Once upon a time, Tim Ziegler thought he was too scared of public speaking to be a teacher.
“When I was in college, I tutored a lot of people who were struggling,” Ziegler recalled. “I enjoyed it, but it was the last thing in my mind that I’d ever be a teacher. The main reason for that is that I was truly uncomfortable talking with large groups of people. I felt comfortable playing soccer in front of thousands of people, but if you put me in front of 10 people or even five people,” he’d clam up.
Life has a funny way of bringing people around to where they’re supposed to be, though. Ziegler, 58, is retiring after 24 years as a Stowe High School teacher.
He never pursued a teaching degree. He has a degree in biochemistry and a master’s in science education with a focus on physics. He thinks not focusing on teaching while he was a college student ultimately made him better at it.
“There’s three parts to be a teacher. One, you’ve got to like people. No. 2 is you have to know your subject matter. You have to be an expert. You have to be somebody who at least knows what they’re talking about, and I think you gain respect that way. The third is, don’t take too many things personally.
“It’s a tough job. It’s a great job, but it’s a people job. The last one was the hardest for me.”
Ziegler is retiring because struggles with his health made it clear he wouldn’t be able to return to the classroom in the fall.
Ziegler had a heart transplant in 2016. He’d been diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis, a degenerative heart disease, a year and a half earlier, and needed implantation of a left-ventricle assistive device to keep his heart pumping until he was ready for the transplant.
That’s two major surgeries in 18 months, and they took a toll. He came back to the classroom for this school year, but “I’ve gone into school a few times and I realized that, within an hour or two of being there, I’m ill. I’m not able to function.
“I realized that it’s like somebody in sports. There’s times to hang up the cleats. It was time,” Ziegler said. “I can’t get through a day without feeling like I need to be in the hospital.”
Retiring at 58 is a disappointment; Ziegler wanted to teach until he was 70.
Teaching in Stowe is a dream come true, he said.
Ziegler was born in Philadelphia, and growing up, his family took road trips to Vermont several times a year. It was always his goal to end up here, though he took a winding path.
“It was a place that fit the way I looked at the world. I lived in New Jersey with a million billboards. I got to Vermont and it was the first place where I didn’t see any billboards. I think it was just the way people in Vermont live their lives that attracted me to Vermont.
“I’m an idealist, and I think the ideals of Vermont are outstanding. That’s where we wanted to raise our kids,” Ziegler said.
He and his wife, Nichola, have three daughters, Katie, Yannah and Leah, and a son, Josh, who graduated from Stowe High this year.
Ziegler said for 11 years straight, he had one of his children or a niece or nephew in his class.
“I think if I was a strict disciplinarian, it would have been much more difficult for me, but I tried to respect them and they generally respected me, so I didn’t have much trouble and I don’t think very many teachers in Stowe do anyway. … There’s a tremendous amount of respect for teachers. … I don’t think there was a day I left class for 24 years that my students didn’t say thank you. That’s a pretty cool thing, to have students say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Ziegler.’ It’s pretty cool. It’s something you don’t forget.”
‘Wonderment of science’
Ziegler fell in love with science as a child. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t asking his parents for “different things to test and chemicals to mix together.
“That wonderment of science has always attracted me from when I was very young,” Ziegler said.
While he never intended to be a teacher, he got used to it over time, overcame his fear of public speaking, and began to see it scientifically.
In his master’s program, “I was asked one time, did I see myself as a teacher or a scientist? I was the only one who said I saw myself as a scientist,” he said.
“Learning how to teach is a scientific process. You have a hypothesis, you think something’s going to work, you try it out and collect data and act on that data and see if it got better, or it didn’t get better. There was never a day where I lost the wonderment of science. It never got old,” Ziegler said.
He was in the third grade when the Apollo 13 mission, intended to take astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert to the moon, was scuttled by an oxygen explosion that put the astronauts’ lives at risk.
“I just wanted them to get back. I was obsessed with Apollo 13 getting back,” Ziegler said.
He credits his passion for science with his life.
He says he pushed to be evaluated sooner than doctors had him scheduled for a heart transplant, because he knew how sick he was.
“I’m a voracious reader. To be honest with you, it’s kept me alive by a long shot. It’s helped my two daughters that also have health issues, being on top of it and understanding the disease process,” he said. “Then, you personally have the clinical picture because you’re living it. You also can converse with the doctors to make decisions and work as a team. For me, that’s an extremely valuable piece that’s really kept me alive, because I knew what was going on.”
He said illness helped him focus on what was most important — learning.
“I think the thing I’ve learned more than anything that I tried to say to everybody is give yourself a break. Take it one day at a time, but also, if the day didn’t go well, you’ve got tomorrow to fix it. I wish I would have figured that out a long time ago. I think I figured out a lot of things because of my illness,” he said.
Though he’s retiring, Ziegler, known to students as “Ziegs,” still plans to tutor kids who need extra help in math and science, and is looking into remote teaching opportunities that would let him use the internet to connect with students around the world.
Ziegs, a passionate soccer player and coach before illness struck, will still be running the clocks at games, too, he said.
He’s also reconnecting with former students on LinkedIn and learning about where their career paths have taken them.
“I am very grateful to be part of the Stowe faculty, and very proud to say I was a teacher at Stowe, because it is an extremely well-run school and a fun place to go to work,” he said.