What is your fondest memory from your time working in the Bush Administration?

My fondest memories of working in the Bush Administration at the U.S. Department of Education were the opportunities that we had to celebrate the great work of teachers, students, and administrators. Probably the best example of this was presenting the Blue Ribbon Awards for schools that demonstrated academic excellence. Many of these schools had worked so long and so hard to be strong centers of learning that the award presentations were often emotional, student/teacher-focused, and a great reminder of the wonderful education institutions throughout our country.

You recently launched the Literacy Matters Foundation. What is the foundation’s mission, and what prompted you to start the organization?

The ability to read and comprehend is a vital component for survival and provides the cornerstone for building a successful future. As with any skill, those learning to read must have proper tools to master reading comprehension and fluency. Books draw students into stories and pique their interest to engage them in the process of reading.

Many students in America have access to books in schools, in libraries, and in their homes. However, a significant number of schools do not have adequate resources for libraries or provide books for students in the classroom. Sadly, many students do not have books at home to read. From urban inner cities to rural farmlands and everywhere in between, there are children in this country who have never owned their own copy of a book. How can we expect students to master a skill that is so vitally important to them if we do not provide the tools with which they can master that skill?

For us, Literacy Matters is more than just a name. It is a deeply held belief that literacy does, in fact, matter in the lives of children. If we believe as a nation that every child must know how to read, then we have an obligation to ensure that those same children have the tools they need to become strong, lifelong readers. Our mission is simple and direct: Literacy Matters Foundation provides early readers in need from preschool through 3rd grade with copies of their own books and provides the adults who impact the lives of those children with the resources to develop future readers. Please check out our website at www.literacymattersfoundation.org and see how we are supporting the education of economically disadvantaged children learning to read and ultimately impacting the rest of their lives by giving them a solid foundation for a strong future.

How have your years of service in the U.S. Department of Education shaped or influenced your current work?

Following my years of services at the U.S. Department of Education, I have devoted my professional life to working with both urban and rural schools throughout the United States. I started a consulting firm with the goal of supporting teachers and administrators in primarily underperforming schools. We coach and mentor teachers and administrators alike and provide supports for teaching methods, student engagement, leadership, and overall educational performance. Woven throughout this work has been my personal, lifelong interest and focus on literacy. I am the author of a series of children books (www.toddzoellick.com) and promote literacy through the consulting firm, through my books, and through Literacy Matters Foundation.

Your role at the Literacy Matters Foundation is not your first C-Suite position. Are there any leadership traits or lessons that have served you well across your various jobs?

Reading just about any business journal or executive publication provides a litany of leadership traits and skills that leaders “need” to be successful. While many of those are probably true and accurate, I have found is one trait is of paramount importance in my work: respect. Too often in education teachers, principals, administrators, and support staff are not respected for the important work that they do every day. I insist upon respect both internally among team members within my organizations and externally toward our clients, colleagues, and competitors. Respect may be a simplistic and obvious concept, but I find that it is often lacking in our work. That focus has served me well over the years.

What is your proudest moment from your years in the Administration?

I took tremendous pride in visiting schools and meeting administrators, teachers, and students. Every time I went into a classroom, I made sure that I had just a brief moment to pull the teacher aside and say “thank you for what you do every day for these boys and girls.” The very first time I did this, the teacher looked at me and burst into tears. She told me that in all her years of teaching, she never had someone say “thank you” for her work with students.

From that experience on, my proudest moments were being a representative of the U.S. Department of Education and the Administration and simply providing a heartfelt “thank you” to teachers and administrators for their important work.