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Positive energy as bright as spring sunshine

Rockstar teacher Nancy Sullivan

Forest Hills and Kent ISD — The details that Nancy Sullivan shares about the path that brought her into Collins Elementary’s Great Start Readiness Program are unexpected. It is a story of the loss of her two young sons, one in 2003 and the other in 2007. Both were affected by Cockayne syndrome, a rare disease that delays development and shortens lifespan. 

It’s also about those who helped her family along the way. That experience, Sullivan said, “is where my affinity for young children comes from.”

Her sons’ short lives “brought everything into perspective,” Sullivan recalled. The community rallied for them, and so many good people made a difference. Many were big influences on her, including people like the physical therapists who cared for her sons Benjamin, who was almost 8 and Riley, who was nearly 9, when they died. 

She turned her positive experience with her sons’ physical therapy into a career, earning a bachelors in physical therapy in 1990 from Marquette University in Milwaukee. 

Transitions and Enduring Interests

Sullivan, her husband, Terry and their son, Nate, now a senior at Forest Hills Northern High moved from Wisconsin to Michigan in 2009. Looking for a way to continue to grow her interest in therapeutic movement, she took up yoga, eventually becoming a certified instructor. 

Then, after almost 10 years in Michigan, an enduring interest tugged at her, and she decided that substitute teaching would give her that connection with young children that she loved so much. Little did she know that after only two days on the job as a GSRP substitute, her path would change again.  

‘Nancy is never too busy…to help anyone.’

— lead GSRP teacher Amy Goebels

Amy Goebels, preK teacher at Collins Elementary GSRP, saw in Sullivan’s work the affinity she had for young learners. So, on the new substitute’s second day at her first assignment, Goebels asked her if she might consider a full-time role as her associate teacher in the next school year. 

Yushen Sun, left, Conor Joseph and Lennon Crawford eagerly respond to Sullivan’s lunchtime question, ‘Who’s 5 years old?’

Goebels recalled that she used just three words to help Sullivan fully understand her invitation: “I want you.” Sullivan applied and began her new role at Collins Elementary in 2019.

Five years after they first met, the duo works together to plan, prep and lead lessons. But that’s just the start. Beyond her great work building relationships with students and learning how best to teach and assess students, Goebels says that her teaching partner has a “second nature” that helps her build relationships with families. 

“Nancy is one of the first to step up by making meals, sending cards and checking in on people, and is never too busy to help anyone,” Goebles said. “She is very professional and takes the initiative.” 

Amy Kerkstra, early childhood specialist at Kent ISD, echoed Goebels’ sentiments: “Nancy is a team player who shares fully in responsibilities. The children not only respect their teachers, but they respect each other because this is modeled by the teaching team.” 

Supporting Each Unique Learner

Sullivan still teaches yoga, this time to her young students; she knows the importance of movement and a playful approach to learning. The classroom is filled with dramatic play opportunities, places for children to choose what and how they will interact with the materials in the grocery store, flower shop, pizzeria and even at a campsite. 

‘Nancy is a team player who shares fully in responsibilities.’

— Amy Kerkstra, early childhood specialist at Kent ISD

Student Lennon Wilcox tapped her left cheek with her finger as she thought about what her teacher might like best about the camping center she herself had chosen to explore before rest time. She carefully arranged two light brown squares of cardboard around one dark brown, then reached for a stick and cotton ball, which she toasted over a tealight “fire.” 

“Mrs. Sullivan would like the marshmallow, I think,” Lennon said. Making pretend s’mores is her favorite part of dramatic play. “I like the ‘chocolate’ the best.” 

Royce Wilcox has moved on to kindergarten but joyfully greets his former teacher when he spots her in the school courtyard

Lennon seems to know her teacher’s preferences, and Sullivan knows her learners’ preferences. The joy Sullivan finds in being part of her students’ growth is a perspective that has been formed in part with an understanding of the brevity of life: “Appreciate all you have, and the beauty of children,” she said.

Kerkstra said Sullivan “supports each child uniquely. She shows interest in learning from them and supporting individual needs.”

Earlier in a recent class, as Sullivan led lessons on letter recognition and then on listening for patterns in a story, she responded to students in different ways for each learner. 

Some were making predictions about the story being read, and their teacher pointed out that books with repetition help many learn to read. 

When a student tried to identify an upside-down letter pulled from a bag, Sullivan asked if it helped to look at it “this way,” after turning it right-side up. While academic skills are being built, the work of learning is playful and builds social-emotional skills, she said later. 

 ‘Appreciate all you have, and the beauty of children.’

 — Nancy Sullivan, Collins Elementary GSRP associate teacher 

Goebels called her a “natural teacher, constantly learning, asking questions, being curious, sensitive, and intentional,” and she appreciates her “infectious positive energy.” 

The positive energy goes both ways. Sullivan said Goebels “taught me everything I know.” 

And it extends to others, too. Outside, in the school’s courtyard, student after student, all former pre-Kers, waved or ran up for a hug from Sullivan as they waited with this year’s teacher for their outside time to end. Positive energy spilled over like the spring sunshine.

Read more from Forest Hills:
One-a-day books connect students to deeper themes 
Golden coin in; Spanish-language book out


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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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