some kids didn’t have supportive parents at home to make sure they had dinner and got their homework done every night.  I had no clue that 5-year-olds were exposed to inappropriate movies and language that I didn’t hear until I was in high school and would never have used in front of younger kids.  I knew our district had some poor families but had no idea that kids in my small community lived well below the poverty line, some were crammed into mobile homes or were even homeless for periods of time.


Jeff and his wife Shannon

Jeff and his wife Shannon

In 2011, my perspective widened again. My 11-month-old son, Easton, had a seizure that lasted 24 hours and wasn’t finally contained until the doctors at St. Louis Children’s Hospital lowered his body temperature and put him into a coma. My family entered the world of disability.  Easton is our fourth child.  Our oldest son was 7, and our daughters were 5 and 4 at the time of his seizure, so we had been through “normal” parenting issues.  When Easton came out of the coma, he was like a newborn all over again. I had been an educator for 15 years and had worked with many differently-abled children. But, watching my child struggle to relearn was frustrating, and sitting through meetings that identified all of the things that my child couldn’t do was an excruciating experience.

My widened perspective allowed me to empathize much better with the frustrated, sometimes angry, parents that sat at the table with us at IEP meetings. I vowed to explain to my staff, and to students, how imperative it is that we see the world from their perspective, and to focus on that child’s strengths, not his or her weaknesses.
Jeff’s son Easton

Jeff’s son Easton


Easton passed away on December 8, 2012, and my life was forever altered. The rest of that school year is a blur, and the next year seemed to be filled with state testing, meetings, a new state evaluation tool, and discipline. 

I was struggling with grief, and I wasn’t happy with my job.  I wasn’t an educator anymore, I was an administrator. Easton’s life and death taught me many lessons, most importantly, that nothing is guaranteed in life.  So, I jumped on the opportunity to return to the classroom when the 6th-8th grade Social Studies position opened at my children’s school.


And that’s when my global learning journey really began….

Jeff is back from Rome, and the story of his global learning jrney will continue next week in part 2. You won’t want to miss it.


Jeff Zanger is the proud husband of Shannon and the dad to Logan, Addison, Morgan, Easton, Djouna and Katia.  He is an educator of 22 years, currently teaching Social Studies at the junior high after being a high school teacher and elementary principal. Jeff’s current passions include expanding perspectives through Global Education and helping students find and pursue their passion.  Connect with him on Twitter @Educ8_zanger.