Growing up, Ruth Zeitzew (B.A. ’49; CRSS ’51) always saw herself becoming a teacher one day. As a young girl, Ruth moved around a lot and attended eight different public schools before graduating early from Roosevelt High School in 1945. As a child during the Great Depression, Ruth recalls that her mother, a factory worker, and her father, a writer, did what they could to get by and support the family.
“We never dined out, and we didn’t even have a telephone,” Ruth remembers of the time. “We didn’t own a television set or an automobile until after I was married.”
Still, it never occurred to Ruth that she wouldn’t attend UCLA. In addition to being accessible and financially feasible, UCLA had educated her older brother, Harold, who received his Bachelor’s, his MA and his PhD in English from the University.
Ruth received a scholarship from UCLA in 1947 and enrolled that fall, after receiving an Associate’s Degree from a Junior College. “I loved school,” Ruth affirms. “I thought UCLA was the greatest.”
Having previously commuted from home to school via streetcar and bus, Ruth decided shortly after enrolling at UCLA to move into a Women’s Co-Op on Hilgard Avenue, where she lived for the next two years. There, she had an active social life and participated in school functions when time permitted.
In addition to being a convenient place to live and a great environment in which to meet other students, the Co-Op provided an affordable living alternative for students, who were required to perform chores to help pay for their lodging.
To help support herself, Ruth worked at least 5 hours per week cleaning and cooking at the Co-Op. She also worked 15 to 20 hours per week at the front desk of the Library, under head librarian Dr. Lawrence Powell. Ruth loved working at the Library. An avid reader who couldn’t afford to purchase books for pleasure, Ruth was an eager user of the Library‘s collection. She also quickly developed an affinity and respect for Dr. Powell and the other Library staff.
“Dr. Powell was so nice, and it felt like a real honor, just being there,” she says.
“There were often famous people who would come by to use the Library or visit with Dr. Powell. I remember seeing Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Charles Laughton several times while I was manning the front desk.”
In addition to welcoming guests as they arrived in the building, Ruth did some billing for the Library.
Ruth also remembers sitting outside during her lunch break and watching buildings go up across campus or additions being added to the Library. “There was such a sense of growth and development. They were always adding more buildings, and it was already such a great school. I was proud to be a student.” All four of Ruth’s children subsequently became UCLA alumni too, and her husband, Harris, received his Masters in Engineering at UCLA, also.
Ruth graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Studies in 1949. After getting married at the end of her senior year, she and her husband lived in her parents’ home to save money while her husband completed his education, thanks to the G.I. Bill. Ruth continued working at the Library, again commuting by bus and streetcar. Still wanting to become a teacher, she enrolled in education courses at UCLA, where she received her teaching credential in 1951.
“I had a wonderful education both at UCLA and growing up,” says Ruth, reflecting on her decision to become a teacher.
“The options for women in those days were limited. Either you could go into social work, become a librarian or a secretary, or teach. Having attended public schools all my life and having had great teachers throughout, teaching was the obvious choice. I never really imagined doing anything else.”
In the early 1950s, when Ruth began her studies in the Education Department at UCLA, one of the main components of the education curriculum, led by Corinne Seeds, was the Seeds Box. “Every student had to put together a collection of lesson plans and materials for a classroom unit that shared a common theme,” Ruth explains. Ruth’s box contained artifacts and lesson plans for a unit on Mexico and included an oil-cloth map with points of interest and examples of Mexican products from various regions. Ruth also wrote lesson plans on the Aztecs and Mayans and on current events to teach Mexican history. Though she never used the Seeds Box directly as a teacher, Ruth says that the box helped teach the importance of careful planning and creative thinking in the classroom.
“One of the most valuable components of the Education curriculum,” says Ruth, “was a class I took on developmental psychology, in which students training to become teachers were taught about the developmental stages of children at different ages. I enjoyed that class and learned a lot from it that could be applied directly in the classroom. It provided us with insight, and an understanding of what we might expect.”
Ruth also conducted her in-class observations at the University Elementary School (today known as UCLA Lab School), “one of the country’s top schools at the time,” Ruth notes. “This experience was very valuable because it gave me a look at what being in the classroom could be like.”
To complete her training, Ruth spent a year at Brockton Elementary School as a practice student teacher, where she helped teach students in the 1st and 5th grades and developed a special connection with one of her mentor teachers, Ms. Bugbee. Looking back, Ruth believes that observing other teachers and this part-time practice teaching were two of the most helpful parts of her education.
After receiving her teaching certification from UCLA, Ruth got her first job at an under-funded school on 39th Street in the Martin Luther King / Crenshaw area. “I had 42 first graders and no Teaching Aide,” Ruth remembers. “Also, the school was unable to afford the books that I needed to teach, so I had to do what I could without them.”
Ruth taught her students to write and illustrate their own stories.
“In those days, you walked into a school and began teaching on Day One, and you had to think creatively to get your students engaged. Later, the emphasis shifted to tests, which are important, of course, but not the sole measure of a child’s learning.”
Ruth ended up teaching at Title 1 Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods for much of her career, at a time when schools were slowly becoming integrated. Many of Ruth’s students were raised by their grandparents or other extended family members in overcrowded homes, often in gang territories. “Prior to the integration movement of the ’60s, kids would walk to school and attend classes with students from their own background,” she recalls. “There was a need to integrate the schools in order to balance the educational opportunities more evenly across the districts. And there was an integration of faculty, too.”
In later years, Ruth explains, schools located in high-poverty areas often received extra teachers, teacher’s aides and classroom materials, and often had bilingual teachers who could assist with the individual learning needs and language barriers of each student. When she began teaching, however, teachers often started their careers “cold, without the training or the language skills they needed to be most effective.”
After a few years of teaching, Ruth took a break to have children of her own, but she continued to substitute in the Valley and in Hollywood. When she went back to teaching full-time in the 1970s, she taught herself Spanish and got a job at a school with a large Latino/a population.
Although she taught in K-6 classrooms throughout her career, much of her twenty years as a full time teacher was spent teaching 5th and 6th graders, where she worked hard to go above and beyond the curriculum. “In those days, the focus wasn’t as much on test scores as the primary measure of student achievement, as it seems to be today,” she reflects. For Ruth, being an effective teacher was about developing creative strategies for inspiring students’ curiosity and engagement with course material.
Late in her career, Ruth became Faculty Chair and mentored her fellow teachers. But, she says, she always preferred teaching in her own classroom. Now retired, Ruth is an active volunteer on the Museum Service Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she spends much of her time meeting the public and developing her passion for art.
Looking back over her career, she says, “I absolutely loved being a teacher of children. It was very rewarding.”
Not long ago, Ruth received an email from a former 5th grade pupil, who had tracked her down to thank her. He had recently been awarded his PhD and wanted to let her know that he still remembered her well, and that he credited her for motivating him to succeed.
Asked what she thinks makes a good teacher, Ruth reflects,
“You have to be someone who genuinely cares about your students. If you can recognize the potential in each of your students and do your best to cultivate their talents, then you really can make a difference. You have to develop an atmosphere where all of your students feel respected and supported in their learning, and sense your genuine concern for each of them.”