'He does such a great job of developing relationships with students.'

Although he teaches U.S. Government at Reynoldsburg High School’s eSTEM Academy—short for environmentalScience, Technology, Engineering and Math—Jim Coley readily admits he is “not really a math [and] science person.”

Still, some of Coley’s most memorable achievements from the past several years involve something purely scientific, as he helped found the school’s robotics team and led them to world tournament appearances in 2015 and 2016. “I love doing things like that, working with my hands. I like tools. It just lent itself to my love of that. I jumped right on that,” Coley says. “It’s really complicated.”

Far less complicated is the high regard in which Coley’s colleagues, students and parents hold him, a factor that helped him become the high school winner in the Columbus Parent/ThisWeek Community News 2020 Teachers of the Year awards.

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For this year’s Teachers of the Year awards (the seventh year for the project), readers nominated educators from school districts all over Central Ohio. Nominations were taken online Dec. 5 to Jan. 16. The editorial staffs from Columbus Parent and ThisWeek reviewed all of the submissions, did some independent research and chose 15 finalists, who were voted on by the public Feb. 22 to March 25. Three winners were chosen: one each at the elementary, middle and high school levels. 

 “When you have 25-year-olds coming back to a robotics program, they’re not coming back to see the robots. They’re coming back to see Jim,” says Chris Strefelt, who nominated Coley for the award. His sons Michael and Thomas, who graduated in 2018 and 2020, respectively, had Coley as a teacher and were on the robotics team. “The man has had an impact on a whole lot of young people.”

The robotics team, named Technical Difficulties, was a labor of love from its inception in 2011 to the time Coley stepped down after five seasons as coach in 2018. It is part of a larger program called FIRST Robotics, short for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and is one of more than 8,000 teams around the world, according to Coley.

Robots can weigh up to 120 pounds with a maximum cost of $4,000, although development can be nearly four times that amount. That expense is covered through fundraising. “It’s all kid-designed and kid-built,” Coley says. “This builds people. They teach kids how to do all of these amazing things that school doesn’t normally teach them, like leadership, teamwork, self-reliance, problem solving and how to fail forward. Sometimes they redesign their robots three, four, five and six times.”

Coley, 53, said he has taught every subject except psychology in a career that dates to the early 1990s. He and his wife, Renee, who teaches at Hannah Ashton Middle School, live in Pataskala and have two sons, Thomas and Jacob, who graduated from Reynoldsburg in 2014 and 2018, respectively, and were on the robotics team. 

A Toledo native, Coley graduated from Ohio State University in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in education and earned a master’s in arts and education in 2000. Coley spent a decade at Franklin Heights High School before coming to Reynoldsburg, where he will enter his 19th year this fall—10 of them at eSTEM, which he helped plan and launch.

“[Relationships] are the key for him,” says Scott Bennett, eSTEM’s principal and a 15-year colleague of Coley, dating to their time at Reynoldsburg High School’s original Livingston Avenue campus. “He does such a great job of developing relationships with students and getting to know them on a personal level. That makes the whole classroom experience so much better.”

Strefelt has been a frequent guest speaker in Coley’s classes because of his job as a magistrate in Licking County Juvenile Court. “He doesn’t just stand up and give a lecture about the Constitution. He makes it something the kids can connect to,” Strefelt says. “He didn’t just want me to talk about how the court works, he wanted me to give them examples of cases I had seen come through court, things that would get their attention because of the facts of the case. It wasn’t just dry black-and-white material.

“It was a real effort by him to make sure the kids appreciate not just how government works but [how] it affects their lives and how they can impact the government as well by being informed voters.”

Coley says the role of technology has been the biggest change throughout his teaching career, but he quickly emphasizes one constant. “When I started teaching, it was chalkboards and overhead projectors. Now I use computers constantly and my kids use computers constantly,” he says. “I don’t think kids have changed at all. I think they’re exactly the same. The world has changed around them, so kids react differently, but fundamentally they’re the same. They always have been.”

Dave Purpura is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.

This story is from the Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.