Sara Ziemnik, a 1999 alumna of Miami University, has been named the 2017 National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
For the past 17 years, Ziemnik has been teaching history to high school students at Rocky River High School in Rocky River, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. She currently teaches 9th grade world history and 10th grade AP U.S. history.
Ziemnik had initially been named Ohio Teacher of the Year which qualified her for the national competition. In early September, she was notified that she was among the top ten.
“I was very excited to get just the Ohio position,” Ziemnik said. “That was pretty awesome. I had applied before and hadn’t gotten it, so I knew how competitive it was and how deep the field is.”
James Basker, president of Gilder Lehrman said in a press release that Ziemnik was selected for ability to inspire hundreds of students to learn and actually care about history, calling her a “rock star” among teachers.
When Ziemnik got the phone call that she had won nationally, she was speechless.
“When I got the phone call, I couldn’t even formulate sentences,” Ziemnik said. “The woman from Gilder Lehrman was just laughing. She was like ‘yeah, this is what typically happens.’ I was just shocked. This whole thing has been beyond my wildest dreams.”
Ziemnik acknowledges that this wasn’t a solo effort.
“No teacher who is a good teacher does anything alone,” she said. “I’m very lucky that I have a really supportive school district behind me that has allowed me to take some risks.”
“When it comes to classroom instruction and content delivery, Sara Ziemnik is a master at her craft,” said Robert Winton, principal at Rocky River High School in a Gilder Lehrman press release. “Students are engaged through Socratic Seminars, role-playing and other creative ways to relay historical events to high school kids.”
Recently, Ziemnik has been involved with a teaching American history grant in Cleveland State University where she received her M.A. While doing that, she saw advancements for digital humanities and loved the idea of taking the field of history, digitizing it and making it interactive and more meaningful for her students.
“I’m very much of the generation where all of my history classes growing up were ‘Here are the
dates to memorize,’ ‘Read these pages,’ ‘Answer these questions,’” she said. “I think I even fell into that as a default in the very beginning of my career because I was so overwhelmed. But I kind of realized, ‘Wait. I don’t have to do it this way.’”
Ziemnik said that what sets her apart from what she had growing up is that she trusts her students more.
“I let them drive the discussion,” she said. “I really don’t feel like people give high school kids enough credit. Especially in the past year or two, I’ve seen my students more politically engaged and aware and able to have really difficult conversations that many adults in our country can’t have right now.”
Ziemnik is always trying to pull everything she teaches in class into current events. Last week, her students in her AP class were learning about Andrew Jackson and his campaign as an outsider and how he prided himself on not being an elite, as well as the promises he made.
“I didn’t even have to say it,” she said. “My students were looking at me, and I was like ‘Does this sound familiar?’ There are so many parallels between the last presidential campaign and what happened in 1824 and 1828.”
She also tries to help her students understand events like Charlottesville and the racial tension in the U.S.
“I try to get them to understand that these things don’t come out of nowhere,” Ziemnik said. “These things have been brewing, in some cases, for centuries. Another thing I really try to reiterate to them is that we, me and them and you, we didn’t create this problem. But, we have certainly inherited it. It’s our responsibility to try to deal with it.”
Ziemnik credits most of her teaching success to one of her professors at Miami.
“Dr. Michael Fuller retired a few years ago, but he was my methods professor in the school of education,” she said. “First of all, he’s hilarious. He’s just a rebel, a spitfire.”
She recalled being timid in her initial lessons and not taking strong enough stands on the issues she was teaching.
“He pulled me off to the side and said ‘Don’t do that. You need to have opinions! You need to show your students, it’s okay to have opinions,’” Ziemnik said. “I think a lot of the pressure is on teachers to not have opinions about things, and in my opinion, that’s one of the reasons we’re in this mess — people don’t understand our civic system, their rights, what the checks and balances are in our government because everyone is afraid to say anything.”
There’s a difference between saying your opinion and forcing your opinion, she added.
“I want my students to recognize that I have opinions,” she said. “They can have opinions. We can disagree, but we can still talk about it.”
Fuller helped her realize that while challenging her not to teach history the way she had been taught.
“Every time I would create a lesson with a worksheet, he would say ‘No. No, you’re not doing that. … You need them to think more. You need them to talk.’ He really pushed me on that which was good because I didn’t have that as a kid.” Ziemnik said
Ziemnik will be honored on November 8 at a ceremony in New York City where Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner will present her with the award and a prize of $10,000.