Disney Magnet School music teacher Kathryn Zamarrón has wanted to be a teacher since third grade. In high school, her dream solidified as she watched CTU President Karen Lewis take on the mayor and transform the political debate in Chicago.
“I remember being a high school student and seeing CTU members and CTU President Karen Lewis standing up for students — standing up for me — and that made me feel like I mattered,” she said. “I always knew there were disparities in CPS and the city, but I always just assumed that’s the way it is. But then Karen Lewis started telling us ‘it doesn’t have to be that way’ and that clicked for me.”
Then, during her high school band class — playing trumpet first and then French horn — she realized that many CPS students did not even have access to a music class.
“I felt so challenged and fulfilled in my class that I wanted to be part of bringing that to other kids in Chicago, especially other students of color,” she said.
Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Zamarrón hails from a family of people who serve, including her mother who teaches at Piccolo Elementary School and an aunt who teaches at Hansen Park. Her extended family also boasts social workers, community organizers, emergency medical personnel, a pastor and a librarian.
So, it’s no surprise that, at a young age, she decided teaching was for her.
“I’ve wanted to be a teacher since third grade, in Mrs. Patterson’s class,” she recalled. “I enjoyed school and always felt comfortable there. I think that’s what first drew me in.”
After graduating from Whitney Young High School, Zamarrón earned her bachelor’s degrees in music education and performance from the University of Michigan in 2017 and her master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2019. She performed for a bit, but knew she ultimately wanted to be in the classroom.
After finishing her master’s, she began teaching in Milwaukee Public Schools, but then the pandemic hit. She worked there for half a year but then came back to Chicago and started working, in the middle of the pandemic, at CPS in August, 2020.
“Lots of things about the pandemic were hard, but teaching music remotely was a challenge,” she said. “It was a struggle to keep it interesting and fun. I didn’t want to be too hard on the students because I knew they all had a lot going on in their lives.”
Zamarrón is in her fourth year teaching music at Disney, which is a fine and performing arts magnet school. She teaches pre-k through fifth grade during the school day and fifth through eighth grade after school band. A second music instructor teaches upper grade students.
In general music, she explores creative movement, fundamentals of music, and percussion instruments. But she also introduces students to folk games, improvisation, composition, critical listening and some string instruments. “I like to say it’s a different adventure every hour,” she said.
As a fine and performing arts magnet, Disney focuses on arts enhancement and arts integration as an instructional strategy. That means that Zamarrón and other arts teachers at the school support homeroom teachers as they expand their practice and help all students learn in expansive and creative ways.
Zamarrón thinks the best part of her job is working with students year after year, meeting them at age four or five, watching them grow, then meeting their siblings as they come to school. “Sometimes I see whole families during the same semester,” she said. “I love that.”
But she also appreciates that she has the freedom to design her own curriculum and to creatively respond to current events in her classroom. She is most proud of the Black History Month celebration, a Soul Train dance, which she helped establish in her second year at the school.
“I love that this tradition has Chicago roots, provides a connection to explore Black excellence, and centers Black joy and self-determination,” she said. “And the students have a lot of fun.”
Zamarrón describes herself as a bit of a “political junkie.” She canvassed for Mayor Brandon Johnson and other CTU-endorsed candidates during the recent election and participated in this year’s Summer Organizing Institute. She also is a member of the CTU’s Latinx caucus and recently joined her school’s PPLC.
“Even before SOI ended this summer, I kept thinking ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’” she said. “I learned so much about the labor movement, CTU’s history, and why we fight the way we do.”
Zamarrón said she is committed for the long haul to CPS and her union’s fight for justice and equity.
“I love Chicago, my neighbors, and my students, so I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I want to continue fighting to make sure our families have the city and the schools we all deserve.”