Gail Sutton: Leaving a Learning Legacy
May 21, 2015
Gail Sutton is a math teacher because she is five-foot-one-and-three-quarters instead of five-foot-two.
“[Teaching] didn’t start as my passion, it truly didn’t, I was too short to do what I really wanted to do. This was back in the days when they could say ‘I’m sorry, you’re too short.’ I wanted to be an airline stewardess, that is what I truly wanted to be! I just thought that would be so cool,” Sutton said, laughing as she remembered her dream job from middle school.
Sutton, who says she has always been a planner, began looking into other career options soon after she discovered the height requirement. Driven at first by a love of physical education, then working with special needs students, and finally a passion for math and high school students, Sutton experienced a plethora of diverse teaching opportunities before coming to FHC. With a total of almost 39 years of teaching behind her, 30 of them at FHC, Sutton is now entering her final year of the job that she is so passionate about. Her unique and progressive instructional methods have earned her high praise from students and colleagues alike in her tenure as a math instructor. She leaves behind a legacy of boldness and independence regarding both teaching and learning that has touched the lives of the countless students who have passed through the doors of her classroom.
Sutton began her career in West Virginia, first as a physical education teacher and then a special education teacher. After two years there, she moved to Iowa, where she again worked as a special education teacher in a resource room for the learning disabled. She also coached a myriad of sports during this time. In New Hampshire, after a year as a special education teacher in Massachusetts, Sutton got her math degree. She taught a year of math there before coming to Michigan, where she would remain for the rest of her career.
Sutton does not regret a moment of her roundabout career path. While she believes her “niche” is teaching upper-level math, she also says that her earlier experiences in coaching and special education gave her invaluable skills that have helped her become a better math teacher.
“Everything works out as it’s supposed to,” Sutton said. “I would not teach the way I do right now if I did not do special education first. … [My background] made me the “radical” teacher. I was always doing things differently, because I ran my classroom the way I would run a practice. Every second was planned out and organized, but yet [I would] adjust based on different needs. It was just preparing for the big game, which was the test. Combine that with my master’s degree in teaching the learning disabled, the way that I would teach the class was quite different, as was my approach to the teaching methodology. So my organization came from coaching, and my teaching methodology came from my special education background, and then the passion for math went together with all of it.”
Sutton’s somewhat unconventional teaching methods have set her apart in her teaching career from the start. A believer in the value of independent learning, she runs her classroom in a way that she believes will teach her students how to learn and how to study, not just how to get good grades.
“Independent learning doesn’t mean I’m not going to be there to help them, but I will keep pushing them,” Sutton said. “My biggest thing is that I know our percents are so high of kids getting into college. Our percents are too low of kids staying there for four years. They need to know how to study, not just get the grades. They need to know how to study without a teacher right there at their beck and call, so to speak. I push them pretty hard, but I teach them what the resources are [to help them succeed].”
Sutton’s mix of passion and knowledge seem to be the perfect equation for success. Her colleagues, several of whom had her as a teacher, speak admiringly about the influence Sutton has had on FHC.
“I have never known a Forest Hills Central without [Sutton], so thinking of her leaving is a very strange thing to me,” said math teacher Rebecca Lipke. “It’s as if she has always been on the cutting-edge of teaching, as far as trying new forms of teaching, and not being afraid to experiment with different methods.”
Over her thirty years at FHC, Sutton has had the opportunity to influence not only individual students and faculty, but also the school and district as a whole. She was the founder of FHC’s Academic Success Center, as well as the secondary math coordinator for the district and the gifted and talented coordinator for FHC.
After thirty years as an instructor in the same school, Sutton has a unique perspective on three decades of FHC history. She has been a witness to constant changes in school culture and policy that have occurred over her tenure here.
“I believe in the pendulum theory, and it’s unfortunate, but it exists. We never reach equilibrium of where we truly should be. Instead of tweaking, we tend to overcompensate and the pendulum swings too far the other way, so we do that for a little while and then [say] “Oh no, this is not good,’ so instead of tweaking we [go straight] to the other [side], so we deal in extremes. That’s life. That’s what people teach you. That’s why you see things coming back. That’s true in education, it’s true in the culture.”
After the ups and downs of her entire career, Sutton describes her teaching experience as “absolutely wonderful.” She remains passionate about her subject and her students as she enters her 39th year, and has confidence that she will maintain the bold, innovative approach to education that has defined her as a teacher for almost four decades. With a lengthy career behind her and one final school year stretching before her, Sutton continues to strive for perfection in her craft, a quest that began her first day as a teacher 39 years ago and will not end, she says, until she closes this chapter in her life at the end of the school year.
“I firmly believe that not anyone can be taught to be a teacher,” Sutton said. “They can be taught the science of teaching, but not the art of teaching. I have a passion for both students and math, and I feel that teaching is a talent of mine. I feel that I get better each year, and it is my goal that this year be my best year yet as a teacher. I don’t think we are ever the best that we can be. We can always improve, and as long as I feel that way, I’m going to be doing a good job. I want to do a great job. I want to go out doing a great job.”
39 Years of Influence: Sutton’s colleagues reflect on what they will remember most about Ms. Sutton
“Ms. Sutton was one of the most caring teachers I ever had. I was struggling in her class but did very well on one of her tests early in the day so she called my 6th hour teacher to let me know how well I had done.” -Laura Stiles, history teacher
“She encouraged learning through trial and error with the thought that through the struggle you would learn and remember more. [Being in her class] turned out to be a great experience because of her high energy and ability to push me further than I thought I could go.” -Joe Smith, math teacher
“I never had the pleasure of having Gail as a teacher,” said history instructor Brad Anderson. “[However] as a rookie teacher, I learned a lot about what it meant to be a master teacher from Gail. Her kindness, her passion and her integrity. Gail is leaving at the top of her game and she has left this building better than the way she found it.” -Brad Anderson, history teacher
“I remember Gail “dancing” around in her high heels very vividly! She would often say “It’s logical” and she was always so positive and upbeat. She really cared about us and encouraged growth in mathematics. She always made me think outside the box and apply our skills.” -Lisa Gaiser, math teacher