As a teacher, principal and now Gonzaga University assistant professor, Dr. Catherine Zeisner has always stayed up to date on the latest games and social media platforms her students are using so she can better relate to them.
“When Minecraft came out I learned Minecraft, when Snapchat came out I got Snapchat,” Zeisner said. “So I said to myself, I’ve got to learn this TikTok thing because the students are going to come back to campus and I need to be able to talk TikTok.”
Little did Zeisner know that her quarantine efforts to keep up with her students would turn into a way to connect with teachers around the globe and a supportive community that helped Zeisner through a global pandemic.
TikTok is a social media platform on which people can create up to minutelong videos either with their own sound or using a sound created by another user. People can “stitch” or edit together their video with other people’s videos and “duet” them, meaning your video is shown next to another users’ video.
In one of her first videos posted in April, Zeisner dueted a then-viral video of a man in his car timing himself taking his shirt off. Zeisner did the same but layered so many shirts that it took her more than the whole minute to take them all off.
Her friends saw her first few silly videos, and thought Zeisner had more to share with the world.
“All my principal friends in Canada called me,” Zeisner recalled them saying, “ ‘You look like an idiot. You’re a professional, you’re a principal. You have great stories. Stop doing the silly stuff, and just start telling your principal stories.’ ”
So Zeisner began making videos of her “principal adventures,” sharing successes, failures and funny moments.
Those honest videos garnered her more than 205,000 followers, 10 million comments and 4.5 million likes on her videos about everything from teaching tips to funny moments of her learning what it’s like to be a school custodian.
Zeisner is originally from London, Ontario. She grew up in Canada working as a camp counselor and lifeguard in the summers and teaching Sunday school, where she discovered her love of kids.
When she was 17, Zeisner moved to Paris, France, to become a nanny and attend the Sorbonne.
“It was completely life-changing because I was able to then learn French well,” Zeisner said. “I got to travel. I got to meet lifelong friends. And I got to experience another culture.”
When she returned to Canada, Zeisner enrolled at Western University in Ontario and began studying kinesiology, thinking she would become a radiologist.
“In talking to my parents, my dad was also a university administrator. My mom was also a leader. They said education would probably be great for me and my creativity,” Zeisner recalls.
She thought her parents, Sharon and Robert Zeisner, were right and headed off to get her teaching certificate before landing a job as a French teacher at a school for Grades 4-8.
That first experience as a teacher was a “disaster,” Zeisner said. She was teaching from a cart moving from classroom to classroom.
“It’s physically exhausting; you don’t feel that you have sort of a home and you’re constantly rushing. I just found it to be overwhelming,” Zeisner said. “I found I wasn’t making connections.”
With the help of a friend, Zeisner advocated for herself to the school’s administration and got a classroom.
“It really turned for me and I felt that this is where I belonged,” she said. “Once I sort of cracked that sort of shell, I loved it. I taught French for many years to thousands of kids.”
But Zeisner knew she wanted more, so she enrolled in an online master’s program through Charles Sturt University in Australia. She graduated in 2006 and became a principal at a K-8 school in Ontario.
“I got to join school communities which were absolutely beautiful and unique and diverse, and I just got to help lead the way,” Zeisner said. “It is still an exceptionally difficult job.”
Her two main goals as a principal were to “keep kids safe and help kids learn,” Zeisner said.
“Relationships are the most important thing you need to have and develop and hone in order to keep kids safe and learning,” Zeisner said. “If you don’t spend the time doing the building of the relationships first and then continue to maintain the relationships, there is no safety in learning.”
Yet again Zeisner realized she wanted more and headed back to Western University to earn her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership. After graduating in 2016, she took an adjunct position at Western, teaching at night while being a principal by day.
“I was able to give real-life, timely examples of things that were happening in schools,” Zeisner said.
But it was exhausting working two full-time jobs, so she started looking for other opportunities. Gonzaga was the perfect fit, Zeisner said.
“Gonzaga’s mission and vision of building competent global leaders, providing opportunities for people to be servant leaders, and the Jesuit way is exactly what resonates with the kind of life that I want to live and the kind of people I want to surround myself with,” Zeisner said.
Zeisner has been at Gonzaga for nearly three years and is now the director of the Master’s in Educational Leadership program. She also serves as a professor in residence, living in an apartment in the Twohy residence hall.
The professor in residence program helped Zeisner connect with undergraduates, since she only teaches master’s and doctoral students.
“I’m able to really establish some lovely trusting relationships that then translate into them being able to talk to their academic professors and feel that professors are just regular people too,” Zeisner said. “They wash their laundry like I do and wear their pajamas to walk their dog.”
Zeisner rescued her dog Nash earlier this year, another bonus for the students who live in Twohy with Zeisner.
During the pandemic, Zeisner has begun doing a livestream on TikTok at 4:30 p.m. every day for educators from around the world to gather.
“What we’ve all discovered is … it’s about having relationships with kids,” Zeisner said. “It doesn’t matter what curriculum you’re using. It doesn’t matter what resources you’re using. It doesn’t matter what your classroom looks like. But if you know you need to have deep, trusting, emotional relationships with your students, you can be successful.”
The teachers made a Pinterest board full of great resources for each other and continue to share teaching tips and tricks. The lives also led to a series of videos called the “A to Zeisner” about educational jargon from around the world.
“I did this whole series of every letter of the alphabet,” Zeisner said. “What’s the word and education that goes with that letter that you would want to share with the world? So, it can resonate with people and it just blew up.”
Zeisner is now turning the series into a book. From making vulnerable videos on losing 45 pounds in quarantine and living with Crohn’s disease to just being silly, TikTok has become a supportive community for her.
“I just felt love, this unbelievable outpouring of love that I really needed, that I didn’t know that I needed,” Zeisner said. “And that has helped me get through this pandemic being alone.”
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