Originally published June 23, 2021 in the Chicago Daily Herald.
By Lauren Rohr
Meredith Jordan lives by the mantra "Practice what you preach."
The physical education teacher wholeheartedly believes in the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, a notion that has guided her life and career decisions for as long as she can remember.
And for the last 16 years, she has used her own experiences to motivate Indian Prairie Unit District 204 high schoolers to do the same.
But the importance of holistic wellness, she says, has never been more evident than during the COVID-19 crisis.
For many students at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, the pandemic turned their world upside down, Jordan said, forcing them into isolation and presenting a host of unexpected challenges in their personal and academic lives. So she and her colleague, Amanda Briggs, developed an entirely new curriculum to address their social-emotional needs.
The lessons were delivered weekly to PE classes schoolwide, Jordan said, and will now be expanded and carried into the next academic year.
"Creating the curriculum allowed us to take a step back and focus on each individual student," she said. "It's been a lot of work, but it has been so rewarding, the relationships and the connections we've made with our students."
While those lessons had a tremendous impact on the Metea Valley community this past year, school leaders said, they make up only a portion of Jordan's contributions.
The 41-year-old Elburn resident teaches three strength and conditioning classes for high school athletes, as well as two sections of adapted PE, a program that pairs general education students with those who have special needs.
Neither are conducive for a remote setting, Jordan said, and yet she adapted and found ways to engage with more than 200 teens, regardless of their learning environment.
"It all comes down to how much she cares about Metea and her students," Assistant Principal Dan DeBruycker said. "Her impact throughout the building is very widespread."
Take one look at Jordan's small stature, and you might question how she became a strength and conditioning coach for high school athletes.
"But I know what I'm talking about," she said. "They realize that pretty quickly."
With healthy habits instilled in her since childhood, Jordan always knew she wanted to go into the health field, either as a nurse or a teacher. She chose the education route and "never looked back," she said.
Her career began in 2005 at Waubonsie Valley High School, where she taught health and physical education. Then when District 204 opened Metea Valley across town four years later, she jumped at the chance to help build a new school from the ground up.
"I'm a person who just likes to challenge myself and take opportunities when they're presented," Jordan said.
Having taught an adapted PE class in her last year at Waubonsie, she said, she launched the peer partner program at Metea and was the sole teacher for those classes until a second faculty member was brought on this past year. She taught health, too, before deciding to "change it up" and take on the strength and conditioning course about three years ago.
In 2017, Jordan also began teaching at the University of St. Francis in Joliet as an adjunct instructor for the educational technology endorsement program and the health education endorsement program for graduate students.
With health and wellness driving her personal life, Jordan says, she finds it rewarding to lead by example and educate teens about physical fitness, mental health, nutrition and other ways they can take care of themselves.
"We build that trust and rapport early on," she said. "It's super important to build those connections with students, because you'll get more out of them if you show that you genuinely care."
'A dynamic teacher'
There have been several points in Craig Tomczak's career where Jordan has lifted him up and given him an extra push when he hit a wall -- and vice versa.
Colleagues and friends since Jordan started at Waubonsie, they moved over to Metea together and continued to tackle new challenges. In the six years since Tomczak accepted a department chairman position for physical education, health and driver's education, he said, Jordan's positive energy, internal drive and wealth of ideas have made his job "so much easier."
"Meredith has always been a dynamic teacher," Tomczak said. "Over the last couple of years, she's taken over some different roles that have really made her stand out on a larger scale within the building and the district."
In 2020-21, she took it to a whole new level.
Through the pandemic, District 204 schools primarily operated in a remote setting until the emergence of hybrid and in-person opportunities early this year. That made teaching physical education difficult, Jordan said, especially for special populations, such as students who are nonverbal.
She had to get creative. For her adapted PE classes, Jordan created animated GIFs of herself demonstrating a certain exercise, and the peer partner would help coach the student with special needs through the workout.
Her strength and conditioning classes would start with a virtual lesson, followed by a 30-minute workout. Student athletes would have to record themselves completing the exercises and send over a time-lapse video.
"With the unknown of when and if sports were going to happen, it was really my job to keep them as strong as I could," Jordan said.
Then there was the social-emotional piece.
The weekly lessons, geared toward the high school age group, encouraged teens to work through their emotions, manage stress, resolve conflicts, advocate for themselves, practice self-awareness and celebrate their unique talents, Jordan said. Students talked about building relationships, making responsible decisions and communicating effectively, even during the pandemic, and they created vision boards centered around their talents, passions and future goals.
The PE department surveyed students and tweaked the lessons along the way. But the response was "overwhelmingly positive," Tomczak said.
"There were so many moving pieces, and she did it on a week-to-week basis, on the fly," he said. "That collaborative atmosphere she brings and her ability to take initiative on anything -- it makes everyone in the department better."
'A role model'
With the school year winding down and most faculty members eager to start summer vacation, Assistant Principal DeBruycker came to Jordan two weeks ago with an idea for a pep assembly to kick off the next academic year.
It would be a new event, something that might take some extra work to accomplish. And as the faculty member who oversees the student government's spirit committee, he said, Jordan would likely be leading the charge.
"OK," she responded without hesitation. "What do you want it to look like?"
That interaction exemplifies Jordan's work ethic and her willingness to take on any challenge with enthusiasm, said DeBruycker, the school's former athletic director. She has the ability to connect with students through a computer screen, and she has gained the respect of her co-workers and administrators.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find someone in District 204 ... who can match what Meredith has been able to do," DeBruycker said.
The trick is to remain flexible and cognizant of students' needs, Jordan said. Teens have come to her with their personal struggles -- the death of a loved one, sickness, economic struggles, depression -- and she has been able to offer support and adapt the lessons or workouts to better suit their state of mind.
That's why students feel comfortable confiding in her, Tomczak said. And it's why, year after year, graduates return to Metea Valley to visit Jordan because of her impact on their lives.
"She carries herself in a manner that's engaging and fun, and there are so many different types of students she reaches that look up to her," Tomczak said. "Students see her as a role model."