Downers Grove North teacher receives Golden Apple award
Before leaving for work Monday morning, Jeff Grant's wife played fashion police.
She insisted he couldn't wear one of his "science dorky" shirts. He didn't know what all the fuss was about, but agreed to put on a simple plaid shirt, new "constellation socks" and a pair of star-themed Converse shoes that are "out of this world."
Grant was still oblivious until he opened the door to his classroom and all the cameras started flashing.
"I'm glad you dressed me," Grant later told his wife, Gretchen.
The Downers Grove North High School teacher, who wears his heart -- and his nerdy love of science -- on his sleeve, was awarded a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching Monday during a surprise celebration with family and mentors.
"He's always searching for ways to connect kids with science, to make science real, to get them excited about the wonder of science," Principal Scott Kasik said. "Jeff is a self-described science geek, but I think he's made being a science geek a really cool thing to be."
The honor is reserved for less than a dozen high school teachers chosen out of more than 400 nominations this year. But it was easy to tell Golden Apple judges why Grant is a special teacher, said science department Chairman Michael Heinz, who nominated him.
"His depth and breadth of knowledge is just unparalleled of anybody that I've seen in the teaching profession," Heinz said.
Even so, Grant -- a Downers Grove North grad -- connects students with real scientists and real research. Just look at the framed pictures of Nobel Prize winners and astronauts hanging outside his classroom.
They either sent autographs and personal messages to students or visited the school after Grant contacted them.
"Be imaginative!" wrote Dr. Jack Gilbert, a prominent environmental microbiologist who talked with students.
Grant's students have contributed data to Morton Arboretum research and learned how to not only understand the scientific fundamentals but how to apply them, Heinz said.
"I just can't keep up with his ideas and his creativity," he said.
Grant long knew he wanted to pursue a career in science but didn't consider teaching until he observed classes at an Indiana public school when he was a student at DePauw University.
"The cool part to me was I got to talk about science, but then I also got to tie in all these other really neat parts of things I didn't want to let go," he said. "Like I don't want to say I'm immature, but I don't like to think too adultlike. I enjoy being goofy and I think teaching was kind of a natural draw to that."
His goofy side shows in his cheesy puns, his dances in front of the class, or a 150-page cartoon book he made to help AP biology students study. But he's not looking for just a laugh.
"If anything, at least they can feel comfortable in the classroom," he said.
It's a teaching style he now sees in his father, Kent Grant, who taught biology at Tinley Park High School.
"I think he's bred me to be a teacher ever since I was a kid," Grant said. "And I didn't realize it, and I bet he would never say that he did either."
But he would always welcome his son's questions and curiosity about the world around them when they went fishing in Hayward, Wisconsin.
"He would never underspeak me as a kid," Grant said. "He would explain the science behind it."
And that's exactly what Grant does now.
"Wherever he goes, he's always on the lookout for what can he bring back to the classroom, and what resources can he connect with the kids," said Kasik, the principal. "He's one of those eat, breath, lives science."
Grant will receive a $5,000 cash award and a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University. He'll also join the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a group of fellow winners who mentor teachers.
He'll probably give this advice:
"I don't think I hide much from kids. I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve," he said. "I care about them a lot. They're like my family. Every single one of them and that's why I always try to make sure that they know where I stand with them."