WESTMINSTER -- Alan Zepp returned to teaching from a nine-year hiatus with a zeal so strong his boss can hear it from across the hall.
Mr. Zepp, 37, an English teacher at Westminster High School, has been named Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts. He'll receive the award at the council's statewide conference in November.
Ironically, he left teaching after two years as a band director and spent the next nine years managing a liquor store. But it wasn't a clean break. He was drawn back, this time to English.
Now in his fourth year back in the classroom, he feels he has finally hit a good stride. He's had time to establish a reputation and let students know what to expect.
"The first few years, you're being constantly tested [by students]," he said. "I'm being tested less."
His students notice a special something in his style, such as the dramatic readings that he incorporates into his lessons.
"When it's Mr. Zepp's turn to read, everybody likes it because of the way he reads," said Jill Robin Sisson, 17, daughter of Nelson and Pat Sisson of Finksburg.
"There's just something he's got," she said. "He gets all into it."
"I love it," Mr. Zepp said. "I'm an actor from way back. I love performance. That's part of it."
Mary Kay Nevius-Maurer, English department chairman at Westminster High, nominated Mr. Zepp for the statewide award.
While supervising him over the past four years, Mrs. Nevius-Maurer had a more inside perspective on his teaching style than a chairman normally would. He used her classroom, and so she was often in the room or across the hall planning and working while he was teaching.
"Alan is not subtle in his teaching style, so I could hear it," she said.
Laura Webster, 16, a senior, remembers her creative writing class with Mr. Zepp, when he taught the blues-style of song lyrics.
"He took us to the hall outside the music room and rolled out the piano. He played jazz so we could get a feel for the measure and how the words would sound to music," said Laura, daughter of David and Mary Webster of Westminster.
While doing Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," he and the class updated the drama to a drug-related gang war, although he required them to remain true to the characters and scenes.
Instead of being stabbed, however, Caesar was shot with a machine gun.
In discussing his approach to teaching, Mr. Zepp often talks of reaching out to all students regardless of whether they're perceived as "good" ones.
He was an average student, he said, and he knows that for most teens school is more important for its social role than its academic one.
"For us to ignore that or pretend it doesn't exist is ludicrous," he said. "We need to deal with that baggage the students are carrying around -- dates, who they're seen with, what they wear -- and relate that to literature."
Senior David Lee said students who are perpetually bored i other classes will participate in Mr. Zepp's discussions and write for him, even sometimes revealing personal opinions and experiences.
"We had to write a paper about personal experiences," David said. "I felt that I could go and tell him some things that I wouldn't tell another teacher. It's just the way he comes off. He understands what you're going through.
"I kind of feel good that he got this -- he deserves it," said David, son of David and Donna Lee of Westminster.
Mr. Zepp, a self-described late bloomer, graduated from Westminster High in 1972. He went to Bridgewater College in Virginia and nearly flunked out.
He abandoned school, and spent the next 1 1/2 years playing the drums in a wedding band and filling out his income with various jobs, the last of them in a foundry.
One day he was at the dinner table and observed to his father that he could see himself working in a factory for the rest of his life.
"That hit me wrong," he said. "That's why I went back to school."
He enrolled at Western Maryland College, where his father, Ira Zepp, is professor of religious studies. His mother, Mary Zepp, was an elementary school teacher in Carroll County.
Education is decidedly a family affair. Mr. Zepp's wife, Patricia Zepp, is a media specialist at New Windsor Middle School. The two met at WMC and now live in Finksburg.
After graduating in 1978, Mr. Zepp spent two years as a music teacher and band director at North Carroll High School. He liked teaching music, but was weary and distracted by all the fund-raising, scheduling buses, choosing majorettes and other parts of the job, so he left.
After six years of managing Country Liquors at 140 Village, he said, "I started to wonder what contribution I was making."
Always a reader and lover of books, he spent the next three years working full-time and going back to school for certification in English.
One of his own high-school English teachers, Donna Connors, was a great inspiration to him, he said.
"The thing about my teachers, and Mrs. Connors in particular, was that on reflection I could tell they really cared about me, about Alan. I felt I wasn't in a class -- that I was working with them and they were working with me. They made learning fun somehow."
Mrs. Nevius-Maurer said Mr. Zepp's background in music education prepared him perfectly for the latest trend in English
teaching -- to have students more involved in their learning.
"When you're a music teacher, it's based on the student's performance, with the teacher as a facilitator," she said. "He just transfers that to English so well."
During virtually every class period, Mr. Zepp's students are required to work with each other in some way, often by writing their own five-question quizzes and exchanging them with partners.
"They think of questions I never would have thought of." Mr. Zepp said.