Physics teacher says her circuitous journey to Notre Dame may have been predestined.
During a number of recent interviews with students for an upcoming Notre Dame marketing video, the kids frequently cited their teachers as being highly influential and inspirational for them in many positive ways. One name seemed to continue to pop up with regularity for Notre Dame's high schoolers: Mrs. Pakkala.
When told of these comments, science teacher Jennifer Pakkala was more than a little surprised. After all, she said, she's just doing her job, a job that she also believes may have been preordained by higher powers.
"I became a teacher because that is what I think God had planned for my life," said Pakkala, who didn't start her working life in education. In fact, after she graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in chemical engineering, she worked as a chemist for a privately owned company located in Detroit.
"My own plan was to make enough money in the corporate world to live on my own," she said. "Part of my engineering job for that Detroit company was overseeing the testing of materials in the lab. One day, the company owner came to the lab and asked me to sign a paper that stated that one of its products had passed an ASTM (American Standard for Testing Materials) test, a test that it had actually failed. I refused to sign the document. So, here is this 23 years old, still kind of a rookie, asked to either sign the paper or quit my job. I ended up quitting."
Pakkala was completely disillusioned by the experience, so much so that she never looked for another job in engineering. Instead she found work as a technology education specialist in the Redford, Mich., school district.
"I had experience working in computer labs in college and that's what they needed me to do at the elementary schools," she said.
But while working in the elementary schools, a physics teacher at the high school suddenly stopped coming to work. The physics classes got by with substitutes for a few months and by happenstance, someone in the high school got wind of this wunderkind computer specialist who just might know physics. Long story short, Pakkala was hired by the school as a teacher and she's never looked back. In fact, while employed at Redford High, she received a nomination for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching, the highest honor given by the United States government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science teaching.
"When I received that recognition, it became very clear to me that I would not have been in that position in the first place if it had not been for God's plan," she said.
Notre Dame comfortable
She ultimately left Redford High School for Notre Dame, but that too wasn't a conventional transition.
"My first experience with Notre Dame was in June of 2011 when I interviewed for the position I have now," she said. "I met Father Joe (Hindelang, s.m.) and toured the building, and I felt at home and very comfortable with both. Soon I got a call offering me the job."
However, due to the difference in salary, Pakkala decided to decline the offer from NDPMA.
"But Notre Dame had impressed me enough during that interview process that my husband, Jim, and I had our young daughter, Julia, complete a shadow day and we eventually enrolled her in JK-4 in Notre Dame's lower school," she said. "The school's mission perfectly described what I hoped for my child to become, and as the years progressed, I decided to get back in touch with Father Joe to tell him that if the physics position opened up again, I would be very interested."
In the spring of 2017, the NDP principal contacted Pakkala again and she was hired.
Listening and having fun
Now well-entrenched at NDPMA, she takes her job working with young men and women very seriously.
"I think that teaching physics, etc., to the kids here is important," she said. But that pales in comparison to what I think is the most important part of my job — listening to students. Whether they want to talk about academics, sports or their dog, I am ready to listen. To be effective in teaching, there has to be a relationship established between the student and teacher, one that includes trust."
Pakkala, who in addition to her B.S, degree holds a certification in physics from Madonna University and a master's degree from Michigan State University, also says that even in her relatively short time at Notre Dame, she's witnessed a number of significant and positive developments, one of which involved moving out of her existing classroom.
"The most significant change since I started at NDP definitely is the addition of the science, art and technology wing," Pakkala said. "I had to move my classroom over the summer, but I'm now in a brand new room with great technology and brand new furniture for the students."
She said the kids seem to also love the new classroom.
"I think one of the things the students most enjoy now compared to the previous classroom is our new microphone," she said. "When they present their lab findings, they get to use it, and that puts a smile on nearly every face. Part of a great education is having a little bit of fun, and we certainly try to do that with the new large classroom and technology."
Pakkala also said the new wing is reflective of Notre Dame's focus on student well-being and growth.
"NDPMA has the number-1 Catholic high school in Michigan and the new wing demonstrates that identity proudly," she said. "It has been designed with the growth of the students in mind and every day I am lucky enough to have a role in that growth. Also, when I cross the courtyard, I see students using the space for doing homework, chatting with friends, and even praying near the fountain."
When she's not listening and teaching on campus, Pakkala and her husband, Joe, and their daughter, Julia, who live in Milford, are pretty active, especially on fall Saturdays in the "Big House." She notes that Jim, an engineer, also is a U-M alum. She also notes that Julia, now a 5th-grader at Notre Dame, plans to be on campus until her high school graduation, even though she now has an open invitation from her parents to go somewhere else if so desired.
"Recently, we've been giving her a choice at enrollment time — local schools or Notre Dame," Pakkala said. "She is completely taken aback at the thought of ever leaving Notre Dame. She says it's the best school ever!"
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org