Class of 2016 Success Stories: Learning how to learn

North Olmsted superintendent came back to BGSU to complete a master’s in organizational development


By Amber Stark ’99

A Ph.D. is often considered the highest academic achievement a person can attain. However, Dr. Michael E. Zalar, a 2005 Bowling Green State University doctoral graduate, believes that learning is an ongoing process. The North Olmsted City Schools superintendent came back to BGSU in 2015 for the Executive Master of Organization Development (EMOD) program and graduated Aug. 6.

Zalar chose BGSU because of his previous experience with the University and because of the program’s reputation.

“I had a desire to learn more about the complexities of organizational dynamics and thought organizational development would be a good pathway into this work,” he said, adding that his experience in the program has been great. “The quality of instruction has been excellent and the rigor of the program has been high. I think the blended model works very well for adult students who are working a full-time job during the week.”

Zalar said this new degree will help prepare him for a second career in consulting and for adjunct teaching at the university level after he retires from education in a few years. Most recently, he has been able to use several of the concepts he has learned in the program in his current position.

“We are currently involved in building a new $90 million campus for grades 6-12, including a new performing arts center and athletic stadium complex,” he said. “This is a large, whole-scale change initiative that involves a high degree of leadership, strategic planning, change management and organizational development activity. That is exactly what you learn in the EMOD program.”

Zalar is complimentary of the program’s cohort model, which didn’t exist when he received his doctorate in educational administration and supervision in 2005.

“The cohort model is powerful,” he said. “One of the biggest benefits of the blended model is that you have the opportunity to learn so much from your fellow classmates as you work on group assignments and projects together. It has become a very cohesive group and everybody holds each other accountable to not only do the work, but to make a positive contribution to the quality of the learning taking place for everyone.”

Another difference between his first BGSU experience and the most recent is today’s focus on technology.

“I have had a pretty steep learning curve with regard to technology,” he said. “Higher education has changed a great deal since the last time I was in school. The experience has given me a better perspective on the importance of making sure our preK-12 classrooms are equipped with the necessary technology resources so that our teachers are able to better prepare our students for the demands of the 21st Century.”

In addition to a renewed view of technology, Zalar credits the program with making him a better leader and facilitator of change.

“I have learned a great deal about change leadership and organizational dynamics,” he said. “A school district is generally one of the largest organizations in the community. As superintendent, I am responsible for the overall performance of a multi-million dollar, non-profit organization with hundreds of employees. The knowledge and skills I learned in EMOD have made me a better leader and internal facilitator of the change process necessary to improve our organizational effectiveness.”

As an educator, Zalar reviewed the EMOD from a unique perspective. He said the program was well-designed from a curriculum standpoint; he appreciated the thought given to the scope and sequence of various courses it included, for example. He also said the inclusion of an international trip added a lot of value to the student experience.

These are a few of the reasons Zalar would recommend BGSU to others looking to further their education.

“The world has changed significantly in our lifetime,” he said. “One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of getting a great education. If anything, the need is greater than ever. Students today need to be prepared for the specific jobs they are seeking while developing the ability to navigate different career paths for the future. Most students will change jobs and careers multiple times throughout the course of their working life. Many of the jobs today’s students will be working in haven’t even been created yet.

“A college degree continues to be the ticket to a brighter future with higher earning potential for most people. The world is changing so rapidly that there is no body of knowledge that anyone can master that will carry him or her throughout the course of their lifetime. Learning needs to be lifelong. It doesn’t stop after you earn a diploma or a degree. The key is to master the art of learning how to learn.”

Another reason Zalar would recommend BGSU is his recent program’s emphasis on experiential and situational learning.

“Students are given complex problems and required to complete collaborative projects where there is no one right solution,” he said. “In the beginning, everyone was extremely uncomfortable about the ambiguity of the process. It was referred to as ‘walking in the goo.’ It was slow, messy and frustrating. There was no textbook that you could refer to and just look up the answer. You had to learn to trust the process and be willing to collaborate and co-create with your colleagues. That was a big learning experience for me because I have always been someone who is very self-directed. By going through these experiences I have learned to appreciate the power of a collaborative work environment and see tremendous value in creating a project-based team approach to solving problems.”

Zalar, a lifelong Ohio resident, received the 2016 Ohio Superintendent Outstanding Performance Award from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation. The award included a $10,000 grant he will use to fund a “Genius Hour” for middle school students. He has 28 years of experience as a teacher, principal and superintendent in a number of different public school districts throughout Ohio. He and his wife, Donna ’03, have been married for 33 years. They have five children and two grandchildren.

Updated: 12/11/2023 10:33AM