The Secret of How to Treat Students

  March 30, 2004

• The Secret of How to Treat Students
To the Happy Few

He's been a professor of chemistry at Wabash for 40 years, but practically every department on campus has benefited from his skills and generosity at some time during those four decades. And students who never set foot in his classroom know him as Doctor Z: whether he's photographing them in theater productions or other campus events; lending moral support along the sidelines at football and basketball games; or working behind the scenes, as when he teamed up with theater professor Mike Abbott '85 to edit a video that helped Greg Manning '99 earn the Phi Beta Kappa prize.


Prof. John Zimmerman aka Dr. Z


But this 1977 winner of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold teaching award and innovator in the use of technology in the classroom is first and foremost a teacher with uncommon concern for his students. In the previous pages, he told some stories about those young men. We thought it only fair to turn the tables. Who better to pay tribute a master educator on the eve of his retirement from the classroom?

"Dr. Z was my academic advisor and the first Wabash professor I interacted with when I came up to Wabash my freshman year," recalls Ross Weatherman '91, now a professor at Purdue University. "He did two things during that first meeting that I try to emulate now that I am a professor: he talked with me about my hometown--not just a quick conversation to break the ice, but something that he referred back to whenever I saw him; and he met my parents, along with the parents of his other freshman advisees. That had a huge impact on their ability to share the Wabash experience with me and they still ask about him. Dr. Z was able to make guys feel like we were part of the Wabash family, and I'm very grateful for that."

"Dr. Z was as dedicated, generous, and warm-spirited an advisor and professor as I have ever known," says Michael Doherty '79, a chemistry professor at East Stroudsburg University in New York. "He was an inspiration, a model, and a benefactor, crucial to my success as a student at Wabash and beyond."

And not without a sense of humor.

"I was a double major and I often burned the midnight oil practicing the piano (or having fun with my Delt fraternity brothers, I must admit)," Doherty remembers. "Frequently, I would be under-rested when I got to Doc Z's class. One day, after a run of such mornings, I sat in my customary corner seat and a few minutes before the end of class leaned my head back into the corner to 'rest my eyes.' My head pressed against a sheet of paper taped to the wall. I turned and read a sign, computer-generated of course, that had the words 'George Washington' crossed out, followed by 'Michael P. Doherty slept here.'"

Now an orthopedic surgeon in Indianapolis, Frank Kolisek '82 remembers getting what he calls "the old 'I'd like to have you come over for dinner call' from Dr. Z.

"I knew darn good and well that he wasn't inviting me because I was doing so great in his class that he couldn't wait to cook for me. Like many others before me, I would hear him say 'I think you can do better,' or ask, 'Are you having trouble?' or 'What's going on?'

"I felt like Dr. Z honestly cared about us in the most sincere ways," Kolisek says. "I think the world of him."

As does Chemistry Professor Stephen Pruett of Jefferson Community College.

"My students benefit from numerous 'Z-isms'," Pruett says. "They frequently hear Dr. Z's adage, 'What you get is what you get'--his way of directing ambitious lab students to focus on process and not 'desirable' results. They frequently complete lengthy assignments that force them to master a topic thoroughly. They frequently find humorous editorial comments and 'sig fig!' gremlins in their lab reports to inform them that the instructor is paying attention to what they have done and what they have written and that, yes, this lab write-up is important.

"What I hope they find in my office--and this is so much harder!--is an instructor who listens attentively, who recognizes their worth (regardless of their ability), and who consistently offers encouragement. I know that's what I found during my visits to Dr. Z's domain in Goodrich's basement.

"My praise of Wabash is for the quality of its teachers and John Zimmerman's lessons were special: he shared with me the secret of how to treat students. His lessons rank highly among those that make me proud to say, 'I teach as I have been taught.'"