'My soul is home'

After Joni Jordan’s early experiences in transitioning from high school to college, her taking up a career having to do with chemistry is just about the last thing anyone — including Jordan herself — would have expected.

Growing up in Andrews, S.C., a sparsely populated community in the Pee Dee 20 miles west of Georgetown, Jordan had decided to go into pharmacy. The father of a friend in high school was a pharmacist, and after spending some time helping out in his store, she thought it would be the perfect career fit.

She ran into a roadblock, though, in her first chemistry course at the University of South Carolina as a freshman in 1982.

“After I signed up for my classes, they printed out my weekly schedule and there was this ‘lab’ on Thursdays,” she recalls. “I know it sounds terrible now, and of course there’s a happy ending to the story after all is said and done, but I had no idea what a lab was at the time.”

The happy ending includes a bachelor’s degree from Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., two master’s degrees in education from Carolina, and a Ph.D. from Clemson University. She is Dr. Jordan now, a highly qualified and experienced science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teacher at Edisto High School in Orangeburg, S.C., who was recently selected for a five-year fellowship at Carolina meant to strengthen STEM teaching throughout the state.

But it didn’t come easy. Jordan struggled in the pre-pharmacy curriculum, chemistry in particular, and ended up switching to biology as a major and transferring to Francis Marion. She thought teaching might be a career option, but student teaching in middle school left her less than convinced. Then she got a job teaching physical science and coaching volleyball at South Florence High School.

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” she says. “I really enjoyed the age, the high school kids, and I loved coaching because that had been my life growing up. It was just a miracle, a hand-in-the-glove fit.”

After three years at South Florence, she moved to Lugoff-Elgin High, coached softball there, and a couple of years later was asked if she might be interested in trying chemistry.

“That was my fifth year of teaching, and that’s when you get right into the groove,” Jordan says. “You’re feeling good after your fifth year. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll teach anything.’ When I took that on, I stayed one hour ahead of those kids all year. The night before, I studied exactly what I was going to teach them the next day. Teaching taught me how to learn chemistry.”

She also found something unexpected — a passion for the discipline.

“After that first year of teaching and learning chemistry, I thought, ‘This is pretty cool. I like this!' ” she says. “And it was because I understood it. How in the world would I want to teach anything else?”

Since then, it was “like pouring gasoline onto a fire,” Jordan says. She earned a master’s degree in secondary science teaching (’94) as well as one in education administration (’98), both from Carolina while teaching at Lugoff-Elgin, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Clemson in 2011.

“It goes back to what my daddy always said and me playing sports,” Jordan says. “You’re going to be the best you can be. If you’re going to participate, you don’t want to be average. So when I fell in love with teaching chemistry, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be at it.”

Her teaching resume includes 10 years at the South Carolina Governor’s School in Arts and Humanities. It helped her grow in many ways to meet so many talented artists, she says, and experience their culture. She also brought plenty of empathy to a place where students with rural backgrounds might feel overwhelmed, much as Jordan did in her early college years.

“A lot of the students were mortified, I could tell,” she says. “I would grab onto them immediately, tell them where I’m from, and say ‘Hey look, if you ever feel like you’re out of place, come talk to me.’ ”

Last spring, Jordan began a fellowship in Carolina’s Developing Master Teachers through the South Carolina Science and Mathematics Teacher Leaders (USC-SMTL) program. With a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation and more than $1.8 million in matching funds procured by associate professor Jan Yow and co-principal investigators Bert Ely, Edwin Dickey, Christine Lotter and Matthew Irvin, the USC-SMTL program supports successful STEM teachers already in the profession in high-needs rural districts, such as Jordan, as master teaching fellows. After completing the first semester of the fellowship last spring, she’s sold.

“It’s a bunch of great professors at USC who are down to earth,” she says. “They want to listen to our ideas, they want to value us as teachers, and they want to enhance our strengths and equip us with some new tools to help spread the wealth, work as peer coaches and help others in our community of teachers.”

Jordan’s journey to Edisto High and Orangeburg has been, at times, arduous, but she says it’s where she should be.

“I’m teaching in a school that’s just like where I went to school. I’ve got property with a pond to fish and a tractor and my dachshunds,” she says. “We have a new initiative about technology that I’m over the top about. And I really believe this fellowship with USC, in a rural education program, has dramatic potential. It might result in really big things across the state.”

“I told somebody the other day, my soul is home. In every way.”

Learn more

To find out more about the USC-SMTL program, check out the website. To help support the College of Education, visit Carolina's Promise.

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