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Sydney Robbins

Mr. Koz discusses with a student the best way to go about one of many complicated problems. Pre-AP Chem is one of the most intensive honors classes offered at FHC.

The chemistry guy

An exemplary teacher, and modern-day Renaissance Man

February 16, 2017

Silence. Wide, whitewashed hallways line a gleaming tiled floor, and huge fluorescent lights extend past door after door of classrooms, dark and uninhabited. Nothing stirs here, save the almost intangible rustling of stray paper. It is 6 a.m, according to the black digital clocks lining Francis Howell Central High. Like electricity humming in the clouds, the tension of an approaching storm abounds in this soundless complex. Sixty minutes pass, 3600 seconds later: furor. Young dreamers, stressed and ambitious, hurry in every conceivable direction like a cloud of albatross searching for a catch – the pathways become choked with voice and resounding with the passage of hundreds of tired bones. One of these frenetic individuals, junior Talia Thambyrajah, ambles into her first test of mind and soul, taking place in a spacious room, largely white, with strange glass and metal instruments lining long black tables in the back, and braces for the impact of another week.

A curious man walks in, his grey shirt matches his golden tie, and lines of weariness transverse his face – wizened with many years of excitement, but cheerful nonetheless. An unbridled optimism and understanding positivity are alight in his eyes. This man, of unassuming height and a stocky build, stands before his pupils, their minds clouded with trepidation, until –


A grin finally crosses his face, and, with hands intricately folded in a philosopher’s triangle, the man asks how the class is holding up. Thambyrajah knows the next hour will be difficult, it will stretch her mind and open her eyes to advanced concept after concept, but she knows it’s going to be okay. After all, this curious man, John “Koz” Kozlowski, has never failed her.

After 19 years, the students of FHC, now Thambyrajah, have never been let down by Mr. Koz, FHC’s lone teacher of university level AP chemistry, help-giver to all, and constantly-improving modern day Renaissance Man. His story is not earth-shaking; his words are not nation-moving. But his example – from the small acts of kindness without hesitation, to the skillful transference of knowledge, to the intrinsic drive to better himself every day even after 19 years of teaching – is anything but that of an average man.


Journey – The Chemist’s Odyssey

College: for some, the next big step. The four years of a major, and possible four additional years for a graduate/professional degree, is a serious and lengthy commitment to make. It is, after all, nearly a decade longer of textbooks, homework, essays, finals, teachers, and sleeplessness – to reach a professional degree worth serious renown.

Mr. Koz has been through college for 19 years. His continued education amounts to someone getting a major and a professional degree, going back again to make it a pair, then doing three years more for kicks (which would’ve been four, but he decided premedical classes were not for him three years in).

Born in north St. Louis, he stayed between Rolla (University of Missouri Science & Technology) and UMSL as he spent almost two decades trying to find what he was truly drawn towards. In the beginning, he was involved heavily in aerospace engineering, and worked at McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing), but continued school because he found the field too limited.

Soon after three more years of study (while at Boeing) to finish his engineering degree, Koz decided to attempt to climb the pyramid to medical school.

Soon thereafter, however, it lost its shine, leaving him back on the drawing board.

“You keep in mind your goals. I didn’t really push myself through, I let the vision at the end pull me through – and if you’ve got that, then that keeps you going,” he said, on how he lived with a constantly changing focus.

He never gave in, though. His dreams always lay just on the horizon, incentivizing him to get over any obstacle that crossed his path.

“You need something to dangle out there, you can’t just work, just grueling, grinding work with no anticipated payoff, it just grinds you into the ground.”

There was one kind of class though, he realized, in all his years of searching, that truly peaked his interest. It was then that the Mr. Koz decided to pursue the field of chemistry, and subsequently met his longtime friend and colleague, Mr. David Gronefeld.

He found a job teaching physics at Francis Howell High School for a brief period, but found regular material to be too dry. So, he went back to graduate school, this time in a master’s chemistry program, where he immediately thrived.

And so, three years of a notoriously difficult graduate path later, Masters of Chemistry in hand, the Mr. Koz of our day and age reached his current form. His exhausting journey had finally ebbed.


Classroom – “The Notorious K.O.Z.”

“Let’s be honest, not everybody wants to come to AP Chem.”

Mr. Koz is right – in the academic quarter, his classes are not to be taken lightly. The field of classes he specializes in, Pre-AP and AP (university-level) chemistry, is in his words, one of the most complicated and difficult classes in the entire school.

“Chemistry is probably one of the most difficult topics out there – it’s got math, problem solving, and you’re studying something [atoms and molecules] that you can’t see,” Mr. Kozlowski said, therefore it comes as no surprise that AP Chem test averages hover in the 60s. It is in classes like this that the raw prowess of an educator comes in handy more than any other.

“Most good colleges expect to see chemistry on a transcript, so students are advised ‘you’re going to college, you need chemistry,’” Mrs. Jessica Rowe said, Mr. Koz’s colleague, and longtime teacher of biological sciences at FHC.

In school, one faulty or dispassionate teacher is able to single-handedly ruin an entire field of study. This can be especially prevalent for college students heading into general education classes for the first time as freshmen, having not taken the AP version in high school.

Nate Limbaugh, 2016 FHC alum and freshman at Missouri S&T in Rolla, knows this first hand.

“General chemistry in college is a lot more isolated, a lot more remedial, there’s no motivation, and in Koz’s class,” he said, “it’s about the process he goes through, as well as knowing that every day you go into chemistry, he’s going to be there with you.”

The “process” Mr. Koz goes through is not revolutionary, nor groundbreaking. It does, however, serve to enormously simplify many a labyrinthian concept discussed in class.

“One of the things that helped was to take what I’ve learned chemistry-wise, and organize it in my brain so it made sense to me. I know what it’s like to struggle with chem, and I think I hopefully address those problems for my students. When I think on the board, I think out loud, so that students can follow my thought process,” he said.

It is with this method of deconstruction, coupled with constantly challenging – pushing the barriers of students’ minds to heights previously thought to be impossible, that he succeeds in delivering an entire field with grace and efficiency.

It’s not all about skill, though. A teacher’s passion, both in their field, and in their students – is often what puts them on the map.

In class, Thambyrajah experiences it firsthand. “You can tell that he loves teaching – he doesn’t show it much outwardly, but you can easily sense the passion. He gets so excited about chemistry, but he’s also patient with his students.”

As Mrs. Rowe said, “Most of teaching is about the students. You have to recognize that it’s about them, not the worksheets, not which picture you choose to put in your presentation, and how to connect to each student with what they need to get them to their best level.”

Yet, one can expect a great many people to falter under the weight of such an enormous, complex field of study. And many do, greatly contributing to the notoriety of Koz’s realm.

Such was the birth of the chemistry cheer.

Rarely on any given day can a student of Koz say they’ve paid witness to his longtime ritual, but when it does occur, when one of the herd is down, Koz is known to physically rise from his chair and dance toward said student, singing a literal “cheer” to get them out of their slump in will.

“What I’ve found,” Koz said, “is that if I’ve got a kid who’s got his head down, or he just seems unmotivated to work, instead of being some kind of taskmaster, I would just do that, [the cheer] and embarrass kids into working. It’s turned into something that we do for fun — a way of getting a kid motivated without having to be some brow-beating ogre.”

What he realizes is one of the most fundamental ideas of teaching: failure is okay. Not understanding is okay, because that’s what teachers are here for. It is little things like the chemistry cheer that illustrate the idea of hardship as merely a part of the process, instead of a shortfall students need to come back from.

“Any source of frustration or disappointment that he (or any of the good teachers) experiences in our careers, it’s never about a student not getting it, or struggling. It’s about a student giving up,” Mrs. Rowe said.

And among the asymmetry of strangely lit metal instruments against countless containers of unknown substances and chemicals, giving up is not the status quo. As Limbaugh remembered, “He makes you feel like you have a chance for success.”


Pupil – Teacher by profession, student by design

“You can’t stop learning. If you don’t take joy in learning, you can’t take joy in teaching.”

And there is merit to what Mrs. Rowe said. Living knowledgeably is a two-way street: both in giving widom, and receiving it. The two parallels bound by fate, Mr. Koz knows he is not a teacher if he cannot also be a student – committed eternally to improve, grow, and learn.

“Koz is always reading books outside of class, whether it’s about something science-related or education-related, or something else entirely, and if you don’t take joy in learning – in improving yourself – then you couldn’t possibly be passionate about your job,” Mrs. Rowe said.

Mr. Koz exemplifies what it means live happily unsatisfied – continuously striving to be a better individual both in his craft and in himself.

“Our goal, his goal, is to do a better job at delivering the field of chemistry than he got as a young person in high school,” Mr. Gronefeld said. “ I don’t think he’s ever satisfied that he’s achieving as good of an output as he possibly could.”

As a person, Mr. Koz is rarely satisfied with the status of what he has done. For, in his life, there is always something to be improved, learned, dropped, or revitalized. This means putting everything he has into everything he does – 110% – every day.

“Nothing I’ve ever done has been successful if I’ve put half my effort into it. If you’re going to be successful at something worthwhile, you’ve got to go all out – you can’t sort of put some effort at it and expect success, in terms of anything worthwhile,” he said. “Don’t do half-measures.”

Koz is not the only one we can attribute such internal vigor to, nor is he the most outspoken about it. Merely, his story is but one of many, yet one all too relevant for those on the raw cusp of opportunity, all those less than four years away from being ejected into a boundlessly turbulent world.

The Italian renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most well-known artists, scientists, inventors, and students of all time, once said: “Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”

“I don’t know that I’m notable and I don’t know if I’m eccentric,” Koz said; however, what we can gain from his ethic for perseverance and self-criticism is a reminder: that complacency – becoming “frozen” – in a world so ridiculously unstagnant – is a condemnation to failure and meaninglessness.  His message stands by the fact that achievement is a path, a distantly lit trail through unforeseen perils. There is little room reserved for those who don’t believe in being more.

As Mr. Koz said: “I think if you really want to achieve something, you’re going to run into barriers. It’s going to be harder than you think, it’s going to take longer than you think, it’s going to take more effort than you think, and to be successful, the only thing that works is one hundred percent effort.”

“Nothing short of that has ever been successful.”

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