Educator hangs up hat, picks up traveling shoes

After 15 years at Crofton Woods, retiring principal plans to indulge his wanderlust

December 16, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

After 38 years of working in Anne Arundel County schools, retirement will not end the education of Peter Zimmer.

The longtime principal of Crofton Woods Elementary School, known for his creative methods for bringing international culture into classrooms, his encouragement of teachers' growth and his love of travel, intends to jet around the world on what he calls "a make-believe sabbatical."

Maybe he'll fly to London, or perhaps see his brother in Thailand. He'll definitely visit Santa Barbara, Calif., where he has friends, family and property.

"I've got that bug of learning about people around the world," Zimmer said.

He will retire Friday as principal of Crofton Woods, where he spent nearly half of his career. The county Board of Education has not decided who will replace him.

Teachers and parents at Crofton Woods, where Zimmer has spent 15 years, have had since last spring to let the retirement news sink in. Zimmer, 61, has enjoyed a series of retirement parties, including a Nov. 2 gala at the Annapolis Marriott Waterfront hotel that drew 150 people.

Parents and staff members said it is hard to say goodbye to someone who made every effort to unite teachers and the community to improve the school.

Guidance counselor Mary Brett said Zimmer gave teachers the professional freedom to pursue projects and reach career goals.

"He is a boss who lifts you up," she said. "He gives you every professional opportunity you wish to take to further your career and self-growth."

Zimmer grew up in New York and New England and spent a year traveling to Europe and North Africa after he graduated in 1964 from the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. He received his bachelor's degree in political science in 1969 from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and his master's degree in early childhood education in 1973 from the University of Maryland.

Zimmer taught at various county elementary schools until the late 1970s when he became a county resource coordinator for early childhood programs. He was assistant principal at Crofton Woods from 1984 to 1986, but he would not return to the school until 1993. During the interim, he was principal at Overlook and Germantown elementary schools.

But he never lost the bug for foreign travel, and sought to bring a worldview to students at Crofton Woods through a 10-year, pilot French immersion program as well as five student exchanges to France during the 1990s.

Crofton Woods took part in a teacher exchange from Japan, one of only several schools in the Washington area to participate. Zimmer and three teachers traveled to Tokyo in 2001 for a two-week stay. The teachers brought back instruments and materials on Japanese culture and food.

Also that year, Crofton Woods collected $8,000 in instructional materials, clothing, music and gym equipment for a school in Kenya. Zimmer also worked with community organizations to buy and fill trunks with artifacts and instruments from Kenya. The trunks rotated around county schools for several years.

Every January, Crofton Woods hosts a Taiwanese painter who teaches children the art of Chinese brush painting. This year, the school hosted a delegation from China and held an exhibit of Chinese artwork.

"I've really enjoyed opening up the world to our children," he said. "That's been really rewarding to me."

Teachers and parents said they would miss the principal who listened to problems, celebrated new ideas and pushed people to do more.

Debbie Lynch, former president of the Parent Teacher Association, said Zimmer encouraged her to take part in a parent leadership conference and allowed her to implement a program that assessed children's learning styles. Several years ago, Zimmer helped parents find space and get funding to equip a science lab.

Lynch, who has two children at Crofton Meadows, also was impressed that he often knew students by name and recognized their parents as well.

"You never feel that you don't belong in the school," she said.

Fifth-grader Alex Luscher remembers meeting Zimmer shortly after he relocated from Louisiana as a first-grader.

"He right away introduced himself and made me feel much better about being in a new school," Alex said.

Zimmer visits classrooms regularly, said fifth-grader Meredith Obear. She sees him in the lunchroom chatting with students who are not having a good day.

"He always tries to say something nice to students who don't feel very well," Meredith said. "He tries to help in any way he can."

Zimmer openly shares information -- often in weekly bulletins -- about the decision-making process and allows teachers to have a say, said Sherrie McSweegan, who has taught at the school for nine years.

"The atmosphere has been, `We're a team. We make decisions together,' " she said. "I think that breeds respect."

Karen Stillwell, a media specialist, said Zimmer cheered her on when she asked about improving technology. As a result, Stillwell applied and received funding last year to start United Streaming on library computers, allowing students to watch video from the Discovery Education Network.

"He really makes me feel like I'm an important part of what we do here," Stillwell said.

Zimmer said he is looking forward to spending more time with his family -- he and his wife, Carol, live in Shipley's Choice and have two sons and one grandson. But he said he will miss the relationships he built with teachers and parents, and he feels fortunate to have been at a school where respect was a part of the staff and student culture.

"You work very hard to live up to that trust," Zimmer said. "I've been so privileged to be here."

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