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Jadrich Named Exemplary Teaching Winner
February 18, 2005

Teaching is about humility for Calvin College professor of science education and physics Jim Jadrich.

“I need to remember,” he says, “that I serve the students.”

Part of that approach, Jadrich believes, comes from his own hardscrabble upbringing in a blue collar neighborhood in St. Louis, a neighborhood where pretty much everyone, including Jadrich's own father, worked for one of the local breweries.

“It was a tough place to grow up,” Jadrich recalls, “and education wasn't a big priority. If you wanted to learn you really didn't get a lot of help and support from the people around you. In fact, there was a lot of fighting and senseless cruelty. At home there was little peace because of an alcoholic parent. To top it off, I have a social phobia. People, in general, terrify me. And having no understanding of God, I coped with life by becoming severely withdrawn, hiding behind a menacing and confrontational demeanor in the hope of keeping people far away. And there was nothing on this earth that was going to change me because that was how I survived.

“Being a teacher, especially at a place like Calvin, was an impossibility. But God had other ideas. It is a testimony to His love and power that He would come into my life and change me.”

These days Jadrich, who has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Davis, says he is called by God to make a difference in the lives of the people around him. His task is to train future teachers. He compares it to that of a butler.

“A good butler," he says, “knows how to serve. He studies his master and then figures out how best to provide the master with what he needs.”

In the same way, teaching for Jadrich means studying his students in particular and college age students in general.

“With my own students,” he says, “it's pretty easy to figure out what they know and what they don't know. But there's a lot of material out there on how people learn, including how college students learn. So I'm constantly reading on that topic. For me to be an effective teacher means knowing my students inside and out. Only then can I truly serve them.”

That philosophy of education works, say Jadrich's students, who constantly give him top marks on their course evaluations. Colleagues too say the bespectacled and soft spoken Jadrich is a master teacher.

And now Calvin is recognizing his efforts in the classroom, naming Jadrich the 2005 winner of the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, the college's top teaching honor. He is the 13th winner -- dating back to the award's inception in 1993 by then-president Anthony Diekema. The award includes a one-of-a-kind medallion and provides the winner with a significant financial stipend thanks to the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment fund, set up at Calvin by a donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin Board of Trustees.

The award, says Jadrich, makes him “want to crawl in a hole and hide.”

Faith and Teaching

An important part of what happens in the classroom for Jim Jadrich concerns the faith component of a Calvin education. Jadrich was raised Catholic, but says meaningful faith wasn't really part of his upbringing.

Then, as a college student, he got a job at a local movie theater, a theater where the manager liked to hire Christians because “they were more trustworthy.” Jadrich, then a non-Christian, slipped though the nets because, as a physics major at Fresno State, he could program the manager's computer. After working at the theater for a while he noticed that his fellow workers seemed different.

“They were nice,” he says. “They cared for each other. And they were normal! I wanted to know more.”

So he joined their regular Bible study. And it was there that he became a Christian.

Later, in graduate school he met his wife Robyn, a straight talking Australian who also was a recent convert to Christianity. It was through his wife, says Jadrich, that God worked to bring the many changes to his life that he believes allowed him to become a good teacher.

And now he hopes, in small ways, to help his students meet God too, both through their study of the marvels and mysteries of science, and also through the daily devotions and prayers that he leads for his classes.

Students seem to resonate with his approach. While they learn a lot about science, they also pay attention to the faith issues Jadrich raises.

In writing to support his nomination for the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching one student said: “Professor Jadrich seems to have a deep, personal relationship with the Lord. He definitely cares for his work, but also for the relationship he develops with the students and his relationship with God.”

Another wrote that Jadrich is “a wonderful Christian example in what he says and how he treats his students. He provides a Christian perspective in his teaching, and he is very caring and interested in the lives of his students.”

Jadrich says it's easy to care for his students. “Elementary education people,” he says with a beaming smile, “are the best.”

But, he adds, “While this award is an honor, it's also a hard thing to accept. Part of what I love about teaching at Calvin is being part of a team of people who are all working together toward common goals. I feel like anyone of the people-or all of the people - I work with should also be part of this award.”

That team of people is an elementary education science group. Together that group works to ensure that Calvin students studying elementary education are equipped to someday teach science to their own students in a first rate way.

It's an important topic-vital enough that the United States government pays close attention to it, as evidenced by regular surveys comparing the test scores of U.S. students in the sciences with those of their peers in other countries.

Jadrich too believes that scientific knowledge in young people is important. But he also believes that how prospective teachers learn the sciences-and therefore how they one day will teach their own students-is a significant educational challenge, one that too often gets lost in the college curriculum.

“The key question," says Jadrich, "is how do you teach science and how do you teach someone to teach science. Those are important questions for us to ask at Calvin, where education is our biggest area of study, and those are important questions for us as a society.”

So for the last decade he has pondered those questions, assisting Calvin's efforts in training teachers to teach the sciences, efforts that are both complex and comprehensive.

Calvin elementary education students, for example, are required to take at least three courses with a specific focus on both science and the teaching of science. Jadrich notes that at many colleges with elementary education programs, students do not take any courses with that specific focus; rather they take general science courses.

“They don't learn the relevant science,” he says, “and often they don't learn the best ways to teach the science. The truth about teaching is that most people teach the way they themselves have been taught. They model their own teachers. But, unfortunately, this doesn't work as well in the sciences, where often the way they're being taught might be appropriate for a college age student but falls horribly short for elementary age students.”

So, in Calvin classes, burgeoning teachers are able to take classes that both teach them the science and model successful methods by which they can one day teach their own students.

Does it work?

Exit surveys of Calvin elementary education students conducted prior to graduation show the results. Jadrich says many elementary education students come to Calvin adverse to science at best. They often tell him that when they're teachers they don't plan to teach science. But by the time they graduate from Calvin, science has often become their favorite subject. And often it is named as one of the subjects they say they feel most confident about in terms of their teaching knowledge (reading is the other). In addition about 20 percent of Calvin elementary education students in recent years have chosen to minor in science!

Those students also have good things to say about Jadrich.

In writing to support Jadrich's nomination for the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, current and former students were unanimous in their praise for his teaching style.

One remembered switching to elementary education and being unsure of her decision. But taking Physics 112: “Physical and Earth Science for Elementary School Teachers,” with Jadrich convinced her she has done the right thing. “As the class progressed,” she wrote, “Professor Jadrich's love for science and his teaching abilities reassured me of my decision. Professor Jadrich made Physics 112 a class that was practical and challenging. I have been able to learn what I used while teaching students on my own.”

Another said simply that “Physics 112 was very interesting. We always had hands on assignments that helped me learn the material a lot better than if it had been presented in lecture form all the time. As a future teacher I feel like I am better prepared because of Professor Jadrich. He challenged me to think outside the box and be creative.”

Physics professor Stanley Haan says that Jadrich not only is a great teacher of Physics 112, he designed the course.

“I thought it was nearly an impossible task.” says Haan. “We were asking for a course that would cover the important concepts in physics, chemistry and geology for elementary education students. I looked at the table of contents in relevant textbooks and shook my head at the encyclopedic coverage of gazillions of seemingly unrelated topics. I didn't see how we could cover all these topics and allow students to do anything more than memorize unrelated facts. The mistake I was making is the mistake usually made in science instruction and that is I was starting my thinking from the discipline rather than the learner.

"Jim took the opposite approach and looked at what an elementary teacher actually needs to understand in order to teach effectively in the lower grade levels. He then constructed a course around these concepts and he connected the concepts together into a coherent package by taking a thematic approach. It was a paradigm breaking approach.”

The other bellwether of success is the college’s significant partnership program with local schools. Jadrich and his students will go out to area schools and teach science. They then return to Calvin to reflect and ruminate on the experience, considering what went well and what did not, and what could they do better or differently. They then go out and teach again and again, using each prior experiences to inform and guide the next.

That hands on approach to teaching science led, in the summer of 2002, to a $10,000 prize for outstanding achievement in science education as part of the second annual Heuer Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education (presented by the Council of Independent Colleges).

The Council of Independent Colleges, of which Calvin is a member, is an association of more than 500 independent liberal arts colleges and universities and higher education affiliates. It recognized Calvin for its elementary science education program, in which the Heuer Award said, “there is a particular focus on meeting the needs of schools with high minority enrollment.”

Jadrich says that's an important focus for the elementary education science efforts at Calvin, and that the college is committed to strengthening science education throughout West Michigan.

“About half of our (education) graduates,” he says, “go on to teach in public schools and about half in parochial schools. So, already when our prospective teachers are students, we want them to be making a difference in a wide variety of school settings-but always with the focus on teaching science better and helping the next generation to learn and love the sciences."