East Grand Rapids Public Schools, MI —
Eighth-grader Aaron Souter touched an iPad screen to maneuver a sphero along a stairwell floor, while classmate Ryan Reszka constructed an obstacle course of ramps for the plastic robot to jump.
The coding skills students need to pull off the maneuvers are "actually pretty difficult to do," explained teacher Kevin Vance. "It's a lot of trial and error.
"A lot of times when middle schoolers face failure it's tempting for them to want to give up. But with these tools, they stick with it."
Not that the teacher has anything to do with it. Nooooooo.
Senior Anneke Avery said it's because of Vance that she will major in physics and chemistry in college.
"Mr. Vance was the first teacher I had who made me realize how fun science can be," Anneke said. "He kept the class entertaining by maintaining an energetic voice and interjecting his teaching with jokes related to what we were learning about. He also took an interest in our lives outside of the classroom, rather than just seeing us as just students who came to his class every day."
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A Perfect Mix
Vance, in his 18th year of teaching, seems to have hit on the perfect mix of educator blended with entertainer, confidant and counterpart that seems to help middle schoolers thrive.
"He tells lots of corny jokes, like the one about the two muffins in the oven," Aaron said with a smirk (Google it). "He also connects better. And if you're doing something wrong, he doesn't have the standard punishment."
Just thinking about one version of Vance's behavior corrective measures gave Kennedi Homes a case of the giggles.
"I was arguing with this other kid in my class, and Mr. Vance made us stare right into each other's eyes," Kennedi said. "That was soooo awkward."
Zion Tett calls Vance "hilarious. He makes puns with the science he tells us, like with the dew point."
"He's not necessarily hilarious; he's witty," clarified Lydia Denning, whose older sister had Vance as a teacher, and told her he did fun projects.
Establish That Connection
Vance is a Grand Rapids native who graduated from City Middle/High School in 1993. He majored in zoology and biology at Michigan State University.
'You have to have the ability to reach kids in a way that they're going to understand it.' -- Kevin Vance on teaching science
After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and traveled to West Africa to teach adults how to develop tree and fruit farms. But it was his interaction with children that made him realize that was where his passion lay.
"When I came back I went right into education at Aquinas," Vance said.
"I've always loved nature and the outdoors, even as a kid, being outside and trying to figure things out. There's a lot of really good scientists who just aren't that good at explaining it. You have to have the ability to reach kids in a way that they're going to understand it."
He and his wife, Teresa, have two children: Meredith, a sixth-grader, and Charlie, a fourth-grader. Both attend Forest Hills Public Schools. When Charlie was yet-to-be-born, Vance joked with his students that he might be named Vader Vance, after Darth of Star Wars fame. (That former students remember that factoid is how this reporter knew to include it).
'Invested in Who They Are'
Vance has spent his entire teaching career at EGR Middle. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and innovation lab. He also coaches Science Olympiad.
"I love it. It's my passion to work with kids this age," he said. "They kind of have a short attention span, though, so you have to be an entertainer of sorts to keep their attention." But on the flipside, "if they get upset, they're over it pretty quick."
His classroom modus operandi: "If they think you're invested in who they are, they're going to want to listen in class, to establish that connection. There's not a curriculum for establishing those connections, but it's really important."
And while some might consider going into administration at the point Vance is at in his career, he said, he has no plans to make a move. "The classroom is why I wake up in the morning."
He recalled his first parent-teacher conferences as a teacher, and that a coworker was about to meet with the son of a former student. Vance thought the guy must be pretty old to have been teaching that long.
He has not had any former students' children in class yet, he said, "but I know it's coming. That's going to be a shocking moment."