It was a Sunday when Mr. Ralph Zema walked into 59 Diner in Houston, Texas. He wore a plaid shirt, glasses, and the presence of someone who is fulfilled with life. Mr. Zema spends his days as a teacher at Memorial High School, but he spent this Sunday talking about the time in his life when he was the student. During this interview, he reflected on his journey, including his experience in the INSPIRE TEXAS | Educator Certification by Region 4 program.
What is your day-to-day life like as a teacher?
Mr. Zema: If it’s not too busy, I greet students by saying “Good morning” as they enter the classroom. I learned in training that this is a great way to get to know names and an appropriate way to make contact with them. I also do something called “Good Things.” During “Good Things,” I randomly call on students to share their weekend experiences. It creates a sense of community. I like to let them take ownership of the class by turning the stage over to them. It lets them know that the classroom is not just about me.
Describe your life before you became a teacher.
Mr. Zema: It was chaotic because I was going from one job to the other. My last job was in a computer-imaging lab. The company would do public service events where they would visit orphanages, sing to kids, and give them presents. A coworker mentioned how I was great with kids. After attending a meeting at INSPIRE TEXAS, I added the classes to my work schedule. I didn’t know how I would do it or pay for it, but I felt a compulsion that I had to do it.
Is there anyone who inspired you?
Mr. Zema: My Aunt Ruth and grandma were teachers. My high school Russian teacher, Mr. Pavlik, also inspired me to become a teacher. I speak Russian today because of him, and I’m able to communicate with my students who are from Russia.
You’ve been at Memorial High School for 20 years. What is your advice to future teachers who desire that same longevity and stability?
Mr. Zema: Every school has its own personality. The environment and administration are different everywhere, so try to find a school that makes you comfortable.
Your love for traveling and diversity stood out in your biography. How has teaching influenced this passion?
Mr. Zema: I want to share my travel experience with the kids. When I was in Poland, I saw kids skateboarding. I take pictures of people, museums, and churches. I know what the kids will like and what they won’t like. Also, traveling allows me to incorporate my real-life experience into the classrooms.
Tell us about your experience in the INSPIRE TEXAS program. What’s the No. 1 takeaway you have from the program?
Mr. Zema: I completed the program in 1995. The program gave me confidence. There were people in the program who were just like me, and it made me feel like I belonged. I’m still in touch with some of the people I met in the program today. We would do simulations of being in the classroom, and we took turns showing how to present a lesson. You learn the most through actually doing it. The teachers got me through the first year, and my mentor made a huge difference once I got in the classroom. I also incorporated the program’s videos into my classes when I used to visit the West Tidwell location.
Why should a future teacher choose INSPIRE TEXAS?
Mr. Zema: The INSPIRE TEXAS program is doable, and it’s designed so you can still work and pursue teaching. The people there are very helpful by allowing me to make up missed classes. Also, they stood by me as I progressed through the process.
How was your first teaching experience?
Mr. Zema: During the first week of teaching, I was nervous because I wasn't used to teenagers. They seemed to connect with me. Teachers can have a profound impact on students. It’s a cool and scary experience.
Is there anything else you want to share with someone who is considering becoming a teacher?
Mr. Zema: You don’t become a teacher overnight. It’s hard work, but it’s very fulfilling. It can be an exciting profession, and every day is different. You never have to feel like what you do has little worth in society. You do make a real difference in the lives of kids, and it keeps you young and vital. It’s about the success, growth, and lives of kids. Don’t waste time. Just do it!
Mr. Zema, known to his kids as the Zemanator, has walked down the halls of Memorial High School in Houston, Texas, for 20 years. He is the perfect example that great teachers are not born but are created. At INSPIRE TEXAS, we’re excited to be a part of his journey.