Grandville — “I’m very proud to be a Bulldog through and through,” said West Elementary’s new principal, John Wondergem, and when he says “through and through,” he means it.
He is a K-12 graduate of Grandville Public Schools. His father serves on the Grandville Board of Education. His mother is a parapro in the district’s special education department. His older brother, who has special needs, graduated from the same special ed program. And Wondergem and his wife are — you guessed it — Grandville High School sweethearts.
But even more special is the tie that Wondergem has to West Elementary in particular. West is the school he once attended. When he returned to Grandville as a teacher the job opening was at West, and he found himself teaching fourth grade in the very same classroom where he had once been a fourth-grader.
Now, “To be the principal of this building is just a match made in heaven,” he said. “We have fun in that a few of my teachers — I won’t name them, of course, so they won’t sound dated — are still here. The fact that they had me in class as a kid is just the most perfect of circles. The universe just has its way of aligning.”
‘What takes us over the top in what we can do for our kids, beyond the great instruction, is authenticity, being genuine and real.’— West Elementary Principal John Wondergem
Read on to discover more about West’s new principal:
Other positions you have held in education:
- Student teacher, Kentwood Public Schools
- Elementary resource room teacher, East Grand Rapids Public Schools
- Fourth-grade teacher, Grandville Public Schools
- Bachelor’s degree in elementary education and special education, Michigan State University
- Master’s degree in K-12 school principalship, Western Michigan University
What would you like to share about your family? “My family and the way they value education has shaped my life and my career and who I am in so many ways, but especially my brother, Jeff, who has disabilities, has made me who I am as a person.”
Wondergem and his wife, Kaley, have been married for three years this month; they welcomed son Hudson in February and are “over the moon in love with him,” he said. The couple met in an independent study course at Grandville High School, working in a classroom for students who have autism, and share a love for working with people who have all sorts of abilities.
Why did you want to become a principal? Wondergem credits the principals and administrators he encountered throughout his student life in Grandville as his inspiration. In particular, he named the late administrator Chris VanderSlice, who was one of his principals in both middle and high school.
“(VanderSlice) was always striving to just be a good person for kids and families, and he was an incredible role model, showing me not just what school was, but what school can be for kids. And I just fell in love with that idea of (doing the same).
“While I love what I did in the classroom, I’m really excited about the opportunity to reach more people and more families outside of the classroom environment. We’re one of the smaller buildings within the district, and we’re a very tight-knit, incredible community here, with so many strong systems that the staff and leaders before me have built. To be able to keep all that going at this building, with this team, just sounds like a match made in heaven.”
What book, podcast, movie or TV show have you been loving lately? Wondergem describes himself as a “little tidbit kind of person,” bouncing around between books and using lots of sticky notes to soak up all the valuable information he discovers. Lately he’s enjoyed “Talk to Me,” by Kim Bearden, for its perspective on how to effectively shape conversations, and “The Question Behind the Question,” by John G. Miller, on personal accountability.
The Wondergems are also “huge sports people,” he said, and have been enjoying “Quarterback” on Netflix.
What was your favorite grade as a kid? “Probably fifth grade here (at West), because I have so many memories of positive and fun experiences. I remember a lot of little moments from that year, with classmates or teachers. I think that speaks a lot to the environment I was in, how comfortable I felt and how much fun I was having.
“We talk about that now (as teachers and principals) — that what takes us over the top in what we can do for our kids, beyond the great instruction, is authenticity, being genuine and real. I remembered that, and I want (today’s students) to remember how we made them feel, beyond the everyday ins and outs of learning.”
What’s on your bucket list?
- To travel abroad: “I’ve never traveled outside of the country in my 29 years.”
- To attend a championship sporting event: “Lions, the Super Bowl this year. It’s happening. Probably not, but we can hope.”
- To be a change-maker in his career: “I want to push myself to travel around the country and see different programs and absorb new ideas and get comfortable enough to bring those new experiences and ideas to our building and … take it to the next level.”
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? “Probably a good, homemade, grilled cheeseburger. There’s just something about a good burger with ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun … and eating it at a casual, social outdoor thing with your family and friends.”