Mr. Z says he wants his students to know 'they've found their home.'
When Chace Underwood walked across the stage at Thornton High School’s graduation, he was thinking about a teacher who changed his life more than a decade ago.
Chace doesn’t hesitate to say that without Rocky Mountain Elementary School affective needs teacher Peter Ziltz, he doesn’t think he would have graduated. Chace first met Ziltz, or Mr. Z, as students call him, when he was a withdrawn and struggling first grader. By the time Chace moved on to middle school, he had progressed by leaps and bounds and was ready for his next challenge.
“He taught me how to read and write,” Chace said. “He’s the reason why I was able to pass.”
That’s why before he graduated, he and his mom wanted to pop by Rocky Mountain Elementary one last time to say “thank you,” a full 12 years since he was last in Mr. Z’s class. These types of visits aren’t that uncommon for Mr. Z, who has been a five star educator for 24 years. Nathan Wagner, another former student, and his mother, Kourtney, also paid his old teacher a visit prior to his graduation from Legacy High School.
Mr. Z is the kind of teacher who leaves a lasting impression – the kind of teacher you remember. And no matter how many years have passed since he last saw them, Mr. Z always remembers them, too.
“You can feel the love when you get to his classroom,” Nathan’s mother, Kourtney, said. “I was nervous because I hadn’t seen him in so long. I didn’t know if he’d remember us, but he knew exactly who we were and we picked up where we left off. It was like we never left.”
Mr. Z keeps a Wall of fame in his classroom with photos of all of the students he’s worked with over the years.
“They move their picture over to the wall when they’re ready to leave, and it’s pretty powerful,” he said. “Whenever they come back to visit, it’s a testament to what we were able to do together here.”
When Chace first started in Mr. Z’s class his mom, Lindsey, remembers his incredible shyness, and that he wasn’t speaking much. Mr. Z brought him out of his shell.
“He would figure out ways to best help Chace, specifically for him, the things that would help him the best,” she said. “Chase would come home and tell me ‘Mr. Z did tai chi with me to help with my breathing, or counting exercises.’ Those kinds of things really helped. Without him, I don’t think Chace or I would be where we are today.”
Nathan also remembers Mr. Z working with him to find out exactly what he needed to learn and grow.
“I had a hard time dealing with things and would get stressed out super easily,” he said. “Mr. Z gave me a lot of coping mechanisms and ways to calm down, things to help me be aware of my surroundings, and allowing myself to just think before I act.”
Mr. Z treats his students with respect and high expectations, Rocky Mountain Principal Kate Vogel said. His patience, sense of humor and generosity make students feel safe.
“He respects them, and they respect him,” she said. “He is really good about sharing himself with these kids. He shares stories about his own family and brings his own experiences into the work so students get to know him not just as an affective needs teacher, but as a human being.”
Mr. Z sees all of his students this way, too. He knows there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for them. He spends time figuring out what will work best for each child, based on their specific needs.
“I want them to know that they’ve found their home, and we’re going to build those relationships and connections with them and do whatever it takes to make them successful,” he said. “For each kid, it’s different.”