At Fenwick, six top-level administrators also (still) teach. Here’s why.
By Mark Vruno
What sets Fenwick apart from other high schools in the Chicago area and surrounding suburbs? Four differentiating aspects of the school come to mind:
The seven Dominican priests and brothers present daily in the building is one major distinction.
There also are eight PhD-degreed leaders among the Friars’ faculty and administration.
Another impressive statistic is that more than one-quarter of the teachers working at Fenwick also are alumni.
And yet another differentiator that makes Fenwick special is that six administrators also teach courses to students.
This last point of differentiation is akin to the difference at universities and colleges where actual professors teach under-graduate classes (as opposed to those taught by teaching assistants enrolled in graduate school). The six Fenwick administrators in the classroom are (from left in the above photo):
- Director of Scheduling & Student Data Mickey Collins ’03 – Accelerated Anatomy
- Assistant Principal Laura Pendleton – Orchestra Director
- Principal Peter Groom – Foreign Policy (History)
- President Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P., PhD – Dominican Spirituality (Theology)
- Assistant Principal Eleanor Comiskey ’06 – Algebra
- Student Services/Enrollment Director James Quaid, PhD – Advanced Placement U.S. History
Every weekday afternoon for 45 minutes, you won’t find Fenwick President Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P. in his office or on the phone. Instead, he’s in a classroom teaching Theology (Dominican Spiritualty) to senior students. Principal Peter Groom, who teaches History (Foreign Policy), has said that teaching and interacting with students in the classroom is the highlight of his work day. What is it that they enjoy about the teaching portion of their day-to-day responsibilities?
“Teaching is a way for me to be connected to the students on a personal level,” explains alumnus Michael “Mickey” Collins ’03, who teaches a science course in Accelerated Anatomy when he’s not overseeing the scheduling and data of Fenwick students. “I spend most of my time seeing names, test scores, course requests and schedules of students, but not as much face-to-face [time] with those students,” Mr. Collins adds.
“I think the fact that our administrators still teach keeps them more connected than most administrators at other schools.” – Assistant Principal/Orchestra Director Laura Pendleton
Assistant Principal Laura Pendleton notes, “The unique thing about being an education administrator is that none of us chose this profession. We all chose to be teachers first and then ended up in administration for a variety of reasons and circumstances. To be able to work in administration and continue to teach, which was my first passion, is a gift,” says Ms. Pendleton, who also is Fenwick’s Orchestra Director. “It takes you back to your early career, and I enjoy having the time working with the students vs. the adults. They keep you close to the pulse of the school.”
Why They Teach
“I think the fact that our administrators still teach keeps them more connected than most administrators at other schools,” Pendleton continues. “Also, most days teaching my class is a stress reliever!
“It is important for school leaders to stay connected with the student body because,” she says, “first and foremost, we are here for them. I can imagine that if you are not in front of students every day you might start to get a little disconnected. Teaching my own class is very beneficial for me when supervising teachers. Being in their classroom becomes more than just an isolated event and more of a collaboration: I’m also in a classroom with these students every day; I have the same issues. It gives us a very up-to-date understanding of what our teachers are going through. We have a unique student body here at Fenwick, and it’s important to know their needs specifically.”
Dr. James Quaid, former Fenwick Principal and current Director of Student Services & Enrollment, returned to Fenwick this school year. “I began my career as a teacher and always loved working with students as a teacher, coach and/or moderator,” Dr. Quaid shares. “Administrative work involves planning and finding ways to help students, teachers and parents/guardians. It also involves a lot of reaction to issues in which people are frustrated or upset. When I am in a classroom, I get to work in a very positive environment and enjoy watching students learn and grow. If you plan, communicate and react properly, there really are not that many negative things that happen. For one period each day I can just enjoy the experience.”
Why is it that such a surprisingly high number of former students return to Fenwick to teach future alumni?
By Mark Vruno
Presently, there are approximately 140 teachers, administrators and staff members at Fenwick High School, and 38 of them have walked the hallowed halls in Oak Park as students. Over the course of the school’s nine decades in existence, many more former pupils have returned to work and serve. “People come back to Fenwick because of the impact the school had on their lives,” believes Social Studies/History Department Chair Alex Holmberg ’05. “Whether that impact was inside or outside the classrooms, Fenwick leaves a powerful impression on everyone,” says Mr./Coach Holmberg, who triples as the school’s clubs/activities director and the defensive coordinator of the varsity football team.
“The opportunity to shape how future students approach the rest of their lives is incredibly powerful,” he notes, “and that potential draws so many people back into the building. Thinking about that opportunity to help prepare and motivate future Friars is what brought me back to Fenwick, and that thought is what motivates me to continue to help the school in whatever way I can.”
Principal Peter Groom, who has taught Friars since the 1980s, reports that many of the Fenwick graduates he has hired, he had in the classroom. “We get to know our students during their time here,” Mr. Groom explains. “We get to know their intelligence, their values, their passion and their work ethic. Typically, our graduates are also committed to our mission. When we hire people who are committed to our mission, we hire people who want to remain a part of our community for a long time. One of the keys to building a mission-based school is to have teachers who are committed and who demonstrate the aforementioned values.”
Roger Finnell ’59, a Fenwick mathematics instructor for more than five decades, concurs with fellow alumnus Holmberg: “Many alumni teach here because they remember their experience at Fenwick as being something special and want to contribute towards continuing the traditions here,” reflects Mr. Finnell, who is Math Department Chair.
“I knew I wanted to teach math when I started college,” shares Finnell, who also is the man behind the scenes of Black Friars Guild stage productions. “In my senior year at Loyola, after I finished student teaching at Lane Tech in Chicago, I heard about an opening at St. Ignatius, so I made an appointment for an interview. But then I thought I might as well also inquire at Fenwick. I did my Fenwick interview and was offered a position here, so, seeing this as a great opportunity, I quickly cancelled my St. Ignatius interview and the rest is history!”
Representing the Classes of 1959 to 2012
Holmberg and math/computer science teacher Kevin Roche ’05 are two of thousands of Friars taught by Mr. Finnell over the past 55 years. “I think that there are a large amount of Friars returning because they had a great experience at the school, believe in what the school does, and want to be a part of ‘steering the ship’ for future generations,” chimes in Mr. Roche, who also coaches cross country. “We have Friars in different aspects of the school (operations, administration, faculty and development) who all had different experiences here yet all want to give back. I believe that this influx of alumni teachers is also a sign of our generation: millennials have a great desire to find meaning and purpose in their work. That is their highest motivator and education is a career that offers immense purpose and validation for the work through strong relationships.”
Grace Lilek ’08, who is in her third year of teaching social studies at Fenwick, captures the sentiment of many of her colleagues who also are alumni: “I was inspired to pursue a career in education based on my experiences at Fenwick,” says Ms. Lilek, who also is a learning resource coordinator. “I think experience is the first reason so many of us have come back to Fenwick to teach. You will not meet two Fenwick graduates who had the exact same experience. You can be an athlete or a thespian or participate in academic competitions, and always find your niche. You can also take on all three of those roles and thrive. It is an honor to come back to Fenwick as a teacher and share these experiences with our students.” Lilek continues: