June 02, 2021 | Shelly DeJong

Students and professors in masks stand behind Professor John Wertz with signs of congratulations!
In May, biology professor John Wertz's students and colleagues surprise him with the news he is the 2021 Professor of the Year.

When Professor John Wertz agreed to meet a group of students in the Covenant Fine Arts Center to help them prepare for an upcoming exam, he had no idea what was about to happen. As he answered their questions, his colleague and friend, Professor Randy DeJong, came down the center aisle with a microphone, followed shortly by students, staff, and faculty waving pom poms and carrying a large professor of the year sign.

He first thought it was a prank, but he quickly realized that it was genuine.

“It was one of the very few moments in my life that I felt nothing but gratitude,” said Wertz. “As a teacher, you pour so much of yourself into everything you do—both directly and indirectly for students—that teaching can be a huge emotional drain. Often as teachers we receive feedback about what we did wrong, or that we didn’t do enough. The simple realization that what I do here is recognized and appreciated by the students completely overwhelmed me. I don’t do what I do for accolades, but when students and colleagues say, ‘You made a difference,’ it certainly is motivation to keep going!”

Wertz began as an undergrad at Calvin before earning his PhD in microbiology at Michigan State. He has been teaching at Calvin since 2007. At Calvin, Wertz teaches the phage research course, microbiology, and medical microbiology.

The professor of the year recognition is awarded annually by a vote of Calvin’s senior class. Biology professor, John Wertz, is the 2021 recipient.

Students Resonate with Authentic Professor During COVID

In what was a difficult year for many, his students identified feeling understood and supported by Wertz’s willingness to be vulnerable about his own struggles.

“Professor Wertz acknowledged the individual experiences students had throughout the semester and knew that students had mental and emotional needs,” said graduating senior Yena Jin. “His flexibility showed genuine care, concern, and support for his students through whatever he or she was going through! I’m really glad I was able to take a class with him before graduating.”

Another graduating senior, Dan Jensen, said, “Professor Wertz was a very down to earth professor who wasn’t afraid to tell students of his personal struggles and how he could help us through them because he has dealt with them, too. He made microbiology incredibly interesting to me and was extremely kind and flexible. He is a great professor and a great guy.”

Wertz approached teaching during COVID-19 with the Latin phrase “noli timere” or “don’t be afraid” in mind.

“In Matthew 14:27, Jesus says this to his disciples as he approaches their boat, walking on water. This phrase has been such a comfort to me over the years, as I have realized it is used in various forms throughout the Bible. It is interesting because those wonderful interactions always start off with us being completely terrified,” said Wertz. “The pandemic was a terrifying experience for a lot of people, so I felt it was part of my job to do everything I could to ease fear in my students and replace it with grace, joy, and hope.”

Understanding & Vulnerability

Wertz has two philosophies for teaching: to never stop understanding what students’ lives are like at Calvin and that it is okay to be vulnerable.

“How can a teacher be an effective one during the pandemic? Understand what it is like being a student during the pandemic. How can a professor be an effective one to students struggling with mental health? Understand what it is like being a student living with severe anxiety and depression,” said Wertz. “Once you understand that, you can alter your teaching style or teaching schedule or offer grace that can really make a difference.”

Wertz also isn’t afraid of being vulnerable in front of his students.

When research began linking anxiety and depression to changes in the human gut microbiome, Wertz began reading about it and delving into it with his students.

“I couldn’t talk about anxiety and depression in class without acknowledging my journey and acknowledging that many of my students struggle with the same thing. So, I started telling my story to my students,” said Wertz. “Often tearfully, and very raw, I shared my struggles, failures, and successes with them. If I put myself in a vulnerable position, the students saw that it was okay to be vulnerable too—that my classroom and office are very safe spaces to talk about difficult and personal things. Effective learning can only be done if students know they are in a safe space, and the professor acknowledges and seeks to understand them.”

Wertz’s students and colleagues agree that he is very worthy of this award.

“The biology department is proud to have John as a colleague and is thrilled that he was recognized by students with this award. John is an incredibly knowledgeable microbiologist and an enthusiastic and effective teacher with a great sense of humor that students really enjoy learning from,” said DeJong. “More than that, though, I think students correctly perceive that John cares immensely about their well-being. He is a tremendous asset to our department and the university in our care for students.”

For more of Professor Wertz’s journey with mental health, listen to The Knightly, the Chimes podcast.

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