Biology’s best: Downers Grove North teacher Jeff Grant wins prestigious state award

Downers Grove North High School science teacher Jeff Grant sees each of his students as a unique enzyme with intricately folded patterns designed to be brought to life in specific ways, and his mission is to do just that – bring his students to life in the classroom.

It’s because of his passion and enthusiasm that Grant was named Outstanding Biology Teacher of Illinois by the National Association of Biology Teachers for the 2020-21 school year.

To Grant, the award was an honor and a surprise, but to his students and co-workers, it was obvious and much deserved.

“Mr. Grant deserves all of the awards he’s gotten because of the way you feel in his classroom. You just want to love science as much as he does,” recently graduated Anika Oplanic said of her former AP biology teacher. “He just does so many things for us that other teachers don’t or that you would never expect from a teacher.”

Oplanic most appreciated that the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges of virtual learning did not change the way Grant taught his classes, she said. She called his class a “much-needed break,” and felt cherished to know Grant put in extra effort to make sure she and her classmates could do hands-on activities from home.

Mike Heinz, Downers Grove North science department chairman, said Grant sent surveys to parents inquiring about at-home supplies so that if a student wouldn’t have what was needed for an experiment, Grant could go out, get the supplies and pack that student a take-home bag with the needed items.

Heinz said this action, along with many others, demonstrates Grant’s enthusiasm and dedication to his students and career. Heinz said Grant is a leader in the department, and his attitude has a ripple effect on the environment of the high school.

“He’s one of those teachers that just never stops,” Heinz said. “He’s the most knowledgeable teacher I know, [and] the students don’t even realize how hard they work because he’s so enthusiastic.”

Outgoing Downers Grove North principal Janice Schwarze echoed those words and said it’s often because of Grant that a student will take a more difficult class. She said Grant’s sense of humor and joy set him apart from others, and his collaborative attitude and positive energy are instrumental in the classroom and with his co-workers.

Grant said he sees the potential in every student and it’s his job to create an environment in which they each work best. He said education is like a marathon – sometimes it seems massive to learn so much at the beginning of the school year, but he has to guide his students to help them find the gentle slope to the finish.

“We have a lot of great teachers, but the way the students feel about him says a lot,” Schwarze said. “He really believes in the students, and, because of that, they achieve in ways they maybe didn’t think they could.”

Grant said he is humbled to be the recipient of the Outstanding Biology Teacher of Illinois award, and that knowing he impacts his students is the greatest award.

A former Downers Grove North student himself, Grant said the environment of the school allows him to perform his best, learning and sharing with others along the way.

“One of the greatest parts about teaching is developing relationships with the kids and seeing their spark for science ignite,” Grant said. “I enjoy science so much. I just want everyone to enjoy it, [and] I really want the kids to have fun and learn to take a chance, to aim to achieve.”