Featuring Mr. Gillin
“I kind of fell into teaching, believe it or not,” physics teacher Mr. John Gillin says. One day, some time after deciding he did not want to continue work as an engineer, he opened The New York Times to an article that said, “If you like the outdoors, and if you have a science degree, and if you think you might want to teach — call this number.” He fit all three criteria and was looking for a change, so Mr. Gillin called the number. Soon after, he found himself working in an environmental education center in Charlton, Massachusetts. “That’s when I really started down the road of teaching,” Mr. Gillin says.
The education center would rent several camps organized to run programming throughout winter, and each week a new group of students would come to stay. He describes the experience for students as a cross between “a day field trip and summer camp.” The days were filled with hikes, ropes courses, trust falls, and other team-building activities. Each afternoon, Mr. Gillin would teach a science-related course. For around two years, he would travel between the camp locations in places such as Cape Cod or islands on Boston Harbor.
Yet, as the name suggests, the environmental education centers typically involve extended amounts of time outdoors. Located in the Northeast, this meant the weather was pretty harsh. One weekend, Mr. Gillin went down to Washington, D.C., to visit his brother. Tired of the extreme cold, he decided to put his name in an employment agency. He ultimately ended up teaching in a private school, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, in the D.C. area for 13 years.
Now looking back, Mr. Gillin reflects, “I didn’t realize how bad a teacher I was the first couple years.” At first, he believed that relaying the content to his students was his chief responsibility. Over his 31 years teaching physics, his perspective on teaching has shifted. He explains, “Although I teach physics, I realize that if all I do is teach physics then I’m wasting everyone’s time.” Mr. Gillin realized that the curriculum he should be teaching is not limited to the information found in a textbook. Now he sees more value in teaching his students skills, responsibility, work ethic, and how to learn and study. “[Those are] so much more important than whether they can solve a circuit problem or not,” he says.
He also notes that everyone learns differently. “You want to try and put yourself in other people’s shoes,” he explains. “Some people would rather learn through hands-on labs; some people would rather just do lectures and tests.” He fills class with a variation of activities to meet his students’ varied needs and keep class fresh.
Teaching was never Mr. Gillin ’s long-term plan for the future. He explains that he always would think, “When I grow up and figure out what I really want to do, then I’ll switch to something other than teaching.” Thirty-three years later, he still “can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Teaching worked well for Mr. Gillin because it allowed him to continue working the summer job he loved. As a child, the summer camp Camp Integrity had been an important part of his life. He says, “I was a suburban kid who was a little naive. I grew up in this nice, little protected community on Long Island… and the summer camp was run by the electrician union out of New York City. And meeting the kids who grew up in NYC changed my understanding of the world and how things worked. It’s a whole different culture, a city kid’s life.” Beginning in high school, he would spend his summers working at Camp Integrity. He remembers, “The things that they would let me do at seventeen years old — no one would have trusted me to do that stuff anywhere else.” In the outside world, a seventeen year old is treated as a kid in many regards; at summer camp, a seventeen year old manages many of the responsibilities of an adult. From that first summer on, Mr. Gillin spent his summers working in different camps. Eventually, Mr. Gillin returned to Camp Integrity as its assistant director.
It was actually at camp where Mr. Gillin met his wife. She grew up in Ireland and came to work at the camp on a visa. Mr. Gillin says, “She kept coming back, and we hit it off. When she graduated from college, she moved to Washington, D.C., with me, and we got married. And we had a big, blow-out wedding in Ireland — it was pretty epic.” Most of his friends and family had never been to Ireland or even out of the United States, “so imagine touching down in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day with a bunch of crazy New Yorkers,” he says.
This wedding continues to be a highlight for Mr. Gillin’s family. For Mr. Gillin, family is one of the most important values. He hopes that above all else, his children are happy and satisfied. On the weekends, he and his daughter go hiking or do things for her Girl Scout troop. He explains how it can be “harder for me to interact with my sons than it is my daughter.” Both of his sons have high functioning autism, so his sons connect with people in different ways. His middle son, whom Mr. Gillin lovingly calls Mr. One-Word, much prefers to be alone than with friends. Mr. Gillin shares, “It’s so different than who I am that I have to remember that his brain just isn’t wired the way mine is.” In contrast, his eldest loves to talk to anyone, anytime. He used to joke that his son would say, “Oh, your name is Satan? Sure, I’ll come over and play with you!” Mr. Gillin explains, “Everybody thinks the autistic child is the shy, quiet child in the corner… But my son is just the opposite.”
None of Mr. Gillin ’s children care much about sports. “They probably don’t even know what a touchdown is,” he guesses. However, Mr. Gillin, a self-described sports fanatic, roots for the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals and Liverpool F.C. Also a swim coach for 29 years, sports play a large part in his life. When he became a swim coach, he knew almost nothing about the sport. In a certain way, coaching proved to be very different than teaching. Mr. Gillin points out, “Usually, when people are on a sports team, it’s because they want to be there. Not everyone I teach physics [to] really wants anything to do with physics class, other than they have to show up every day… It’s so much nicer to do something when everyone is there because they enjoy it.”
Understanding that a physics lab isn’t always students’ favorite place, Mr. Gillin makes an effort to see his students in other environments. He says, “I always think it’s important to find some way of seeing the students outside the classroom. That’s why I try to make it to a number of [sports] games.” He enjoys getting to see students in their element. As for his element, the classroom, he tries to make it as conducive, enjoyable, and rewarding for his students as possible. So far, Mr. Gillin has found AJA to be “a good fit.” He has enjoyed the students he has had to teach so far. He says, “I hope that my students have found that it’s been a positive experience for them, too.”