Mr. Zabell Brings Home Coaching Award


With a schedule packed full of classes and activities at both the middle school and the high school, he is constantly on the move. You may catch fleeting glimpses of him after school in the Robotics lab, making chainmail, solving physics equations, and apprehensively teaching students how to use power tools. If you took Digital World as a freshman, you probably remember him as the quirky, amiable teacher who somehow made spreadsheets fun. A Carnegie Mellon alum who has taught in the district for 13 years, Mr. Zabell is a shining example of the dedication, kindness, and unwavering spirit that can only be found in a great teacher.

Last Saturday, March 12th, he was honored at the FIRST Robotics NYC regional competition for his outstanding leadership in mentoring our school’s Robotics team. The Woodie Flowers Finalist Award, pictured above, is awarded to just one mentor at each FIRST Robotics regional competition. Mr. Zabell is an exceptionally deserving candidate.

On a Friday afternoon long ago, six weeks before graduating college, Mr. Zabell taught an origami class that changed his life. He had been considering a career as a teacher since the 9th grade, but still wasn’t sure if he wanted to pursue it. This was his first time teaching a class on his own.

“When I got in front of the class, I felt time slow down around me,” said Mr. Zabell. “I just heard a voice in the back of my head saying, ‘you can do this.’ That’s when I knew I wanted to teach.”

Since the start of his teaching career, Mr. Zabell has been a fierce advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in our district. In the mid 2000s, he volunteered to help eight students from Farmingdale State College with an engineering project. Our district’s involvement with that project sowed the seeds for what would later become our school’s science research program. He also helped to install a MakerSpace in the middle school library, and he is currently in the process of developing a Lego Engineering program aimed toward students in grades 2-5.

When asked why he loves to teach, Mr. Zabell has a hard time limiting his response to just one favorite aspect of his job.

“It’s so exciting to see a student suddenly grasp a concept that they’ve been struggling with,” he said. “And it’s also really rewarding to watch my students grow. I love having mature, intellectual conversations with seniors and realizing that the person I’ve seen them becoming since middle school is finally all there.”

While Mr. Zabell claims to spend most of his free time making origami and playing video games to “see what the kids are up to nowadays,” he’s actually also an expert on books, movies, television, and music, and especially fond of all things sci-fi. His musical tastes include everything from Coltrane to the Clash, and his favorite song is “A Day in the Life,” which “completely changed the way [he] listened to music.” His favorite movie of all time, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, taught him that while classic movies never change, our perspective of them as we grow older reflects the changes that we have gone through over time.

In my freshman year, Mr. Zabell and I had a long conversation about David Bowie’s music. He surmised that teenagers are likely to connect with Bowie’s otherworldly sound and themes of alienation because “everyone feels like an alien in high school.” While this may be true, some teenagers are lucky enough to find a teacher, mentor, or coach who strives to connect with students, take an interest in their lives, and make them feel a little less alien. I’m grateful to have found that in Mr. Zabell. He’s told me every one of his crazy stories at least once, and I never get tired of hearing them again. He’s taught me the quickest way to strip a wire, the history of punk rock, and the importance of staying hopeful when something goes wrong. He’s inspired me, and countless other students, to pursue our passions and reach for the stars. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model throughout my four years of high school.

Mr. Zabell’s best piece of advice for high schoolers is that “there are no mistakes, only lessons.” An irreplaceable asset to our community, he aims to create an environment where individuality is encouraged, struggles are met with patience and understanding, and failures are seen as lessons in disguise.