May 17, 2016 | Phil de Haan

Crystal Bruxvoort is the 2016 recipient of the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching

A few years ago, in a talk to Calvin students about to graduate and move on to teaching careers, Crystal Bruxvoort, an associate professor of science education, recounted her first teaching assignment after graduating from Central College in Pella, Iowa.

 "On Day 1, I looked the part," she said. "I was wearing a new pair of teacher pants and comfortable, almost cute shoes, you know the look. I knew that I met, but did not exceed the 'minimum requirements' associated with my position. I definitely felt more like an imposter than an effective educator as I entered the classroom."

 The challenges of teaching only heightened her sense of anxiety in the days and weeks to come as she dealt with a pregnant student considering an abortion, another addicted to meth and yet another who had recently suffered a brain trauma in an accident and was trying to reawaken her mind."

 "All three of these students," she said, "needed a good teacher, not an imposter, in the classroom with them."

 She continued: "As I contemplated these challenges, I remember thinking, 'Okay, seriously, this will soon be over. You see, surely in very short order, my administrator is going to walk by and peek in my room. Then he’ll call me over, escort me to his office, and officially rescind my contract. His explanation would go something like, 'My apologies, but we didn’t realize you were just posing as a teacher.' During these first days and weeks of school, I felt overwhelmingly inadequate, and I feared that I was never going to get beyond just pretending to be a teacher."

 That conversation never took place. In fact, a quarter of a century after that first year of full-time teaching had been completed, Bruxvoort was honored as the 2016 winner of the Calvin Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, the college's highest faculty honor. Established in 1993 the award includes both a one-of-a-kind medallion and a financial stipend from the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund, established at Calvin by a donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin board of trustees.

Gratifying and surreal

 For Bruxvoort, the daughter of two educators (her dad is a high school principal and coach; her mom a remedial reading teacher), the award was gratifying, a little surreal and also no longer necessary.

 That's because, as she also told Calvin's future teachers in that talk from a few years back, accomplishments would not determine their worth as human beings, nor as teachers would their worth be determined by the accomplishments of their students. And, she reminded those Calvin students, often times teachers don't know the role they are playing in a student’s progress. She believes that education is a long chain of events linked together over time and that often teachers don't know -- and may never know -- which link they are in this chain.

 That humble approach is not missed by Bruxvoort's students. In nominating her for the award, one former student who had Bruxvoort for six different courses at Calvin, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, wrote: "Her respect for students is clear every day. Her classroom is always open and welcoming to students," adding, "What impresses me is that the rigor is always there. There are no surprises and because of her respect for you as a student you want to work hard and do your best."

Faith and science

Another said simply: "She is the best teacher I have ever had" and another wrote: "I have looked up to her as a Christian teacher. She highly values her faith, her students and her research."

That last comment is particularly meaningful for Bruxvoort, as she tries to be a faithful Christian and a rigorous scientist, a person who believes that science and religion are compatible, not irreconcilable.

 "Scientists and science teachers like myself do well for science and our students by stating carefully what science can do," she said, "while also noting carefully the boundaries of science. Science can offer physical explanations which describe how the natural world is working. It cannot, however, tell us if a new drug should be allowed ethically. We appeal to other ways of knowing -- philosophical, theological -- to attempt to answer such challenging questions."

 Bruxvoort said her role at Calvin is sometimes misunderstood, even on campus, since she bridges the sciences and education. In fact her position was created by the college to bring to the faculty someone who both studies and researches science teaching.

 As a result Bruxvoort is nicely positioned, she said, to serve both the chemistry department and the teacher education program.

 "I enjoy working with non-science majors in an introductory chemistry course," she said, "and with science teachers-to-be in a teaching methods course."

 But, regardless of her student audience, some key guiding principles inform her work and benefit her students.

 "In all of my scholarly efforts," she said, "whether I am working with non-science majors, pre-service teachers or graduate students, I try to continuously remind myself that at the center of all this teaching and learning is the learner. I pray that I act in ways that assist them to better know God and his gifts of grace and peace. I don’t want to let the learner down in this way. I find myself humbled, yet eager to continue pursuing this challenge."


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