‘100 percent mesmerized by my job-this is what I get to do today’

Film student Caen Markey-VandenBerg gets a little advice from teacher Justin Harnden

Students gather on the auditorium stage in groups – half of them standing, half seated. Their task for the day was to record expressions. “Notice their eyes, nose, head, hair, habits, any expression. No talking allowed,” said theater teacher Justin Harnden, before mitigating the somewhat awkward silence with music.

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This class exercise may have seemed unusual but didn’t phase Harnden’s students, who have come to expect the unexpected. But while classroom activities can sometimes be unconventional, one thing students can be sure of – Mr. Harnden cares.

“He always makes class fun, but most of all he cares a lot about everybody,” said senior Hannah Hovanec. “He just knows everyone of us and he knows when we need something – like a hug.”

That sentiment is echoed over and over.

”He has the ability to listen and finds a perfect balance of conflict and seriousness,” said junior Emily Davis.

Production classes give students time to work with teacher Justin Harnden

“I struggle with family and moved out of my house,” said Jacob Swinehart. “He really works to have a relationship with every kid. And he told me that he, personally, would make sure I would graduate.”

“He has always gone to bat for me,” said Mason Francis. “‘I’ve not always been the nicest but he has been there for me. His classes are like one big family. He makes connections with everybody and finds out what you enjoy.”

Harnden was hired 16 years ago “to build a theater program” for the district. And that he has done. At the time he came aboard, he taught English 11 and psychology along with the two theater classes that were offered.

“That was about 48 students total,” he said. “Now there are 120 plus students taking theater and at least 20 in advanced theater every year. This is the only school I know around here that has a program that allows a student to take four years of theater. I love it.”

Six years ago, Harnden took over the television production classes. He also serves as a play director, soccer coach, and auditorium manager taking care of tech functions. “I have two student employees who work with me,” he said. “They are a very big part of this and are here for everything that happens (in the auditorium.) I am a big fan of students taking ownership of what they do.”

Just as at home on the soccer field as in the classroom

Sports Build Relationships 

Harnden said he is also a big fan of students building relationships through sports. He played soccer since he was a child and remains friends with soccer friends from his youth. And so when a job opened up in soccer, he jumped in – first as assistant coach and now heads up the girls team.

Film and television production classes allow Harnden another way to interact with students. “These classes are very project-based and allow for a different form of learning,” he said.

His goal for his students is to find out what each “really enjoys and allow them to express themselves.”

The production classes produce daily announcements and cover live school events.  “One of our big claims to fame is is what we do during football season, with live short spots,” said Harnden. “This year 13 of the 14 students in the class were working every game. One was playing football. It is crazy how much we can do now with technology.”

While Harnden emphasizes that he works with many “world class teachers” at Cedar Springs High School, he is willing to share a few of his personal findings about successful teaching:

  • Allowing students to be creative and work in groups increases confidence
  • Going to college is important but being exposed to different cultures is super important
  • The life lessons students learn are the most important
  • It is important for me to be immersed in kids’ lives and make each feel respected

“I am 100 percent mesmerized by my job,” he said. “There never is a day that goes by I don’t think, ‘Wow, this is what I get to do today and every day.’”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and is thrilled to spend some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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