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Q&A with Billy Sullivan (’14), CAC 7th Grade Teacher and Head Varsity Soccer Coach

Billy Sullivan (’14) graduated from Harding University in 2018 with a degree in Social Science with Teaching Licensure and is currently working to complete a Master of Arts in History through Missouri State. He is engaged to Ann-Marie Gurchiek with a wedding date set for this summer.

Billy is a true “lifer” – having begun his CAC journey in PreK3. The son of two longtime CAC employees and the sibling of two CAC students (one current and one alumn), Billy has a unique perspective on the common admission that “CAC is like a family.”

Five years after his high school graduation, Billy has returned to Mustang Mountain to teach 7th grade Arkansas History, Geography and Bible and to coach the Varsity Boy’s Mustang Soccer team. We sat down with him to discuss what it was like growing up at CAC, his thoughts on the importance of connecting with history and what he’s looking forward to this soccer season.  

Billy, you were the definition of a CAC Lifer! What was it like growing up and spending so much time at CAC? 
Honestly, some would say I’m still a Lifer. It was never odd or awkward because I never knew anything different. From my first day as a student at CAC, both my parents worked here and my sister was a student. Later, my brother would go here and my cousins too. CAC was just really an extension of my family. Our nightly activities were centered around whether or not there was an athletic event or if something was going on at the high school. I remember coming over to the high school frequently even as a young kid because I would be with Mom and Dad while they had to finish up work or finish up practice or coach a game. We were always at the school.

After graduation you attended Harding University. Was it always your plan to become a teacher and return to CAC? What’s it like being back?
When I first got to Harding I wasn’t planning to teach. I actually started in a completely different field, thinking I was going to do something more medicine-based. Sophomore year I wasn’t happy with my major and I had always loved history, so I found Social Science with a teaching license, which seemed like the perfect fit. I switched to that and loved it. I knew I wanted to teach somewhere, whether it was at CAC or somewhere else.

I’m excited to be back, but it’s a little weird being on this side of things. Working in the Middle School has helped the transition because my students didn’t really know me when I was a student, so it hasn’t been as weird or awkward as I thought it could’ve been. I do find it surreal that I eat lunch with teachers who taught me for years and address former teachers by their first names. It’s always a little humorous. 

You teach Geography, Arkansas History and Bible to the entire 7th grade class. What are some things you like about spending time with preteens in the classroom? 
Middle school is fun because they say things and ask questions that I would never think of – my brain just doesn’t work that way anymore. They keep me on my toes. Anything that is left open to interpretation will be interpreted 70 different ways by every student. They’ve done a great job of working with me and letting me try to incorporate some upper-level things in class, which has been fun.

What is your number one goal when you come to work every day?
My number one goal is always to engage the kids in a way that they learn something they didn’t know before. Obviously I’m presenting them with new material, but I don’t want it to go in one ear and out the other. I want to bring more conceptual topics into the discussions so that they leave my classroom thinking about something they hadn’t thought of before. 

History classes usually require the memorization of important dates, facts and names of influential people. We would imagine it can be hard for Middle School students to see the relevance in some of these. What do you think makes history such an important subject and why do you love teaching it to students?
What’s important to get from history are the lessons it teaches us. We can look at any time – any specific time in history – and see similar things happening across the world. We can look at an event that happened 300 years ago and draw similarities to what is going on now. I believe that no one point in history is totally unique because, in a sense, those events are happening all over the world.

I love history because there is always something to discuss when it comes to interpreting an event. We learn very quickly that while many historians may agree on the details of an event…we weren’t there when it happened, so we can’t say for certain. And the people who were there will give five different perspectives. 

Because of that, one of my favorite things to teach my students is the importance of learning how to decide which perspective we’re going to go with. Most of the time we take a blend of multiple accounts and try to take bias out of it as much as possible to determine what actually happened. That’s ultimately the goal – to determine what actually happened.

Kids always ask “Why should this matter to me? When am I going to use this?” I love to connect whatever we’re talking about to their current situation. I get to explain that the reason we do “this” is because of “this other thing.” For example, “The reason you currently have a phone is because of something someone did years ago.” The Arkansas History class is great because we live in Little Rock, which is full of Arkansas history. In Geography we talk about the regions of the state like the Arkansas River Valley. I can point out that Pinnacle mountain is right down the road and the river is less than a mile away from school.

Drawing connections that they can see is what really brings it alive.

Do you have a favorite unit to teach? Or is there one you’re specifically looking forward to studying this semester?
Last semester we studied Geography and the unit on Africa was by far my favorite. It was eyeopening to so many of my students. We did one section covering African music and how it started way back in the beginning. We talked about the call-and-response nature of African music and how that rhythm permeates our music today. I took them through traditional African songs, to the slave spirituals that were sung on the plantations of America, all the way to Kanye West on an airplane performing Airplane Karaoke with James Corden. African music permeates everything we do. The kids got to see that first hand and it was cool to see them realize what a profound impact it has on our everyday lives.

This semester I’m excited to teach about the Civil War because it impacted Arkansas so heavily. I have artifacts that I’m excited to bring for them to see – bayonets and other things I already own. I think they’ll all enjoy learning about it because it’s so personal to our state. 

This is also your first year as head coach for the CAC Boy’s Soccer team! What are you looking forward to this season?
I’m very excited. Some of the best memories I have from high school are from when I played soccer at CAC. We competed in two state championships and fell short both times – so the chance to come back and see if we can redeem that is exciting as well. Coach Stewart left the team in such a great spot and I’ve got some good guys and a lot of talent coming in. I know we’ll be ready to make a run at defending that title. I’ve been looking forward to the start of the season since I began work in August. 

Okay, we have time for one last question! What is an interesting fact about you or a hobby you enjoy?
I love writing with fountain pens. I actually started using them when I was student-teaching because my cooperating teacher had one and I became interested in them. I like to collect various fountain pens and different parchment paper. It helps me improve my handwriting, which could use some help – as my students will attest.  Each maker is different, so it’s interesting to see how they write differently. Some might say it’s a little pretentious, but I’d say it’s not pretentious – it’s traditional. It’s a callback to history and an older technology that is fun to use.