Making history class fun day by day: Joseph Zeman


Zeman creates one of his favorite dishes in his kitchen at home. (Photo courtesy of Joe Zeman)

From teaching American history to perfecting a new delicacy with salmon, West Chicago Community High School teacher Joseph Zeman approaches each and every day with an easygoing attitude. 

Not too long ago, Zeman was in high school as a student, ditching class, getting tattoos and enjoying the life of the young. 

“I was an awful student and I think most students today think teachers were good students and loved school but I hated high school. I was an awful, awful student,” Zeman said.

It came as a surprise to all – including Zeman, that someone who was not a fan of school would later teach secondary education. Fast forward 20 years later, and he is in a high school yet again. However, now Zeman is now teaching what he finds interesting: history.   

No one in Zeman’s family had really been educated up until him, so he attributes some of his uninterest in school to that. 

“Coming from a working-class background, I found a balance that brought value to the skillset that working class people took,” Zeman said.  

Zeman never really had high grades in school, he fell more towards the middle to the bottom depending on the class. 

“Fun fact that I believe to be true, is C or D students tend to be more successful in life, giving the reason that if there not trying in school, that there efforts and energy are going elsewhere, meaning they won’t just be your average college graduate, but rather something different and if that makes them happy, that is my definition of success,” Zeman said.

The one thing that Zeman connected with in school was history. For Zeman, that was the class he became passionate about; he learned to love history from a young age, and both of his parents sparked that passion. 

“I always really liked stories and always liked thinking about the past and wondering what it was like of how people lived in different time periods. My mom always read. She was always interested in history, so she always talked about things from the past. Perhaps my interest stemmed from there,” Zeman said.

Zeman, helping students during CORE lab, a study skills class implemented during the 2022-23 school year. (Photo by Miley Pegg)

Additionally, Zeman’s father followed and talked about politics in the home, so that also contributed to his son’s love of history at an early age. 

When the time came for Zeman to decide what he wanted to do after high school, he chose the path of college. Although, when he first decided on the college path, he planned to go to school for law. 

“I was doing law classes in college and there was this constitutional law class that reminded me how much I loved history and that’s when I decided I wanted to teach it, to also help students like me who hated school like hopefully give them 40 minutes of their day where it’s not miserable,” Zema said.

Now, Zeman’s goal with teaching is to make his class enjoyable for students. The hope is that they at least have one period a day in school where they are not miserable, he explained. Through his unique teaching methods, Zeman has seen that students are more willing to show up to class and come on time. 

“So, no, I’m not harsh with phones. I’m not harsh with the late policy. What I found is not being harsh with those things, has got more buy-in from students. I don’t have students showing up late all the time because they know it’s an open-door policy. So, there’s no point in that power struggle,” Zeman said.

For this WEGO teacher, holding students to different standards is par for the course.

“I have students who are college bound and ready to go to college. I’m going to hold you to that standard. I’ve got kids who don’t want to go to school, and they don’t care if they get an A or a D, well all right, let me see if I can encourage you a little bit more but I’m not going to hold you to the same standard as somebody else because you’re all vastly different,” Zeman said.

Zeman provides a positive space for his students in his classroom. By making class engaging as well as fun, Zeman is able to bring joy to students’ school days.  

“Zeman was such a fun class to be in. Me and my friends always goofed around, but still got our work done, and Zeman had no issue with us,” former student Joey Ferruzza, senior, said. 

“Every time I had Zeman, I felt it was a break of my day where I could enjoy myself without being pressured or having high expectations. It was like therapy in a sense. Always thanking him for it,” senior Tariq Abdullah said. 

Today, at age 30, this teacher’s “dark side” resides in the art of cooking. Zeman claims to be the Gordon Ramsey of salmon-cooking, and is apparently known – among his family – for his aptitude in the kitchen. His love of food may stem from childhood. 

“Growing up, my family was always cooking. Always smelled like onions and pork. Always awkward, bringing girls over that I never wanted to,” Zeman said.

Zeman now mostly cooks for his family members, who thoroughly enjoy the food – especially his wife. 

“She likes salmon, so if it’s our anniversary it’s probably her go-to. She likes my pasta primavera every time I make it. Maybe even some salmon with some Asian-inspired gourmaise,” Zeman said.

Zeman is also known throughout WEGO for being the teacher with a number of tattoos. Breaking down each tattoo in chronological order, starting from the left arm, Zeman has a cross, his first-ever tattoo (inked when he was 17) which has the dates of his grandparents’ passing. 

‘Underneath that I have a bear, a silhouette of a bear, and inside it there’s mountains and streams. I got this one in Colorado in a shop where I told the artist, ‘Can you do something Colorado?’ She responded with come back tomorrow and that’s the concept she ended up doing,” Zeman said.

He has a liberty bell on his forearm because he is a self-proclaimed “history nerd”.

On his bicep, Zeman has an anchor – because he started to get into the American traditional or “flash” style – along with a horseshoe. 

“The back side, a friend of mine, she drew a feather and I thought it was cool. I told her can she put a quilt tip on the end of it, she said sure. Then decided I was going to take that to an artist simply because I like the way she drew it and because it’s historic in nature,” Zeman said.

Quilt pen that Zeman’s friend drew him. He later took the drawing to a tattoo shop to get it done. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Zeman)

On his tricep, Zeman has a phoenix because he just thought “it was cool.”

On Zeman’s right forearm, he has “Layla” which is a love song name by Eric Clapton. His father was into music growing up, and that passion extended to Zeman; together, they enjoyed Clapton’s album. 

“Underneath that, I have a star design that a student drew, my first year of teaching. She used to do it on her papers all the time and I thought that would be a cool tattoo. I told her that and she said I wouldn’t get a tattoo like that. I said draw me one and I went and got it,” Zeman said.

A pin-up extends along the back of his forearm, a tattoo he thought he was slick in getting because he was going to teach law and would always wear long sleeves to cover the ink. 

“I have a guitar on my right arm. My dad with music growing up, I grew a connection there. Next, I want a book with a coffee mug sitting on top of it on my right inner arm and on the back of it, I have ‘Imagine’, which, above, I want fall leaves because fall is a cool season along with the colors,” Zeman said.

The tribute to various songs in several of Zeman’s tattoos is a nod to his wide music taste, ranging from Motown and the blues to rock, pop, and country. There is not a genre that Zeman does not like; he is open to all music. 

“I like authentic. If you were to pin me down and ask me my favorite rock band, I would say The Beatles. If you’re going to say my favorite Motown, Sam Cook. If you’re going to say hip-hop, maybe right now, Kendrick Lamar. Jay-Z is probably best overall hip-hop artist, but Most Def is probably my favorite. If you’re talking blues, Robert Johnson, I mean he started it all. Frank Sinatra, huge Sinatra fan,” Zeman said.

He was quick to point out that while he enjoys music from all genres, he prefers “the best of those genres.”

“Like country on the radio isn’t real country, that’s pop music. Underground country, like Ryan Bingam, that’s how I prefer music,” Zeman said.