In one of her English classes, Anna Van Zile had her students design a vanity license plate with words that best described them. For her license plate, Van Zile wrote in italicized letters: “CNLIFE.” She translated what it meant for her class: seeing life at a slant.
This has double meaning for Van Zile. She looks different because of her Asian heritage, and she also looks at life differently from everyone else.
“I don’t see solutions as everyone else does,” she said.
She also believes students benefit from understanding accountability and standing up for themselves.
These attitudes, she believes, will help her at her new position as principal of Payson High School (PHS).
This past week, the district hired Van Zile as principal to replace Kathe Ketchem, who will retire at the end of the year. For the past two years, she has worked as assistant principal.
Before taking on that position, she worked for more than six years as an English teacher in the district.
Van Zile’s philosophy comes from her past. As a Japanese-American, she and her family have had to meld cultural traditions in the melting pot of American values and beliefs.
Her father was the first generation of his family born in the United States.
Her mother, on the other hand, was born and raised in Japan.
Her father experienced some of the darkest times in U.S. history when he and his family lost everything during World War II. The U.S. government’s policy of interning all those of Japanese heritage decimated her father’s family holdings.
After the war, with no property and restricted by laws forbidding them to buy new property, Van Zile’s father and his family went back to Japan hoping to live on the family farm. There, her father met Van Zile’s mother.
Her mother remembers seeing the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, Japan.
Despite their bitter wartime experiences, they decided to return to the states. They settled in a suburb of Chicago where Van Zile was born and grew up.
It was not easy being an Asian family in a white neighborhood in the Midwest.
“I never really fit in,” she said.
She thought about becoming an artist, but found she lost interest in projects, getting bored with the need to focus on one medium.
A meeting with a counselor helped her to decide to become a teacher.
“I was never bored as a teacher — even though I always taught the same subject,” said Van Zile. She never got bored because she endlessly got lost in creating new ways to engage her students.
In one high school class, she decided to help her students understand how grammar has relevance by reading the “Curious George” and “See Spot” series. The grammar used for these books is much different from the grammar used for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Although quite simple for their grade level, “Curious George” illustrates how grammar works through varying sentences and speaking to a certain audience. The simple sentences allowed her students to see that writers may use grammar to make a story applicable to the reader.
“‘Curious George’ and ‘See Spot’ have application because they have what I want them to see — grammar relevance,” said Van Zile.
In her classroom, Van Zile expected accountability from her students to learn the subject, now as an administrator, she applies accountability to the broader responsibilities students have at school.
As vice-principal, she handled much of the discipline. She had to create consequences for students with too many unexcused absences as well as those who failed to keep grades up.
She does whatever it takes.
“She works hard,” said Kerry Wright, one of two administrative secretaries for PHS.
Van Zile even gives up her weekends to help the kids. She started a Saturday School originally to discipline students, but found students came back again and again to get help, have a quiet space to work, a computer and Internet access.
“I found I had a lot of repeat customers,” she said.
She continues to offer the Saturday School because so many students in Payson don’t get support at home.
Advocacy is one of Van Zile’s buzzwords. She wants kids to know it is all right for them to stand up for themselves when there has been a mistake or injustice.
“Kids and parents want someone to speak up for them,” said Van Zile, “If the kids know you care, then they care.”
A slanted point of view for an administrator hired to keep kids in line, but as Van Zile said, she approaches challenges differently than others.