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Otwell principal returning to Illinois
Zoul steps down to be closer to widowed mother
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Most children don't like going to the principal's office.
Then again, most principals don't sport red Converse high tops on Fridays, or with a nice black suit.
In four years, about 1,500 kids have visited Jeff Zoul's office at Otwell Middle School. They visit for good behavior.
His teachers write up students "caught in the act" of good deeds through the "positive discipline referral" program.
The students likely will miss the sneaker-wearing principal, who is leaving for the Chicago area, where he is under contract to be the principal at a middle school as of July.
The decision to leave Forsyth County comes in the wake of his father's abrupt passing. Robert Zoul died last fall of pancreatic cancer.
"The real reason was my dad dying in October," he said. "My mom (Geraldine Zoul) is up there and by herself and she could use my help. And I'm in a position to be able to help and I'm going to do it.
"Losing my dad made me realize time is precious."
Zoul thinks the move will also be good for his wife, Jill, who taught at Riverwatch Middle School, and their daughter Jordyn, an eighth-grader.
"About a year ago," he said, "I flew up for a weekend and took my dad and his brother to a Cubs-Sox game at Wrigley Field and it was really one of the last outings he could do."
He anticipates taking his daughter to as many Cubs games as possible.
"I really enjoyed it here," he said. "It is a little bittersweet because I've been treated very well here."
Zoul said he would particularly miss Otwell's four Teachers of the Year - Melissa Sessa, Mike Sloop, Mark Fisher and Ronnnie McNeese - who claimed the honor in consecutive years.
"We have really good people here, people of character," Zoul said. "You have to be a great person to be a great teacher."
Teachers say they will miss Zoul, too.
"He has been an absolute Godsend when it comes to leadership, Sessa said. "The mere fact that he knows every child's name in the school speaks volumes of his commitment for the schools, his commitment for the kids."
Fisher said students have become accustomed to Zoul's presence.
"The students are not surprised to see him in the classroom," he said. "They don't assume anyone's in trouble. He likes to come in and tells a good story."
Also tugging at Zoul's heartstrings is his morning routine, "standing out front every day, shaking hands with the kids."
"The parents seem to appreciate it and I always enjoy it," he said. "It's my favorite part of the day."
Sloop said he's grateful for the opportunity to have worked under Zoul's watch.
"He has taught me so much about raising student expectations, about focusing on the positive rather than the negative, and doing whatever it takes to reach students," Sloop said.
McNeese described Zoul as an honest, caring person.
"Forsyth County will definitely miss him," McNeese said. "Our loss, Illinois' gain."