Students as Citizens
Incoming Lower School Director Nick Zosel-Johnson aims to educate the next generation of civic leaders
by Kim Banti
Nick Zosel-Johnson was at a crossroads. A junior at Claremont-McKenna College, he was a government major who, after a year of interning on Capitol Hill and working at the NATO-focused Atlantic Council, realized that the world of politics wasn’t for him. “I liked both experiences, but the work wasn’t close enough to the source,” Nick recalls. “I couldn’t see the difference I was making.”
Instead, it was a summer grant-funded job in Cofradía, Honduras, that guided him toward which fork in the road to follow. He helped to found a bilingual summer camp for elementary-school-aged children in the small town, and even though “it was three months, it felt profound and purposeful—it was just so clear to me that it mattered.” Thus, Charles Wright’s incoming Lower School Director—after eight years as a CWA fourth grade teacher and one year as Lower School Assistant Director—turned his sights on education.
When Teach for America conducted interviews on the CMC campus his senior year, Nick was hired and placed at an underfunded school in North Lawndale, a neighborhood in Chicago with a rich history dating back to the Civil Rights Movement, when in 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. moved there to lead the Chicago Freedom Movement. Teaching second and third grade for two years, Nick put into practice the fundamentals of being a classroom educator, from lesson structure to unit planning to assessments to tracking data and more. He concurrently earned his master’s degree in education at Dominican University before moving to Tacoma, where his then-girlfriend (and now-wife) Susan Sparrow was already a Middle School teacher at Charles Wright.
Once here, Nick absorbed wisdom from longtime Tarrier teachers Jim Pelander and Diane Hunt. It wasn’t long before he assumed the role of cluster chair for the upper Lower School grades and became a mentor himself. “Nick recognized that, as an experienced teacher prior to coming to CWA, I carried my own strengths and passions in teaching, and he helped to weave my teaching style and his together,” says Matt Weiner, who joined the LS faculty in 2015. “We developed a great teaching partnership quickly and had a successful and meaningful two years together. Having a partner with whom you work well leads to an even more excellent program for the students.”
Nick was named Lower School Assistant Director in 2017 as Lower School Head Diane Hunt also assumed the role of Middle School Head. During this time, he has earned a master’s degree in private school leadership from the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Among the class of 50 carefully chosen students from schools throughout the nation, Nick stood out as one of the most humane, passionate, and talented students,” says Klingenstein Center Director and Family Chair Professor Pearl Rock Kane. “He demonstrated a love of learning and, most important, understands how to apply what he learns to improving practice. He thrives on human connection and inspiring others. This was evident in team assignments where he exercised a leadership role by virtue of his work ethic and knowledge. Nick was highly respected among his peers.”
It was only fitting, then, that he be promoted to Lower School Director beginning this fall. “Nick understands how to develop effective curriculum, reflects constantly on his work, seeks feedback humbly, and creates strong partnerships with families,” Diane says. Lower School Learning Specialist Mary Cole agrees. “Nick’s strengths as a classroom teacher have helped him become an observant and self-assured leader,” Mary says. “He is intelligent and incredibly reflective about the purposeful work he does as he leads and guides our Lower School faculty.”
Head of School Matt Culberson looks forward to having Nick join CWA’s senior administration. “We are so fortunate to have someone of the intellectual caliber and moral character of Nick join our leadership team this fall,” Matt says. “Nick’s experience, education, and leadership are fully complemented by his deep commitment to care for each student, family, and faculty member at Charles Wright.”
But even now, government and politics aren’t far from Nick’s mind as he transitions into his new role. “I want to train citizens to improve the human condition,” he says. “I want our students to be thoughtful participants in democracy, to be aware of the world they live in without blinders on, to see the complexity of the world we live in, and to understand their privileged position in that world—and then to go out and make a difference. And I really think we can do that.”