Near the end of El Camino High School’s fall semester, a small group of sophomores sat huddled around an overhead projector as fellow student Anthony Calderon worked through a geometry problem.
Calderon had already written down the definitions for “trapezoid” and “isosceles” as he puzzled toward the solution, but that wasn’t enough for his teacher, Michael Zozos.
“Hey Anthony, what does ‘congruent’ mean?” Zozos asked. “Remember, I don’t do geometry.”
It’s true that Zozos, 27, has no training in geometry, and yet many of his students credit him as their most important teacher helping them toward success in all subjects. In addition to teaching Advanced Placement world history and modern world history, Zozos teaches AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), where he guides one class of students through all four years of high school academics.
For his commitment to students and effectiveness as a teacher, Zozos recently received the Educator of the Year Award for the Bay Area from the California League of High Schools. At an awards dinner Friday night, he’ll be eligible to win the Educator of the Year Award for the entire state of California.
“I’m humbled and honored, really, because this is only my fifth year of teaching, so I almost feel like an imposter sometimes,” Zozos said.
As an AVID teacher, Zozos’ job is to coach his students through their high school classes by teaching them study skills, time management and writing, with the goal to get them to college.
“He expects us to do better than we can,” said his student Allyson Roa. “He believes in us.”
Though AVID is an elective, it’s a rigorous one that requires a four-year commitment and daily extra academic work. The program is aimed at students who earn Bs, Cs and Ds and who may lack some of the advantages of their peers. AVID teachers go to area middle schools to recruit rising freshmen; the students have to sign a contract saying they’ll meet the requirements of the program.
“I’m kind of like their counselor, advisor, even task master sometimes when I need to be with them,” Zozos said. “With them I have a mantra: don’t be lazy.”
“He’s a shoulder to lean on,” said student Maya Baty, who called Zozos a “father figure.” “This whole class is a family.”
Zozos got his undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University and earned his master’s in education from UC Santa Barbara in 2007. He started teaching at El Camino the same year and credits his relative youth with helping him relate to the students.
“I just remember, being a teenager’s tough. People forget that,” Zozos said. “I stand at the door, and I greet students during the periods. I know when they’re having a good day and when they’re having a bad day. The ability to check in with them really helps. It lets them know, ‘somebody cares about me.’”
In his five years at El Camino, he’s taken on many roles outside the classroom, including debate club advisor, varsity golf coach and site council chairman.
Social studies teacher Alicia Vosberg, who won the Educator of the Year Award in 2008, encouraged Zozos to get involved with the AVID program because she saw that he had a strong rapport with students.
“I’ve seen him really affect students’ lives,” Vosberg said. “They all always stop by and say hi to him; he always has kids in his room at lunch and hanging out. They trust him.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in quite a few of his classes, and he kind of has a way of having it come alive,” said Principal Greg Thompson. “The kids really respond to that.”
“He thoroughly deserves this award,” Vosberg said.
Zozos said he can see making his career at El Camino, and he finds satisfaction in seeing students he’s known since they were freshmen graduate.
“That’s really rewarding, especially to see those students who maybe struggle a bit or who are maybe not as confident, to see them graduate and cross that stage. Graduation is one of my favorite days of the year.”