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Strong team made her a strong teacher

Grand Rapids—When Buchanan Elementary’s Jill Niewiadomski was summoned to her principal’s office in mid-October, she admits that there was a moment of uncertainty.

Recalling the moment a couple months later, her eyes sparkle behind her mask as she sits in her brightly lit classroom, her second-grade charges on the playground for recess.

“You know, when you get called to the principal’s office, you’re like, ‘That’s probably not good,’” she said with a hearty laugh. 

Her curiosity soon became disbelief as her principal then got Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Leadriane Roby on the line via speakerphone, so Roby could congratulate her on being one of the district’s three Jean Hamilton Cope teacher of the year honorees.

She joined Grand Rapids University Prep Academy’s Sheri Kraai and Union High School’s Nicole Durso (one for elementary, one for middle school and one for high school). The honors were created thanks to donors Laurie and Mark Grand, who set up the award through the Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation, which administers and gives the $1,000 that each honoree receives. 

GRPS Teacher of the Year Jill Niewiadomski walks the room as her students work on a writing assignment

Criteria for the award include:

  • 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
  • advocacy for GRPS

Each GRPS winner also becomes a nominee for the Michigan Teacher of the Year award.

GRPS Superintendent Roby said she is proud of Niewiadomski and her fellow honorees for their commitment to their students and the district.

“These are three wonderful teachers,” Roby said. “Their students past and present are fortunate to have access to these strong and capable women, and it is an honor for me to count them among the many, many amazing teachers we have at GRPS. The pandemic made us all realize and remember the value of good teachers, so it is truly great to be able to recognize Jill and Sherri and Nicole in this way.”

‘You pitch in, do what needs to be done’

“I was stunned,” Niewiadomski said of the recent honor. “Just stunned. I was trying to take it in and not cry. It’s very humbling. We have so many good teachers here (at Buchanan) and in the district. I did sort of think, ‘why me?’”

Her colleagues at Buchanan know why.

Niewiadomski was described in nomination materials as an amazing and friendly teacher who continually goes above and beyond to make sure her class is well run and respectful to everyone. 

Several nominators noted the school currently is missing a teacher for its other second-grade classroom, but Niewiadomski is preparing lessons for that class that substitute teachers can deliver, so that those students can keep pace with her students.

Of that extra effort, Niewiadomski is nonchalant.

“It wasn’t fair to (the students),” she said. “They needed to have that same education as the students in here, in my room. So that’s what teams do, right. You pitch in, do what needs to be done.”

That team approach is not lost on her colleagues.

In nomination materials, one fellow teacher said: “She is an amazing colleague, friend and teacher!” From another: “She has been a part of our school instructional leadership team for several years. She ensures that the best interest of students is always the focus for any decisions made in the building. And she is always willing to collaborate with others, both within and across grade levels.”

Jill Niewiadomski’s room at Buchanan Elementary is brightly lit and colorfully decorated

Mid-Career Switch

Niewiadomski said her background prior to becoming a teacher taught her the value of working as a team. She has been in the classroom for a dozen years, after a mid-career switch from accounting to education.

When the youngest of her four children was in second grade, she started helping out in his classroom, and at a certain point remembers thinking, “I was meant to be a teacher.”

She decided to go back to Grand Valley State University, her alma mater, for her accounting degree, and pursued a second degree in Spanish and elementary education (She also has a Master in the Art of Teaching degree from Aquinas). At GVSU, she did her student teaching at Burton Elementary, and when an opening arose at Buchanan she jumped at the chance.

“I love the staff at Buchanan,” she said. “The last couple of years have been so difficult for so many people on a personal and professional level. I think there have been times when I’ve thought it’s too much, but that is when you need to rely on your friends and your team. I must give a shoutout to Abby Boyer, who was my mentor when I first started teaching and has been on my second-grade team until this year. She has been a great friend, resource and sounding board.”

And, Niewiadomski added, she loves her students. 

“I love all the potential they have, and I think their kindness and generosity has really shown through during the pandemic,” she said. “It warms my heart! Also, how they will see me years after I’ve had them in second grade and they’ll say, ‘Do you remember me?’ Of course I remember them; how could I forget them.”

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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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