Coming Full Circle, From Student to Teacher

by James Hearne

Horizon Reporter

“You all have some really remarkable things to say about this text,” Gretchen Coulter says, to her English 102 class. She looks around the room, as though to ascertain whether or not her words are getting through. “Your thinking is there, on paper,” she says. “That is powerful.” She then goes on to describe the rules of punctuation and spelling, before focusing on the assignment at hand.

            Coulter, 49, is an English composition and literature instructor at Whatcom Community College. Tall, with shoulder length blonde hair, she speaks softly and smiles often.

            Coulter’s path to her current career may seem unorthodox. “I knew growing up that writing was my passion,” she said. She had tried college once, at a much younger age, but found it wasn’t for her at the time. She married young, and raised three children. As her children grew up and moved out, she considered returning to school.

            Coulter registered for Whatcom in the late 1990’s. She then transferred to Western Washington University, where she earned her master’s degree in English studies, with an emphasis in rhetoric and composition. She then applied for and received a position at Whatcom, teaching ever since. In the spring of 2011, Whatcom granted her one of the highest shows of trust that an institution can show a member of the faculty by granting her tenure.    

            “I view myself as someone who facilitates good thinking,” Coulter said. She said she wants her students to constantly be thinking about what they are reading and writing, and she uses a number of methods to encourage them. One is using politically-themed documentaries to start a discussion. She said, however, that she does not use them to promote an agenda, but to promote “a discussion of bigger life ideas.”

            “I would not call myself political,” Coulter said. “But I am active.” She added that she wants students to engage with the world around them. “We are not here to simply take up space,” she said.

            Ultimately, though, Coulter’s passion is writing. “I am very grateful for the written word,” Coulter says. “Composition has long been considered the ‘ugly sister’ to literature,” Coulter says. “I think that’s a shame.” Coulter says that she loves teaching students about the written word.

            Coulter said that when she is not teaching, she enjoys gardening, quilting and knitting. She and her husband, the principal of Whatcom Middle School, have traveled in Europe quite extensively, including Ireland, France, and Italy. She also recently adopted a dog, Tavi.

            Although she doesn’t regret for a minute the choice she made to devote herself to raising her three (now grown) children, she does feel like her time is limited because she established herself professionally at a later age. That does not deter her, however.

            “I hope to remain a life-long learner,” Coulter said. “I hope it never ends.”

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