April 1, 2021
English Teacher and Tennis Coach Mr. Gerard Sullivan has been teaching the students of Fenwick for 36 school years.
What is your educational background?
GS: I grew up in small town / rural Wisconsin in the 1960s-70s in a family of seven kids, one of many big families among my relatives and friends. My parents were older, married in their 30s, so I heard many stories about life during the Great Depression and WWII while the times we lived in were sending very different messages. There were only 16 students in my grade at the local Catholic grade school but we managed to field football, basketball and wrestling teams. We had many Franciscan nuns teaching in the school and an old priest from Italy. Those early years were the most formative part of my education. I also attended public high school, earned my bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison (English and education) and did my master’s at UIC (English) while teaching at Fenwick.
What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?
GS: I started at Fenwick right out of college. There happened to be several English openings that year. I looked so young that Mr. Heldmann, who was Dean of Students, stopped me in the hall and asked what I was doing out of class! I had managed to do some interesting things during my college years. I studied in France, worked summers gutting fish in Alaska and student taught in Ireland. All of those were great experiences.
What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
GS: This year, the Norton Anthology of English Literature and three 19th Century English novels have commanded most of the reading time that I have apart from student papers and emails. I’m teaching a section of Honors English IV for the first time so I’ve had to learn the material on a deeper level.
The last novel I read was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. It is a powerful book.
I’m also a voracious reader of good journalism. I like book reviews and obituaries because they convey viewpoints and life stories that I would never know otherwise. (For the same reason, I would just as soon have an interesting conversation with a person as read something!)
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
GS: Nothing too complicated. I like being outside -- walking, hiking, playing tennis, going with my wife to places around here or to Wisconsin; also doing things around the house: kitchen work, yard work, repairing things. I like doing a hard Sudoku and studying other languages. Also talking with my son and daughter (in their 20s) to hear how they are doing.
To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?
GS: The sports are what I remember. Hockey from the age of 8 on was a great experience. I did my best at track and football. And many other sports with my friends. In those days we grew up outdoors.
Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?
GS: Tennis – Boys and Girls. I started coaching tennis before I knew much about it, so I’ve been a student of the game. There is so much to it. A team playing an “individual” sport can create an incredibly supportive dynamic. I love seeing our players grow during the season. It’s great to have other Fenwick teachers help out and have that experience, too. I’m so impressed with the success in academics and in life that our team’s alumni have had.
What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?
GS: They support each other. They are here to be challenged. They don’t seem to need or want a lot of recognition, but it’s still great to give it to them.
When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
GS: As a high school senior, I had moments when I knew I would like to teach and could do it well. Then I forgot about it until I was finishing my English major and the next thing you know, I was teaching at Fenwick!
What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
GS: The same as any teacher: willingness to “put in the reps” and a love of the subject. Teaching is labor-intensive. As in a sport, when a leader sets a work rate, others will follow. If the teacher is energized, good things happen.
What are your favorite classes to teach?
GS: Any English class.
What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?
GS: The only success in teaching comes in learning. I strive to get something good started and get out of the way at the right time. It’s like letting go of the bike when a kid learns to ride. That’s a great feeling, and every time it happens it’s the greatest success possible.
What challenges face students today?
GS: Too many choices. That can be mind-numbing. And now AI will make choices for them! That’s why a school like ours is so important. We keep students grounded in the most important values so they start to make morally sound choices without hesitation. Then habits are shaped and an excellent life will follow.
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