Naperville North business teacher's philosophy: Treat students as people first

  • Throughout his 25 years in education, Gene Nolan says he has always believed in treating students as people first. Now a business instructor and basketball coach at Naperville North High School, he encourages kids to embrace every obstacle as an opportunity.

    Throughout his 25 years in education, Gene Nolan says he has always believed in treating students as people first. Now a business instructor and basketball coach at Naperville North High School, he encourages kids to embrace every obstacle as an opportunity. Courtesy of Gene Nolan

 
 
Posted11/18/2020 6:00 AM

In a pre-pandemic world, Gene Nolan would stand outside the doorway of his classroom at Naperville North High School to greet students with a warm welcome.

He would spend each class engaging with them, guiding them through business principles and allowing their passions and creativity to drive their work. And when the bell rang at the end of the period, he would congratulate them on their successes and wish them luck at their upcoming sporting events or musical recitals or school plays.

 

An entirely remote schedule has not changed the content of Nolan's marketing and entrepreneurship classes, nor has it altered his teaching style. But those personalized, face-to-face interactions, no matter how small, are the moments Nolan misses most.

Though he can't replicate the in-person experiences, Nolan has developed a temporary solution for supporting and getting to know his students in a virtual setting. After each class, he asks one student to stick around for one minute to talk about anything they want -- hobbies, thoughts, interests -- as long as it's unrelated to the curriculum.

Shifting into a remote learning environment has been difficult for many students and teachers. But despite the challenges, Naperville North High School instructor Gene Nolan says the experience has taught him how to make his business classes even better for his students.
Shifting into a remote learning environment has been difficult for many students and teachers. But despite the challenges, Naperville North High School instructor Gene Nolan says the experience has taught him how to make his business classes even better for his students. - Courtesy of Gene Nolan

"I think it's always important as teachers that we look at the students we teach as people first and as students second," he said. "When we put it in that order, I think they become great students because they feel valued and important."

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That philosophy has carried Nolan into his 25th year in education, making him a favorite among students, said Annika Swanson, a 2020 Naperville North graduate. After a year in his Business INCubator class, she said, she walked away with hands-on experience, entrepreneurial skills and life lessons that extend far beyond the business world.

"It was a breath of fresh air having a teacher every day that cares about us," Swanson said. "He's not just there for his job. You can tell it's his passion."

Dream job

Nolan says he learned from the best.

Growing up, he had a great amount of respect for his teachers and coaches, who always led by example and made him feel valued. Knowing in his heart he wanted to follow in their footsteps, Nolan initially got a degree in business, but quickly pivoted to a teaching career that began at a private Catholic school in Chicago.

Nolan wore several hats during his 22 years at Marist High School. He taught business, health and physical education, coached basketball, served as the assistant athletic director, worked in admissions. And he loved every second of it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Naperville North High School teacher Gene Nolan encourages students in his business classes to embrace remote learning as an opportunity.
Naperville North High School teacher Gene Nolan encourages students in his business classes to embrace remote learning as an opportunity. - Courtesy of Gene Nolan

Then, in 2018, a position opened up in Naperville Unit District 203 -- the community where he's raising his family -- and he jumped at the opportunity.

"I was very fortunate to be able to come to a school that's known throughout the state with such a rich tradition academically and certainly athletically as well," Nolan, 46, said. "It's a school and a district that really develops the whole person socially, emotionally and intellectually."

His breadth of experience at Naperville North is expansive, too, with roles ranging from head boys basketball coach and assistant athletic director to instructor of the marketing, Business INCubator and second-level ACCELerator courses. But Nolan doesn't mind a full plate.

"I never really feel like I'm coming to work," he said. "I'm grateful to get the chance to work with such talented students and collaborate with great faculty that I've had the chance to learn so much from."

'A big impression'

With Business INCubator as her first-period course, every day of Swanson's senior year began on a positive note.

The Naperville native felt like she knew Nolan before he even became her teacher, just from his presence in the hallways -- a big smile and a friendly wave -- and from all the positive feedback she heard among peers. He lived up to his reputation, she said, making every class enjoyable with his energy, his patience and his willingness to help kids work through any problem they faced.

Designed to give students a chance to develop their own small businesses, the INCubator class solidified Swanson's desire to pursue a career in business and gave her a head start on some of her college coursework.

Now a student at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, she still seeks advice from Nolan, who makes it a point to check in frequently with his former students.

"From the beginning, he always wanted to teach us what we were learning in the class, but he taught us a lot more about being a good person," Swanson, 18, said. "He left a big impression."

When the pandemic hit last spring and Naperville schools transitioned to e-learning, Swanson quickly grew tired of sitting in front of a computer screen all day. Business INCubator was the exception.

Nolan managed to keep the lessons engaging and the curriculum relevant without skipping a beat, she said. He brought in guest speakers and coordinated meetings and allowed the young entrepreneurs to work independently with their small business teams.

Most importantly, she said, "he genuinely cared about us."

Life lessons

The COVID-19 crisis and stay-at-home order forced the entire business industry to shift suddenly to virtual platforms. Nolan's business classes shifted right along with it.

Rather than view e-learning as an impediment, he encouraged students to embrace the experience as an opportunity. Like real business professionals, they had to learn how to adapt on the fly, how to communicate effectively, how to work efficiently and navigate conflict in an entirely remote setting.

"The business world is defined by how we keep creating things, making things different and better, servicing our customers in a way that they feel they're getting value. And now our students are learning how to do these things in a virtual world," Nolan said.

"I can't tell you how impressed I am with what they're doing in a really challenging circumstance."

The assignments, structure and core mission of Nolan's classes have remained the same, he said, even if the environment is a bit different. The remote setting has even allowed the business program to tap into new resources and expand its network of contacts.

In the past, for example, mentors for the INCubator class were always local to the Naperville community, Nolan said. This year, two professionals are coaching his student entrepreneurs from Phoenix, Arizona.

"I've learned so much in these last couple of months ... about how we can make it not only a great experience, but let's make it better than ever before," he said. "That's a powerful experience as a teacher."

True to form, Nolan believes the unprecedented situation has also been powerful for students, who have had to overcome hurdles and demonstrate remarkable resilience. Those lessons will stick with them as they face the peaks and valleys of college, their careers and wherever else life takes them, he said.

"The next time they have something challenging in front of them -- something that's different or maybe intimidating -- they'll know they have achieved before," Nolan said. "And they'll be able to do it again."

• • •

Curriculum vitae

Name: Gene Nolan

School: Naperville North High School

Occupation: Business INCubator, ACCELerator and marketing teacher; assistant athletic director; head boys basketball coach

Residence: Naperville

Age: 46

Education: Bachelor of Science in business administration, Washington University in St. Louis; Master of Arts in educational leadership and administration, Governors State University

Teaching certifications: Business, marketing, computer education and history

Work experience: Marist High School in Chicago, 1996-2018

• • •

Tips from a great teacher

Even in his 25th year in education, Gene Nolan never stops learning, and he wishes the same for his students at Naperville North High School. As a business instructor and basketball coach, he encourages kids to follow their passion and embrace every obstacle as an opportunity.

Here are some words of advice Nolan offers to other teachers:

• Virtual learning is a great chance to grow professionally. I'm grateful for how much I've learned these last eight months, especially from my students.

• Build relationships with the kids. Connect personally.

• Have high expectations for all students, but it's not necessary for them to reach the finish line at the same time. Don't be afraid to give opportunities for additional time and practice so all students can meet those high expectations.

• We're in the teaching and learning business, not the evaluation business. Never give up on these kids.

• See the winner, the champion and the genius in every student.

• Have fun and enjoy it! As teachers, we are part of a great profession.

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