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Finding her passion

Educator nominated for Teacher of the Year, two state awards

Grand Rapids – It was 12:15 on a Wednesday early afternoon at Union High School.

Nicole Durso stood in the hallway, outside her classroom door, meeting her Biology 1 students as they arrived for the 12:18 bell. Some were on their own. Others came in twos and threes. 

Durso had a big smile, greeting, plus a fist or elbow bump for them. Students responded with their own smiles and often a friendly, “Hello, Miss.”

A fellow staff member walked by and called out a hearty, “Congratulations!” to Durso. Behind her mask, Durso’s eyes lit up and she replied, “Thanks, lady.”

Durso intentionally begins class with greetings and encouragement.

“We greet our scholars at the door for a variety of reasons,” she said. “We get a sense of their mood, and we ensure that we connect with each scholar daily. It’s a great opportunity to make a positive connection and set that tone for the rest of the class period.”

A GRPS Teacher of the Year Plus State Nominations

Music begins and ends class – provided by a designated class DJ.

The job rotates, but on this day the DJ’s selections to start and finish class included favorite songs by artists such as Marca MP, Ozuna and Grupo Versza. 

Durso also has adorned her room with motivational sayings, everyone from Juana Ines de la Cruz (“I don’t study to know more but to ignore less”) to Roberto Clemente (“If you have an opportunity to make things better and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth”).

And around the edge of the room are numerous little lamps to create a softer, cozier feel.

Oh, that congratulations that got called out to her in the hallway by a passing colleague?

Two nights prior, Durso was named one of three Jean Hamilton Cope Teachers of the Year by Grand Rapids Public Schools. She was the honoree for high school, joining Buchanan Elementary second-grade teacher Jill Niewiadomski for grades PK-5 and Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy sixth- and seventh-grade teacher Sherri Kraai for grades 6-8. 

She now becomes a district nominee for the state’s Teacher of the Year awards. She was also nominated for the Michigan Science High School Teacher of the Year for the Michigan Science Teachers’ Association prior to earning the GRPS award and will learn the result of that nomination in 2022.

Nicole Durso blends tech with a personal touch in her classrooms at Union High School

A Strong Focus on Equity and Inclusion

District staff members nominate teachers for the annual GRPS awards, and a committee uses an extensive rating system to determine winners, including knowledge and use of effective instructional methods; passion for teaching and students’ learning; leadership in and outside of the classroom; collaboration with colleagues, students and families; and advocacy for GRPS. 

In nomination materials, Durso was lauded for leadership at Union and epitomizing the definition of a lifelong learner. 

She is a teacher representative on the GRPS Equity and Inclusion Team and has helped organically grow an anti-bias and anti-racism team at Union High School with a grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, colleagues noted.

One nominator wrote: “She is a team player who can always be counted on. Most importantly, she is invested in our students and their futures. She cares deeply for our students and is willing to invest time in building relationships, implementing instructional strategies and tracking down necessary resources for their success.”

A Strong Advocate

Students appreciate Durso’s passion and investment in their futures.

“I think she is an amazing person,” said junior Jenna Lewis, who has had Durso as a teacher and also is part of a garden club that Durso started at Union. “I am genuinely not a fan of gardening, but I joined her club, and I warmed up to gardening knowing the amount of time she took out of her days to plan things for us. She’s an overall great person, and I haven’t known a person yet that hasn’t liked her.”

Wendi Vogel, Kent ISD educational consultant in science, nominated Durso for the Michigan Science High School Teacher of the Year. Vogel taught Durso at Crestwood Middle School in Kentwood when Durso was a student.

She said Durso has taken a local leadership role in the implementation of a science resource called iHub, a year-long biology curriculum.

“She currently runs a Facebook page for iHUB that has teachers from all over the nation connecting and supporting one another, and she hosted professional learning for me here at the ISD as well,” Vogel noted. “She is a strong advocate for her students and believes they come to class with a lot to offer the classroom and the community. She exemplifies what it means to be a teacher-leader in science education.”

From The B.O.B. to the Classroom

Such high praise makes Durso a little sheepish, and it’s not anything she expected a decade or so ago when as an East Kentwood High School grad and Grand Valley State University student, she was waiting tables and working as a manager at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids, trying to figure out what might be next.

“It was during my undergrad days (at Grand Valley) and after graduation,” she recalled. “I wasn’t quite sure about what I wanted to do and being in the restaurant industry was a cool opportunity to work with people from all walks of life.”

Her mom suggested that she volunteer at Blandford Nature Center. There she had a chance to plan educational opportunities for lots of school groups, including from Grand Rapids Public Schools. She was back on the road to teaching.

“It was during that time that I recognized education was my passion,” she said. “I realized that I wanted to go back to school and pursue a teaching certificate.”

She enrolled in the Graduate Teacher Certification program at Grand Valley, a one-year, full-time teacher training program that includes field placement in a local school. 

She ended up at C.A. Frost Elementary, which, she noted, is right next door to Blandford and after graduation began at Union, just a mile and a half down the road.

She went on to earn a Master of Education in Literacy Studies degree with a TESOL emphasis and ESL endorsement from Grand Valley.

No Regrets

And, she said she hasn’t looked back with regret since making the transition from the restaurant industry to education.

Standing in her classroom after a recent class she said with a smile: “I love it here.”

During that 59-minute class, Durso kept her students on the move: first a quiz, then some group time watching a video about the junco bird, then a time together with the entire class in a circle for a discussion on the aforementioned video. The big block of time was broken into many smaller blocks, and together Durso and her 33 students took on the challenges of the Biology I curriculum.

Those 33 students in her fifth-hour Biology I class range in age from 14-18 and are in grades 9-11. Most are multi-language learners. First languages spoken include Spanish (and Mayan dialects), Kinyarwanda and Swahili.

Durso is pretty solid in conversational Spanish and spends much of the class each week speaking a blend of English and Spanish and even going to Google Translate on her phone when she needs a little extra help.

She also has Erika Curtiss, a Union ESL teacher, and Pascal Mugigi, a para-professional who speaks both Swahili and Kinyarwanda, to assist her, something she said is invaluable to her efforts in the classroom. The trio  guides students through the curriculum.

“Together we figure out answers to our questions about relevant life science phenomena. We create and refine models to explain our thinking to others, we develop explanations and arguments, and we design solutions to pressing issues such as antibiotic resistance and climate change.”

Nicole Durso has decorated her biology classroom at Union High School with a variety of elements meant to make students feel more comfortable

Chimes and a U for Full Attention

Durso commands the room with a friendly but no-nonsense demeanor. The students are interested, but many are young and coming off more than a year where they were not in classrooms in person. 

So periodically Durso has to bring the class back to order using an Ehome solo chime or raising her hands in front of her head, palms facing her students, thumb tips touching in the shape of a U. 

That gesture, she said, is ubiquitous at Union High School and came from Capturing Kids’ Hearts training the school did when she arrived as a freshly minted Grand Valley grad in the summer of 2013.

“It’s an attention-getting signal that respects students in that it allows them to finish their sentence if they are speaking,” she said. “And it uses both my hands so that I give the students my full attention.”

She smiles when asked if it might also be a metaphor for her full-attention approach to teaching.

“I definitely like the U as a metaphor for full attention and being all-in,” she said. “I think all scholars deserve an adult in every classroom that is fully present for them, especially post-pandemic. That’s not always possible or easy, but it is something for which we can strive.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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