When applying to be South Carolina’s teacher of the year, Jeff Venables had to get recommendations from parents, peers and principals.
As important as those references are, there was no higher praise for Venables than what his Northwestern High School students said Thursday.
The sophomores in his basic chemistry class said he makes chemistry fun.
“He loves it and he makes you like it,” said Jade Morton, who hopes to become a doctor.
Students said they want to be in his class, that there is never a dull moment, and “there is never a moment in class when you don’t understand,” said Karen Dixon.
For Venables, in his 18th year at Northwestern, chemistry has always been fun. He can’t understand why he gets looks of distress when he tells people he teaches chemistry.
His peers and principals know why he succeeds.
“He is everything the kids say he is,” said Northwestern principal James Blake. “The kids can tell if you are a fake, and he is the real deal. He is a kid magnet.
“He engages kids at their level and takes them to a higher level.”
Venables is one of five finalists for the top teaching honor in the state. He is competing against:
• Lisa O. McCrea-Raiford, an elementary teacher at the Center of Innovative Learning at Pinecrest in Aiken
• Darleen S. Sutton, a first grade teacher at Pickens Elementary School in Pickens
• Paul D. Johnson, a biology teacher at Saluda High School in Saluda
• Trevor T. Ivey, a science teacher at Alice Drive Middle School in Sumter.
The finalists were selected by the state Department of Education. All are teachers of the year in their respective school districts. The winner will represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
Venables is the third Northwestern teacher to be nominated for the award in the past six years. Bryan Coburn, a computer science and pre-engineering teacher, won in 2009, and English teacher Patti Tate won in 2011.
In 2010, Julia Marshall of Rock Hill’s Oakdale Elementary School was a finalist for state teacher of the year.
Having two of his peers win has created big expectations for Venables. He’s humbled just to be nominated, he said, and the honor is as much for him and his students as it is for the teachers who inspired him.
Venables knew he wanted to teach since he was in the fifth grade in Wilmington, Del. He can still name the teachers who pushed him – Mr. LePre in math, Mr. Hart in social studies and Mr. Thomas in English.
In high school it was chemistry teacher Mr. Eshelman and at Wofford University, where he earned a degree in chemistry, it was Dr. Charles Bass.
“I’m not surprised,” Bass said Thursday when told of Venables’ nomination. “He was a super student and had personality, a smile – the things that endear him to his students.”
Venables’ success is not based solely on personality. He succeeds because he knows his subject, uses technology as a tool, and creates a “safe zone” in his class, encouraging his students to take risks and ask questions.
And he makes it fun.
The most-mentioned example of fun by his students is his food exercise. Each student is assigned an isotope. They have to make an edible model of the isotope with the correct number of protons, neutrons and electrons.
Protons, neutrons and electrons can be represented show by different types of food, different colors of icing, even different colored M&Ms.
Students often bake cupcakes, sometimes they order pizza with two pepperonis, three sausages, etc. The students have to identify all the isotopes made for the class before they eat their labors.
Venables was one of Northwestern’s lead technology teachers when technology meant hooking up a keyboard and a mouse.
Last year, he “flipped” his classes to try to extend learning outside the classroom. He recorded his lessons on videos and podcasts, so his students could watch them at home and spend most of their classroom time working in the lab.
This year he has gone back to a more traditional model, splitting time between lectures and labs.
Regardless of the method, Venables is the center of attention. He doesn’t like to sit still. He described his preferred classroom environment as “controlled chaos.”
By his own admission, Venables is “not a big fan of attention. I like doing my thing.”
But being named Rock Hill teacher of the year and competing for the state honor will have an impact. “I’d like to say no,” he said, “but I have a feeling it will. I’m not sure how.”
Coburn knows what Venables is in for and will be mentoring his friend.
His advice to Venables is to be yourself, “don’t try to write a lab sheet when explaining yourself” to those judging the top teachers.
Being yourself means having that same “controlled chaos” in chemistry class when the camera crews from South Carolina ETV come to Northwestern next week, he said. Part of the selection process involves the finalists’ defending their teaching style for the cameras.
“Great teaching creates a buzz in the room,” Coburn said. “It’s the sound of learning, the sound of noise and movement. It’s the sound of engagement.”
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066