Dr. Nichole Griffin: Living her faith through teaching

There’s a saying on the wall in Dr. Nichole Griffin’s office that reads: “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they are the big things.”

Really, all those little things in life combined have led Nichole on her path to Heidelberg, where she’s nearing completion of her first full year as a member of the School of Education faculty. And that’s a big deal.

After 14 years of teaching math and social studies in K-12 public schools, Nichole says she was drawn to the school’s commitment to bringing together education and the community. “Dr. (Dawn) Henry talked about community programming, and I thought, ‘Yes! That’s somewhere I want to be.’”

“It’s cool to be in higher education … to be in a place with that focus was really important to me.”

Just like in life, higher education teaching has its share of “crazy moments” that keep the plates spinning, but Nichole views those moments as a confluence between the mountaintops and the valleys. “These points are a reaffirmation of what you’re doing, but all are growth moments.”

Now, she has the privilege of sharing the moments with future teachers studying middle school math and social studies. The key, she says, is to not stay too long on top of the mountains or entrenched in the valleys.

Positive classroom environment

Whether in a public school or a private college setting, Nichole – a self-described intentional optimist – brings a positive approach to her classroom. 

“I try to create a space that is kind, compassionate, respectful, fair and firm,” she says. As a result, her students are thriving.

When students feel safe and can begin to see their abilities more clearly, they begin to gain confidence that it’s OK to fail – because failure and mistakes can still lead to success, and that is something to celebrate.

Adaptability is equally important, according to Nichole. “The right kinds of teaching strategies can be impactful, but you have to be willing to make modifications for the students who are in front of you,” she says. 

With those students, she adds, professors have the ability to have more meaningful discourse about ideas. “As the learner gets older, the conversations get deeper and more enriching. You see those ‘ah-ha’ moments are made faster.”

“And they have a slightly greater appreciation for my humor!”

A woman of faith

For Nichole, faith informs every phase of her life. Her personal teaching philosophy is born out of her faith; it includes extending grace to students every day. That’s part of a bigger picture.

“Teaching … listening … serving … all of these are rooted in what God is calling us to do,” she says. “This is the way I feel God has positioned me to serve humanity.”

In addition to living her faith through her teaching, Nichole continues to minister through her church in her native Cleveland. She teaches an online Bible study and Sunday school prayer meetings, and is trying to figure out her footing on her faith-based business. 

Those spinning plates resurface again …

A shift in career plans

Like many undergrads, Nichole’s career path took an unexpected twist. She thought the law was calling. In her senior year at Ohio University, she was all set to take the Law School Admission Test. But one of those “ah-ha” moments derailed that plan. So, she shifted gears and decided to pursue her Master’s of Public Administration degree, also at OU.

Then, something that hadn’t been on her radar at all presented itself, thanks to a high school friend: substitute teaching. “In grad school, I had taught some and enjoyed the sharing of ideas and conveying ideas and working through things together,” she recalls. “I just had a sense that God was telling me to go back to school and get my teaching license.

So she did. That substitute teaching moment turned into a career.

“It’s a big world and I gotta see it!”

In what can only be described as a lesson in perseverance, Nichole was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2019. She worked with educators in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana. There, she helped teachers implement differentiated instruction – an approach whereby teachers tailor their instruction to meet and maximize learning for all students – into their teaching practices.

The road to Botswana had a few obstacles. Nichole had applied for a Fulbright in 2015 to Finland, one of the best public education systems in the world, with the hope of bringing great ideas back to her classroom. But her application was denied. 

Fast forward to 2018. Nichole was in the throes of finishing her doctoral program and teaching full time when a friend encouraged her to reapply, this time to Botswana. she decided to reapply. “I thought, ‘I could be fearful or I could take a chance and persevere.’” This time, the cards were stacked in her favor. Or, it was divine intervention. Either way, the timing was perfect. She had finished her dissertation and graduated, and her Fulbright cohort, delayed until 2019, was in the summer so it didn’t interfere with work. 

 “I just felt like it was a providential moment from God,” she says.

For seven weeks, she worked in two schools with teachers in regular and special to help them refine their practice of differentiated instruction.  

Nichole’s Fulbright experience was life-changing, both personally and professionally. “It was so good for me,” she says. “It was a cool experience. I was able to bring it back to my classroom the next year and share with my students to broaden their understanding of the African continent.”

Bringing it full circle

Nichole’s Fulbright was the perfect example of life moments woven together, unbeknownst to us at the time. And how to trust God in all circumstances.

“There’s always something to learn, to know, to see and to do,” she says. “We all grow and evolve, whether intentionally or not.” 

Spoken like a true teacher – and a student for life – who has found her way to Heidelberg. In the whole scheme of things, that may seem small. But it’s already becoming something big. 

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