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Elementary Ed alum Zachary Craft puts NIU degree to work as school principal

October 28, 2021
Zachary Craft
Zachary Craft

Zachary Craft began his career in education in Batavia like many classroom rookies, spending one year as an interventionist and then shifting to teach fourth grade.

But his 2012 arrival coincided with a sea change in mandates.

“I entered the field at a time when it felt like a seismic shift – maybe not compared to what we’re going through now, but when we were moving from state standards to the Common Core,” Craft says. “It was really such a big shift for everybody, whether you were a pre-service teacher, a new teacher or a veteran teacher.”

He felt ready, however, thanks to his B.S.Ed. in Elementary Education from NIU and the opportunities and requirements for real-world learning that came with it.

“The amount of hands-on experience that I got at NIU really prepared me to be effective that first year and those first few years,” Craft says.

“We can read the literature, and we can work to understand the skills in a classroom as much as we can, but until we physically get out there and do it, or at least see it done, and then get a chance to do it ourselves, it’s really hard to get a grasp of what it’s like,” he adds. “It’s one of those things where the line between science and art has crossed a little bit.”

Craft is now developing a greater appreciation for the skills of his bachelor’s degree as the principal of Highland Elementary School in Downers Grove Grade School District 58.

Appointed in 2019, a little more than six months before COVID arrived, Craft loves his job, the building and his ability to positively impact the 375 students.

“One of the things that I think the pandemic highlighted the most for all of us, besides the fact that teaching is hard, is the importance of relationships and how much as educators – as people – that that is what brings us back every day,” he says.

Zachary Craft and a student
Zachary Craft and a student

“When we were remote, be it at the end of the 2019-20 school year or at the beginning of the 20-21 school year, I think that was really the hardest part,” he adds. “There was, obviously, just an incredible amount of work that was done, but we didn’t have those feel-good moments as much. What really keeps us going and pulls us through is being able to see the kids and interact with them in that personal way. We didn’t have those relationships to help keep us going.”

Yet Craft’s team at Highland endured – and emerged.

“I say this a lot, and I’m sure a lot of other principals do, too, but I truly would not want to go through this, or have gone through this, crazy couple of years with anybody else,” he says. “This is a building where if you fall down, there’s somebody there to pick you up. If you need help, there’s somebody there, whether it’s the kids or the staff or the parents or the community, and that’s really what makes it a special place. The school is just building until you have people inside of it.”

Returning to close-to-normal operations this fall, Highland was able to hold its traditional all-school meeting.

Meanwhile, the spark and connection Craft felt during his job interview is there – which is where his bachelor’s degree is proving useful and even timely.

“The biggest thing that I took away from undergraduate days that I still use today would really be collaboration,” he says.

“It was kind of basic through the beginning coursework and into student-teaching and clinical observations that there was a lot of student, peer-to-peer collaboration, whether that was intentional on projects or if was merely as a result of the way the program was built.”

Zachary Craft
Zachary Craft

Deliberate or not, he says, the “soft skill” is a necessity.

“Being able to effectively collaborate with others is, now more than ever in our field, so critical and so vital because of the demand on our teachers and our educators in general,” Craft says. “Nothing gets taken off the plate. The demand just continues to increase. This is a difficult job, and you can’t do it all by yourself, whether it’s me as the principal, or a teacher down the hall.”

Craft says that his NIU degree provides him a strong foundation of good teaching practices, an understanding of what constitutes good curriculum and the ability to marry those two concepts.

He also credits his time as a Huskie for his ability to continuing learning from veteran teachers and for providing the confidence to develop and try new ideas.

It’s motivated Craft to return the favor by sharing his wisdom and expertise on campus, reflecting his nature to impact and influence positive change in the lives of others.

As a willing volunteer for the NIU Alumni Association, he’s served as a guest speaker for NIU’s Living-Learning Community (LLC) Alumni Career Network Series program and is open to other opportunities.

Giving back through his time could help licensure candidates to better prepare, he says, which ultimately could lead to better outcomes for children.

“I just loved my time at NIU so much. I thought it was a fantastic time in my life and a fantastic education that set me up well for success in my life,” Craft says. “I feel this is partly my way of giving back to the field, but it’s also giving back to the school that gave me so much and allowed me to be where I am today.”

NIU students who engage with Craft, especially those who are pursuing licensure as teachers, can expect transparency from the principal along with encouragement to share his candor.

Doing so could prove critical to easing the teacher shortage, he says.

“To be frank – to be honest – that first year, and those first couple years, are hard. They can be overwhelming at times, no matter how good your first-year orientation program is in a district. There’s an enormous mountain to climb, a lot of work and a lot of adjustment. There’s so much to learn, and it’s OK to ask for help,” he says

“I think it’s important for me to be honest and let them know that, because the highest rate of burnout that we see in teachers is within the first few years. I want to prepare them for that and provide some ground-level perspective of some things to know, such as how do you ask for help.”

Naturally, Craft is equally eager to share the rewards of teaching.

Future educators from NIU should know the three R’s of “relationships, relationships, relationships” and to take the time to build and nurture those.

He also encourages teachers “to take time to slow down, have fun and enjoy it – it’s unlikely that anybody is going to make that time for you,” and to see their students as more than data points for school accountability measures.

“I remind our staff, and sometimes our parents, that when we’re really hyper-focused on academics, we’ve also to got to remember that they’re still kids,” he says. “We’re a high-achieving school, which is great, and we should have high standards, push our kids and push ourselves, but our goal should also be that school is a fun place and a happy place.”

Continuous improvement motivates him, whether it’s personal – he’s currently pursuing a doctorate toward his superintendent’s license – or for the field.

“Where do we want education to go? What do want the experiences of kids to be, no matter if they’re from a suburban district, a rural district or an urban district? Or no matter their background? Or no matter their socioeconomic status?” Craft asks.

“We’re educators because we’re invested in kids. We want to see what’s best for them, and we can do that in a lot of ways,” he says. “I think a really powerful way to do that is to help set our pre-service teachers up for success and help them grow, because that’s just going to help their kids grow down the road.”