Merrimack Alumni Connections: Physical Education Teachers

Associate Professor Anne Gatling invites local physical education (PE) teachers to present to her health science education classes every spring at Merrimack. The brief course presentations have become a campus favorite and offer Merrimack students the chance to hear from people in the field and develop their network.

Merrimack students in the Winston School of Education & Social Policy trade laptops for hula hoops and dodgeballs when local PE teachers present to their class each spring semester. The presentations offer Merrimack students a rare glimpse into the life of physical education and have helped create a network of local PE teachers and Merrimack alumni now working in the field.

Former PE teacher Bob Sparkes, who served for decades at Spofford Pond School and Harry Lee Cole School in Boxford, Massachusetts, has been a popular personality among Merrimack students for years. He retired from teaching in 2011, but has been an adjunct lecturer at Merrimack since 1988 and presents about physical education in Professor Gatling’s spring classes.

Sparkes said he encourages Merrimack students during his presentations to work in something they love and also remember to have fun.

“The best part of working with students is seeing them grow, mature, and develop new skills and see how they develop as people,” Sparkes said. “I always say I was a teacher and my classroom just happened to be a gymnasium.”

Sean Morgan is another PE teacher who has come to class to offer insight into the role of physical education. Morgan teaches at Thomson Elementary School in North Andover and started working with Gatling’s classes throughout the 2020-2021 academic year.

“College students are not really an age group I get to work with every day,” Morgan said. “I’ve tried to make the lessons fun so they enjoy it, but also let them know that PE is not just a place where students get dropped off to run around for a little bit. Some people say PE looks like chaos, but there’s always a method to the madness.”

As Morgan was getting adjusted to visiting campus, he shared this work with colleagues and realized he had another connection to the Merrimack community.

“I lead all the PE teachers in North Andover,” Morgan said. “When we were hiring for one of our kindergarten programs in summer 2020, Merrimack alumna Dani Warhall was consistently our top choice for the position.”

Dani Warhall graduated from Merrimack in 2019 with a master’s in education and joined Anne Bradstreet Early Childhood Center in North Andover at the height of pandemic shutdowns in summer 2020. While she was still a master’s student at Merrimack, she took Gatling’s class and knew Bob Sparkes from his classroom visits.

“My grandfather was an athletic trainer, coach and PE teacher and so was my mom,” Warhall said. “I have been raised by coaches and teachers my whole life. While my experience at Merrimack was not very PE-related, I remember that day with Bob.”

Before pursuing her master’s degree, Warhall was interested in coaching, fitness and training after completing her undergraduate degree in exercise science. As she entered the workforce, she realized she was more drawn to education and said her experiences studying general education in the master’s program at Merrimack informed much of her teaching during the pandemic.

“Having the general education knowledge this past year and knowing what these kids were likely going through in their classrooms helped me a lot when we were remote,” Warhall said. “I got creative with PowerPoint slides and videos and narrated all the directions because a lot of my students can’t read yet. I made sure everything was appropriate for that age group and level of development.”

At the beginning of this summer, Gatling set up a small reunion for Sparkes, Morgan and Warhall to gather on campus, share stories and connect.

“I have kept up with all of the people I learned from at Merrimack,” Warhall said. “Staying connected would be my biggest recommendation to other Merrimack students. You have all of these people around you who will help you network and find a job you love. These relationships are so valuable and important, both personally and professionally.”

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