Distinguished Teacher: Kathy Mazander makes learning fun at St. Mary, Kickapoo

During at-home learning, Kathy Mazander of St. Mary's School in Kickapoo found a way to keep her students excited by wearing different hats and accessories. (Provided photo)

KICKAPOO — Rolling with day-to-day change is something Kathy Mazander is used to. As the teacher of a combined first and second grade classroom at St. Mary School here, keeping lots of little minds engaged at different levels requires fast thinking and an element of fun.

At-home learning over the last year has added a degree of difficulty, but she even found a way to get her students excited to show up by wearing different hats and accessories and using a variety of backgrounds.

“I had so many parents say, ‘The students just want to get on and see what you have on for the day. That was so much fun,’” Mazander told The Catholic Post. “It was fun for me, too.”

Kathy Mazander poses with the “saints” in her first and second grade classroom at St. Mary School, Kickapoo. (Provided photo)

It became important for two weeks in January, too, when she and her class had to quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.

That ability to adapt and continue to share her knowledge and faith with her students are just part of what makes Mazander the Office of Catholic Schools’ Distinguished Teacher of the Year. She will be recognized at a Mass and luncheon with Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, and Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka on Wednesday, May 5.

Also honored at that time will be Father Johndamaseni Zilimu of Saint John Paul II Parish in Kewanee, Distinguished School Pastor of the Year, and Jane Barrett of Seton Catholic School in Moline, Distinguished Principal of the Year.

In addition, awards will be conferred on the 2019-2020 recipients: Msgr. Mark Merdian of St. Pius X in Rock Island, Distinguished Pastor of the Year; Dr. Noreen Dillon of St. Mark School in Peoria, Distinguished Principal of the Year; and James Taber of Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Distinguished Teacher of the Year. Last year’s recognition Mass and luncheon had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place at that time.

“I always say any award is not won by oneself,” Mazander said. “It’s a group effort. I learn from my colleagues all the time. I learn from other teachers.”

The school and parish community also played a role in offering support, friendship and camaraderie, she said. “It takes a village.”


Mazander comes by teaching naturally.

Her grandmother was a flight training instructor in the Navy and went on to teach elementary school for 17 years. She spent another 18 years as an administrator and principal.

Her mother, after receiving her teaching degree, was a substitute teacher and tutor at the elementary school level for 10 years and then taught preschool for 20 years.

Kathy Mazander

Wanting to enter a helping profession, Mazander at first considered nursing. The call of the “family business” was strong, however.

Teaching high school math was one option because she liked her own math teachers so much. “But I wanted the little kids — I can relate a little easier to little kids than I can to the high school kids.”

She grew up in Chillicothe and attended St. Edward School and then Chillicothe Junior High and Illinois Valley Central High School. Mazander earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, with a minor in child and family services, at Southern Illinois University in 1992.

She picked up experience while she went to college by working with the preschoolers in the Child Development Lab School.

Married in 1993, Mazander got a job at a daycare in St. Louis for a year. She followed that by teaching first grade at St. John the Baptist School in Smithton for a semester before returning to the Peoria area for her husband’s job at Caterpillar.


She taught second grade at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Peoria Heights for three years, staying at home after her daughter, Megan, was born. A son, Mitchell, arrived two years later. She would find her way to St. Mary in Kickapoo and eventually return to teaching when Megan was ready to start kindergarten.

“St. Mary was just up the road. I loved the small classes and I loved it that they encouraged parent involvement,” Mazander said.

She jumped in, taking recess duty and lunch duty once a week, and accepting an offer to work in the parish office one day a week. Before long, she and another mother approached Ron Dwyer, the principal, about other volunteer opportunities and they ended up teaching physical education classes. She was helping out in the school office when the position for a first grade teacher became available.

“This is my 11th year in the same classroom,” Mazander said. “Sometimes it’s first grade. Some years it’s just second grade. And some years it’s first and second grade combined. This is my seventh year of first and second grade combined.”

She likes being able to work with the students for two years, saying she knows where they are in terms of personality, learning styles, and how they respond by the time the second year begins. “It’s quite an advantage,” she told The Post.

“I notice, too, with the first-graders that they seem to come farther when there’s a first and second grade class combined than if it’s first grade alone,” Mazander explained.

“Everybody wants to be part of a group, part of a community. I think (the pandemic) has taught me that the kids need to know that, too. They still need to know they are part of a natural group.”

She doesn’t do a “split class” — working with second-graders while the first-graders do something different and vice versa. She just changes the expectations and makes modifications for those who can’t do something at the same level.

“That works out well because there are some first-graders who can do the second grade work. I just move them up and expect them to do the same thing,” she said. “And with the next group there might be some second-graders who work better with the first-graders. I mix and match the kids and their abilities and not necessarily put them in their grade levels.”

The challenge is that she can’t do the same thing twice, because when the first-graders move up a grade they’ll remember and say, “We’ve already done that!”

Mazander does have a split religion class, so she can prepare the second-graders specifically for their first reconciliation and Communion. The kindergarten teacher takes the first-graders for religion.

She also works with each grade level independently for reading.


The teacher has also been a student when it comes to the pandemic. Not only has she had to learn new technologies to make remote learning the best experience it can be, but there have been life lessons, too.

“It’s amazing how much we miss touch and that close contact,” Mazander said, noting that the children like to hug and so does she.

“Everybody wants to be part of a group, part of a community. I think this has taught me that the kids need to know that, too,” she said. “They still need to know they are part of a natural group.”

The life lessons she tries to share with her students include the need for acts of kindness, how to compose themselves, and to remember to pray for those who might be hurt if they hear an ambulance go by. Another major lesson is to always trust in God.

“In a Catholic school I can share my faith with the kids. I can bring Jesus in,” Mazander said.

“I love that we’re family,” she added. “Everybody knows everybody and everybody cares about everybody. You really build relationships that stay with people from kindergarten through eighth grade.”

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