When Dr. Chad Suhr joined the Saint Gertrude community in 2016, he was moderately new to teaching. He had recently completed a Ph.D. in physics, which included a stint at the Large-Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, in Cern, Geneva. Along the way, he also earned a master’s degree in philosophy. A teaching assignment at another independent school was all it took for Dr. Suhr to realize that he loved teaching high school, and within months of joining SGHS, Dr. Suhr quickly endeared himself to students through his wacky humor, intriguing experiments, and innovative teaching methods. We sat down with Dr. Suhr to find out why he likes teaching at an all-girls school, how he brings philosophy into the classroom, and why certain physics assignments are his favorite.
After completing your Ph.D., what made you decide to teach high school?
After I finished grad school, I knew that I didn’t want to stay in research. For me, research had meant sitting in an office being angry with a computer. I really like interacting with people, so I looked into jobs in education—college and high school. In 2014, I was hired to help design and teach a project-based, interdisciplinary curriculum at an independent high school in Charlottesville. I worked on that for two years—one year was spent designing the curriculum, and the other, teaching the pilot year. Those two years were the coolest master’s in education that you could get; it was like a crash tour. The program did not go beyond the pilot year, but I really had a lot of fun and realized that I enjoyed teaching high school.
At a high school, there is an emphasis on relationships with students. I know the kids I teach. I’ve developed a special relationship with them. I can joke with them. And a lot of schools have programs that are really neat. They are trying to do interesting things. There is thought about creative ways to present material.
What is it like to teach at an all-girls school?
This is my first experience with it. Before this, I taught at a coed school. Boys and girls are very different animals. At this age, girls typically have more executive function than boys do, so they are able to make plans and execute them better. I think it’s that functioning that helps with inventiveness. Yes, girls can be a bit boy crazy, but there aren’t boys in the classroom to be crazy about so they don’t have to think about what the boys are thinking and doing. The girls can just be present in the classroom. I’m glad an all-girls education is an option for families.
At SGHS we teach physics freshman year. Many students also take a more advanced physics course their senior year. Why do we teach physics first? How does this benefit our girls?
Physics is really the fundamental science, and understanding principles in physics—force, energy, motion, etc.—are useful in subsequent courses. In the standard biology-chemistry-physics progression, the first time you use much math is in chemistry and the concepts are often a bit more abstract. Not only are the concepts there less familiar, but you can’t always see them in action. Also the hazards of working with chemicals make safety paramount. Physics
concepts can be explored with things like springs, rubber bands, toy cars, and the like, so we can play around a bit more. Also, by teaching physics first, we ensure that everyone takes physics. It’s no longer a junior elective. Everyone is exposed to this fundamental science.
What is your favorite physics assignment?
Senior projects in Physics II are fun. These are quarter-long projects where students construct a product or demonstration and then discuss the physics of what they have built in a group presentation. Last year students built a Rubens’ tube—a tube that is filled with gas and attached to a speaker. The gas is lit on fire, and sound waves cause the flames to vary in height. A Rubens’ tube allows students to see the wave structure of sound. (You can find videos of a Rubens’ tube online.) Of course it’s fire, so it’s cool. This year students are talking about building a hovercraft! More than the actual project, the students have to create their own plan for building and learning, everything from figuring out what they need, what safety precautions they have to take, and what they must understand in order to be an expert on their particular project. This is what most things in real life are like. You have to figure out what you need to do and how to do it. You have to understand enough to know where your knowledge ends and whether that is sufficient for your purpose. It is easy to find information on the Internet and recite it, but much more difficult to explain it in your own words or use it to create something.
How do you bring philosophy into the classroom?
I have always enjoyed philosophy. Philosophy allows a way of thinking about science that is not just about calculation. Science is a certain type of knowledge and it’s important to understand how science relates to other types of knowledge. Philosophy does that. Philosophy is concerned with everything and how different fields fit together. It helps place science alongside other types of knowledge in a cohesive whole, including fields like ethics and religion. Many students share the default assumption of our culture that science and religion are inherently opposed to one another. I want them to see that this is not necessarily the case, that there are ways of integrating these ways of thinking that do justice to both science and religion, and present a rich picture of the world.
By Savannah Wilson, Archival Intern
Saint Gertrude’s official mascot may be a Gator, but the school also has hosted several unofficial mascots throughout the years. Here are the stories of some of the most famous four-legged companions to have graced the school with their presence.
Tim, The Original
What we know of Tim, possibly the first dog to have been a member of Saint Gertrude High School, comes from a history of the school’s first five years written by the first principal, Sister Gertrude Head. Much of Sister Gertrude’s history focused on the school’s progress and major events such as graduation, but she dedicated a full eight sentences to talking about Tim when she noted the “cloud of sadness” that had come over the school when he had died in February 1927. Sister Gertrude’s adoration for Tim is clear as she remembers the bull dog who seemed to fill all roles, serving as “both member of faculty and student body” (a position that included “attending all classes”), protector of the home, and “the Czar of Stuart Ave.,” who evoked terror in other dogs, cats, and, of course, Richmond’s delivery men. Although Tim, or Timmie, may have been fierce to outsiders, he seems to have felt at home at Saint Gertrude. “He possessed the freedom of the house and was its vigorous protector,” Sister Gertrude wrote. “He knew and loved each of the school children and courted their affection.” Even in death, Tim remained in the place he loved; he was buried, Sister Gertrude says, under an umbrella tree on the property’s lower lawn.
Queenie, The Celebrity
It seems that whoever named Queenie, a German Shepherd who lived at the convent in the 1950s and 1960s, knew she was destined for greatness. True to her royal name, Queenie became known not only to the SGHS student body, but also to people across Richmond and around the country. After Queenie suffered a bad cut on her paw on one of her journeys, she walked herself to a human hospital, the Retreat for the Sick, according to a 1963 obituary (yes, there was an obit printed for the pup!). She wandered the hallways until somebody found her, and a veterinarian later stitched her cut. The Richmond News Leader ran an article about Queenie’s self-admittance to the hospital, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not soon picked up and publicized the story, giving Queenie widespread fame. Queenie wrote her own news stories, too. The school newspaper, The Green Shield, ran a column called “Queenie Was Here” (later changed to “Queenie Is Here”), in which she commented on school happenings. Despite her regal nature, though, Queenie still proved loving and loyal both to neighborhood children and the girls of Saint Gertrude. As her obituary states: “Dogs will come and dogs will go! But it is hard to think of Saint Gertrude’s without ‘Queenie,’ a faithful and well-loved friend.”
Tipper, The Advice Giver
Tipper the dog authored the advice column “Tips from Tipper” that ran in The Green Shield in the late 1960s and mid-1970s, and perhaps between these two periods as well. In the late 1960s, “Tips from Tipper” included musings on Tipper’s life as a dog – “while the girls have been busy studying, I have been out with my friends enjoying these beautiful spring days” –, commentary on school happenings – “The annual staff can finally breathe a sigh of relief” –, and gossip – “Last week I almost had my tail run over by a hot-rod Sophomore in a white station wagon.”
The column also included some actual tips from Tipper in the form of admonishments to misbehaving students and an advice column portion. Tipper told one letter-writer, who said her boyfriend treated her like a dog, that “Really a dog’s life isn’t really so bad; but if you have tried everything then I advise you to join a convent – there you won’t have any boyfriend problems.” In the mid-1970s, “Tips from Tipper” continued to talk about campus life but focused more on Tipper’s personal life, mentioning stories he had heard about his great-great grandfather as a puppy, his time as a member of Bone Scouts, and his girlfriend, Spot.
Beyond the column, we know Saint Gertrude has been the home of three Tippers, each owned by Sister Damien, who had a deep love for dogs and who also had owned Queenie, according to Saint Gertrude’s January 1990 newsletter. At the time the newsletter was written, Tipper III lived at the convent in Bristow, and Sister Damien visited him when she went there. A number of pictures of at least one of the Tippers, including some particularly heartwarming ones with Sister Damien and the dog together, are among the school’s old photographs.
And for all cat lovers, Thomas
In case felines are more your forte, we’ll end with Thomas the orange “cafeteria cat,” who was the subject of a December 1986 article in The Green Shield. Thomas was sneaky, managing to slip past Sister Charlotte’s watchful eye into the cafeteria on numerous occasions and entering by walking through the school’s front doors and past the office when the cafeteria doors were closed. Once Thomas entered the lunchroom, he may have stolen students’ lunches, according to the article. Despite the cat’s criminal nature, he, like the dogs of Saint Gertrude, cared for the students. “Thomas is friendly with all the students at Saint Gertrude,” the article stated. “He enjoys visiting the sophomores in the gym during their class meetings as well as waiting for the seniors to get out of school at the senior hall doors.”
Today, our students enjoy the company of a bunny and a hive of bees, both located in Liz Czaja’s biology classroom, but nothing like the Tippers of yore. If you are an alumna, do you remember any of the Saint Gertrude pets? Share your stories on our Facebook page.
Saint Gertrude High School is currently organizing its archives in preparation for its centennial anniversary in 2022. This blog post came out of archival research that took place in the summer of 2018. We’ll share more archival blog posts throughout the year.