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Former student reconnects with 3rd-grade teacher

Jennifer Zschau has been inspiring students long before she arrived in Princeton, where she is now a 3rd-grade teacher at Smith Elementary.

This year’s Pride Corps Teacher of the Year for Smith started her career in education in Illinois before relocating to Garland, Texas. That’s where she taught a young Ashleigh Thomas, who was a 3rd-grader at Beaver Technology Center. Fast forward 20 years, and the two of them frequently work together at Smith, where Ashleigh, who is now Mrs. Alvillar, is a substitute teacher.

“Mrs. Zschau was the most patient and caring teacher,” Ashleigh said. “I remember going home every day teaching my imaginary students as I pretended to be Mrs. Zschau, and of course, my parents were the principals. Mrs. Zschau always reminded me of Miss Honey from the movie ‘Matilda.’ She inspired me to become a teacher by being the calm and loving teacher who was always there to guide and uplift you.”

Mrs. Zschau reconnected with her former student when Ashleigh reached out after finding her on Facebook.

“I noticed she worked in Princeton ISD,” Ashleigh said. “I thought to myself how crazy it would be if she were teaching at Smith, which is my daughter’s school. Sure enough, I reached out to her and she said she's at Smith. How crazy is that?”

Although Mrs. Zschau has been teaching since 1994, with the last three years in Princeton, she has never had contact with a former student after they graduated.

“Ashleigh is the only former student I have ever worked with or known as an adult,” she said. “It has been so wonderful seeing Ashleigh in the halls at Smith. A few weeks ago, she subbed in my classroom, and it was such a crazy thought knowing that my former student was now the teacher in my classroom. I felt very motherly, hoping my students would be kind and respectful to Mrs. Alvillar.”

It was Ashleigh’s 3rd-grade experience with Mrs. Zschau that led her on a path to education.

“It has brought me such joy reconnecting with Ashleigh this year and seeing that she has grown into a happy, confident and incredible wife and mother,” Mrs. Zschau said. “Learning that Ashleigh wants to become a teacher and that I inspired her is such an honor and the greatest compliment I have ever received. I am excited to continue working with Ashleigh to encourage and support her as she follows her dreams and becomes a teacher.”

This encounter that has joined Mrs. Alvillar and Mrs. Zschau in the same town at the same school, does not come without a challenge.

“Teaching alongside a former teacher, I'm faced with the awkward ‘so do I call you Mrs. Zschau or Jennifer?’" Ashleigh joked.

A recent reunion in Mrs. Zschau’s classroom room at Smith was emotional as the two reminisced about the 2001-2002 school year, which brought up the 9/11 tragedy.

“I remember Ashleigh as a strong and spunky 3rd-grader with a big heart,” she said. “On Sept. 11, 2001, when Ashleigh was in third grade, our classroom was in an outdoor portable. I remember staying as calm as possible and reassuring the students that everything was going to be OK as we went inside the building and spent the rest of the day in another classroom.”

As Mrs. Zschau prepares for another role in education to become a PISD instructional coach for elementary math, she said her classroom teaching journey has ended on a positive note.

“I’m leaving the classroom, and it feels like it has finally come full circle,” she said. “It’s nice to think, wow, you made an impact and really made a connection with someone.”

This was always Mrs. Zschau’s desire.

“As a teacher, my goal is to help children develop confidence in themselves to dream big,” she said. “I want to empower my students not to be afraid of failure, but to embrace mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow and have the emotional, social and academic skills to be successful.”