Longtime Bemidji educator Pete Sullivan named Teacher of the Year
BEMIDJI — Thirty-three years ago this week, a new teacher walked into the school district’s annual all-employee gathering, not knowing it was a casual dress event.
That day, Pete Sullivan was the only teacher to walk in wearing a tie and carrying his briefcase.
On Wednesday, Sullivan, a sixth-grade science teacher at Bemidji Middle School, was named the Teacher of the Year by the Bemidji Education Association at the annual get together.
He now is eligible to compete for the title of Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.
"I’m proud to be a Lumberjack," Sullivan said, addressing his colleagues gathered in the Bemidji High School auditorium. "As Lumberjacks, we are all mentors and leaders and hopefully we are good leaders that add value to others’ lives all day, every day."
Sullivan opened his speech by thanking his nominator, Mark Fodness, also a middle-school teacher. He quipped he hoped Fodness’ support was genuine and not an effort to make up for past injuries Sullivan acquired spending time with Fodness, including a sprained ankles from tubing contests and a black eye and welts obtained on the racquetball court.
"I ripped off my fingernail playing on (Fodness’) Wallyball team," Sullivan said. "Actually, he bent it back into place and made me keep playing."
Nearly all of Sullivan’s speech, while touching, was highlighted by his dry humor.
Addressing new teachers and staff members, he told them to relax, that he is living proof you don’t have to be perfect to keep your job.
Sullivan cited a variety of examples, including:
• "I got a letter from the district saying I had broke the law and included illegal information on my application letter for a job with this district. They forgave me and hired me anyway."
• "At my first conference at the high school, all the teachers were at their desks in the gymnasium talking to parents at 8 o’clock in the morning. At nine o’clock, when I showed up, I was a little bit embarrassed."
• "My 5-year-old son cried when I set off the alarm at Nymore Arena and the police came to pick me up with their lights flashing," and, "I felt pretty dumb when I set off the middle-school alarms twice in one day."
• "(Middle-school resource officer Jon Hunt) sent out an email asking what people thought of the designs of the DARE T-shirts. I accidentally sent out an email to the entire school saying I didn’t like the DARE (shirts, but accidentally omitting the ‘R’ when typing the word shirts)."
• "I forgot the B Team hockey jerseys when we went to play at Warroad; the boys weren’t really happy when we had to wear Warroad’s away jerseys."
He used those, along with several other examples, as indications the district does not expect its teachers to be infallible.
"You can see I wasn’t perfect, but I was able to keep my job for 33 years," Sullivan said.
But Fodness, in explaining why he nominated the longtime educator for Teacher of the Year, said Sullivan has long been an excellent teacher and excellent coach.
Fodness said he first met Sullivan more than 30 years ago, when, as an undergraduate student, he was assigned to observe Sullivan in his high school classroom. It was a pretty tough class, and Fodness said he was a bit intimidated when he first arrived, but once Sullivan walked in and had the class put into practice their active-listening strategies, the students became engaged and invested in the lesson.
"I just sat there amazed. It was incredible," Fodness said. "So at the end of the day, when I walked out, honest to gosh, I thought, ‘Someday I want to be like Pete.’"
Fodness also read snippets of letters written by students in support of Sullivan’s nomination, including one that said, "Mr. Sullivan is a great teacher. He enjoys helping students learn and is passionate in everything he does."
Another said, "Mr. Sullivan always says, ‘Win your future. If you achieve now, you will win later.’ That’s been an important quote for me and my friends."
The BEA also awarded two others during the all-employee gathering.
Robyn Dwight, a special education paraprofessional at Central Elementary School, was named Support Professional of the Year.
Dick Rossman, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee who serves as a liaison and adviser on the Horace May Elementary School forest, was named Lay Educator of the Year.
Each of the three award winners received an engraved plaque and keychain, a gift certificate to a local restaurant and a floral arrangement.