Faculty Focus

Faculty Focus: April 2020

English Teacher and alumna Katherine "Kate" Whitman '01 also coaches boys' volleyball at Fenwick.
What is your educational background?
KW: I graduated from Fenwick in 2001, after being the first person ever from my grade school (St. Richard on the southwest side of Chicago) to come here. I then attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I graduated in 2005 with a B.A. in English and a minor in Secondary Education. I received my M. Ed. in Leadership from Elmhurst College.
What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?
KW: I like to joke that I 'took four years off from Fenwick to go to college' -- I started teaching here right after graduation, in the fall of 2005; I did my student teaching down at Urbana High School and Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High. I also worked for (too many) years waiting tables at T.G.I. Fridays.
What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
KW: I am the kind of person who gets involved in several books at once. Currently, I’m reading Prince’s memoir The Beautiful Ones and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And if Conor Mulcahy '20 is reading this, I’m also reading Infinite Jest!
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
KW: As an English teacher, I love good stories -- which sometimes means I watch too much TV. I love to read, and I love movies and music. I really love to travel, and my husband Steve and I are both 'foodies' who love to check out new restaurants. But probably my favorite thing to do is spend time with our dogs, Boo and Bacchus.
To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?
KW: I played volleyball at Fenwick for four years, was a Friar Mentor, and was the senior editor of the Touchstone literary magazine.
Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?
KW: I am the head varsity coach for the boys' volleyball team. I am also the freshman girls’ volleyball coach, an assistant moderator of intramurals, and an adult mentor in the Shield program.
What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?
KW: Fenwick students are extremely intelligent and highly motivated. They set a high bar for themselves and work hard to achieve their goals. They are curious, thoughtful and kind.
When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
KW: I have always had a love of reading, and it was in my early teenage years that I started thinking about teaching. My 6th-8th grade teacher, Mr. Trapani, was extremely influential in that; he was someone who always seemed to truly love his work. However, it was my junior year English class with Mr. O’Rourke that really inspired me. The class was so engaging and the literature we studied was so fascinating, that I knew then exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
KW: I think that my passion for the content is probably my greatest strength. Students seem to respond with interest when they see how interested I am in what we are reading, and in what they think about what we are reading. I also think I have a pretty good sense of humor (although my sarcasm is sometimes lost on the freshmen), which hopefully makes my discussions more engaging. 
What are your favorite classes to teach?
KW: Without question my favorite class is junior year American Literature. I open the year with the essential questions, 'Who or what is American?' and 'What is the American Dream?' The American identity is so complex, and I love exploring how it has evolved throughout history as reflected in the literature we study. I also love how the students are able to connect to what we read because, in an attempt to answer these questions, they are actually attempting to define part of their own identities. Teaching American Lit also means I get to teach some of my all-time favorite texts, like The Great Gatsby, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?​
KW: I think that all of the little successes I’ve had actually make up my greatest success. I know that many teachers like to watch their students have that 'Aha!' moment, but I love when my students leave my class with more questions. When a student wants to search out the answer for "why?" or considers a new perspective after a discussion in my class, I feel I’ve succeeded. When watching my junior honors students go from being frustrated with the fact that I don’t give them a topic for their research paper, basically making them create their direction from scratch, to being so passionate about the research they are finding and proud of their final paper in the end, I feel I’ve succeeded.
What challenges face students today?​
KW: The biggest challenge for students today, in my opinion, is the immense amount of pressure placed on them. The pressure to succeed academically, financially and socially can really drain people and force them into living lives that aren’t completely true to who they really are or what they really want.
©2023 Fenwick High School. All Rights Reserved.