Teaching is about humility for Jim Jadrich, Calvin College professor of science education and physics.
“I need to remember,” he said, “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 recalled, “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 And having no understanding of God, I coped with life by becoming severely withdrawn, hiding behind a menacing and confrontational demeanor in the hope of keeping people far away.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.”
A student’s ‘butler’
“A good butler,” he said, “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-aged students in general.
“With my own students,” he said, “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.
“While this award is an honor, it’s also a hard thing to accept,” said Jadrich. “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 any 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.
Future teachers as learners
“The key question,” said 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.”
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 noted 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 said, “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 college students but falls horribly short for elementary school 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?
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 had 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.”
Need to know
“I thought it was nearly an impossible task,” said 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 from 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 the class’ success is the college’s significant partnership program with local schools. Jadrich and his students 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 experience 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 Award 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 and, in particular, Calvin’s 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 said, “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.”
— Phil de Haan is Calvin’s media relations director.
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