Godwin Heights — Chris Pulliams recently greeted a group of students who had gathered in the entryway of the Learning Center with a cheerful “What’s Up? What’s Up? What’s Up?”
“What happened to the McDonald’s stuff today?” Pulliams asked. “I tried to tell you, those McDonald’s drinks, they are expensive.”
“I’ll bring one tomorrow,” promised one student.
“No, don’t do that,” said Pulliams, who laughed as he hit a buzzer to let them in. “I’m trying to tell you to save your money.”
It is his relationships with students that make Pulliams such a great teacher, said social studies teacher Adriane Koehne.
“He creates an atmosphere that this is an educational place but also a place where students can be accepted, (can) approach him and other staff with questions and (can) be successful,” Koehne said. “He has a great sense of fun (and) he can relate to many things the students are interested in: rap music, wrestling, football and gaming.
‘That’s the joy of watching the kids cross the finish line, and it’s knowing that I played a small part in that.’— Chris Pulliams
“He sincerely cares for the students here,” she added. “He is a solid and secure man who makes the learning center a safe place, a positive place to learn.”
Math and science teacher Dipti Singh echoed Koehne’s words, adding, “The students just love him.
“He’s a team player,” Singh said. “He’s a ‘GOAT’ in Godwin Heights. He brings the energy into the room. Whether it’s students, staff, food service … he is a friend to everyone, and everybody loves Mr. P.”
Once a Wolverine, Always a Wolverine
One of the reasons Pulliams decided to go into education was from a comment a then ninth-grade friend received from a teacher, when Pulliams was a student at Godwin Heights. It was relayed to him as, “‘Well, you might as well just give up. You’re not gonna be successful,’” Pulliams recalled. “I was appalled by it even then, and so when I was in college I started looking at public education.
“I wanted to be there to encourage kids and let them know that no matter what the situation is, they can be successful.”
After graduating in 1992, Pulliams went to Grand Rapids Community College, then transferred to Ferris State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in education.
He was a student teacher at Godwin Heights in 1997, but started his teaching career in Forest Hills Public Schools. Four years later, while working on a master’s in educational leadership at Michigan State University, the opportunity arose for Pulliams to return to his alma mater, where he was hired as athletic director.
But he missed the interaction with students and being in the classroom, so after two years as athletic director he decided to go back to the classroom, where he has been ever since.
“I think the No. 1 reason is to have an impact on kids’ lives,” Pulliams said of his decision to return to the classroom. “I think this is my 27th year and there’s just something about that lightbulb, watching that lightbulb go off when a kid just figures it out, that ‘I can do this. I can be successful. These are the tools that I need to be successful.’
“That you’re able to provide whatever it is: for some kids, it’s motivation; for other kids, it’s sitting down and going through step by step and unpacking the lesson. … It is just trying to meet the needs of kids.”
Pulliams became the lead teacher at the learning center for the same reason he got into education, he said: to encourage students who are there for a number of reasons. Some are behind as a result of the pandemic, others are looking for a different learning environment, and some want to be online learners full time.
“Here at the learning center, it doesn’t make a difference where they are at,” Pulliams said. “They come here and they’re five credits behind or 10 credits behind.” (So I ask) ‘OK, how can we put together a program so you can successfully complete however many classes in how many weeks it takes?’”
Celebrating With the Students
Chances are most in the district have seen Pulliams; he makes it a point to attend at least one game of every sports team each season. It usually averages more than that, he admitted. He also goes to other events, such as the high school play, and in June he could be seen giving the 2023 graduates high-fives as they entered the football stadium for commencement.
“That’s the joy of watching the kids cross the finish line, and it’s knowing that I played a small part in that,” he said.
Throughout his teaching years, Pulliams has helped prepare students for the next step after high school. He created a prep-ACT course that later became the pre-SAT. He also taught the college and career readiness class to encourage students to think about after high school, whether it’s college or a trade.
And sometimes that continues beyond high school. Just this past spring, he helped three Godwin grads explore technical education options.
“There’s just something about working with kids, and most days I wake up and I’m like, ‘You know what, let’s do this. Let’s try to make a difference.’”
It’s a lesson he said he learned from his own mentors: former teachers Jean Wahl-Piotrowski, Jake Kenyon and Ruth VanderWeide, and former baseball coach Tom Meyer.
“I remember at one point, I was student teaching, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’” he recalled. “I’m in tears … and it was Ruth who sat down with me and was like, ‘Oh, no, you can do this and this is how,’ which really encouraged me. Now it is 27, 28 years later and I’m here, and who knows what I would have been doing if she had not done that.”
All Students Can Be Successful
Teaching is a passion, Pulliams said. He tells those interested in the profession that they have to let that passion drive them.
“He is very inspiring, and always encouraging,” said junior Peter Matthews. “He wants nothing but the best for us. When I was behind in my classes he pushed me to get on track.”
Senior DaJuan Webb, who was quick to point out that all of his siblings have been taught by Pulliams, said Pulliams has been a force in helping him get through school and graduate on time.
Pulliams said it is all about patience, because getting through high school doesn’t always take only four years; sometimes it takes a student the summer or a fifth year, he said, adding that all students can be successful.
For when the sun does set on their high-school years, Pulliams said he hopes the biggest takeaway is “at the end of the day, they know I cared.”
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