Teaching Listening First
Speech pathology professor Judith Vander Woude named top teacher

by Phil deHaan '84

Growing up as one of 11 children, including four siblings adopted from Korea, Calvin College professor Judith Vander Woude had plenty of opportunities to listen to the conversations around her.

These days, as a Calvin professor of speech pathology, Vander Woude is fond of telling her students that God has given them two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason. She tells students, “It’s important to look and to listen before you open your mouth.” For her this concept transcends empathy to something she calls deep listening, a place where students’ assumptions are challenged.

“This field will shake up their world a little bit,” she said.

“It’s not easy. Working with a stroke patient can be a really hard thing. Or working with a child who has language development problems. But I love it when students get it, when they take what we’ve worked on in the classroom and put it into practice. As a teacher that’s still such a satisfying moment.”

Vander Woude’s colleagues say she’s brought many students to that moment, a big reason why she is the college’s 2008 recipient of the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching.

She is the 16th winner of Calvin’s top teaching honor—dating back to the first honoree, Ken Kuiper, in 1993—and will receive a medallion and a significant financial stipend from the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund, established at Calvin by a donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former Calvin board of trustees member.

For Vander Woude, word of the award came at the end of a fall semester where she felt like anything but an exemplary teacher. She had been working on a new literacy program for a trio of pilot schools in Grand Rapids, finishing a manuscript and dealing with her mother who had suffered a stroke. In the midst of that she worried she was letting down her students, that she was not doing a good job teaching what they needed to know to become speech pathologists. And then came that call from Calvin President Gaylen Byker congratulating her on the college’s most prestigious faculty award.

“I just thought, ‘Why me?’” recalled Vander Woude. “There are some really good professors here who I think need to be recognized. Being singled out in this way is really uncomfortable for me.”

Fellow members of the Calvin communication arts and sciences department say Vander Woude deserves the recognition.

Department chair Helen Sterk noted that Calvin’s speech pathology and audiology major makes the college one of only three Christian colleges in the country to offer the degree. And, she added, under Vander Woude’s leadership Calvin’s program has grown from only a handful of students in the mid-1990s, when the program almost went defunct, to some 70 majors a year.

In addition, Calvin’s placement rate for speech pathology students who go to graduate school is close to 100 percent over the last decade.

“Most years, every one of our graduates who applies to graduate school gets in,” Sterk said. “That’s a wonderful testimony to the curriculum that Dr. Vander Woude has developed at Calvin and the real-world experiences she provides for her majors.”

Those experiences include an on-site stroke clinic in the DeVos Communications Center at Calvin, as well as speech pathology programs for school-age children, audiology testing and much more.

Program graduates say that blend of top-notch academic instruction and hands-on application of what they’ve learned in the classroom makes for a great combination.

In supporting Vander Woude’s nomination for the teaching award, one graduate wrote: “In the area of academics, Professor Vander Woude set high standards for the students. These standards were crucial for preparing students for graduate school. Through her leadership and organization a clinic was set up in order for students to engage in therapy with students and put book knowledge into action. This experience was unique for undergraduate students and set a firm foundation for clinical experiences in graduate school.”

Another graduate in writing to support Vander Woude noted especially her ability to bring her faith to bear in the classroom. She said simply: “Dr. Vander Woude encouraged me in my studies and my walk with God, and she also challenged me.”

For Vander Woude it’s all a little much. She says she just loves to teach.

“When I walked into the classroom the first day of second semester, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, this is fun,’” she recalled. “You can talk about serious things, you can push students, but you can have fun, too.”

Yet behind the fun is a conscientious approach to what it means to be a teacher.

In her faith and learning integration statement (required by the college as part of the reappointment and tenure process), Vander Woude wrote: “Although most of us can appear externally to function according to society’s standards, individuals with communicative disorders generally cannot. Their forms of brokenness brand them publicly as imperfect individuals. My hermeneutical goal is to encourage students to reflect on what it is like to live both publicly and privately with a communication disorder. I want them to seek, as Christians, to understand what it is like to have trouble communicating, to encounter odd responses from others, or even worse, to be ignored in everyday situations.”

That encompassing vision for her craft is not missed by Calvin students.

As one former Vander Woude student wrote, “What I will remember most from my time at Calvin with Professor Vander Woude was her caring nature and love for her students. And in all she did I was able to see her faith in action.”

Vander Woude said that kind of feedback means more than any teaching award ever could.

“Making a difference in the lives of students is very satisfying, and I know that’s not just true for me, but also for my colleagues across the campus,” she said. “It’s why we do what we do.”           

Phil de Haan is Calvin’s communications and marketing director.