When Fenwick High School speech teacher Andrew Arellano decided in January that the 2019-2020 school year would be his last, he told the principal, but asked him not to share the information with students or the rest of the faculty.
Arellano, who taught at the Oak Park school for 48 years, didn’t want his students or colleagues to be distracted from the business of learning and teaching, something that became even more of a challenge in March, when Illinois schools all began teaching remotely.
So his farewell email to faculty members after the end of the semester came as something of a shock.
“He’s somewhat of a legend at Fenwick because he teaches speech and every student is required to take speech,” said Kate Whitman, who graduated from Fenwick in 2001 and began teaching English there in 2005. “He literally teaches every student who goes through that building. He provided this shared experience that every student could point to as a thing we have in common.”
Whitman, a close friend of Arellano’s daughter, said she had an inkling that Arellano was considering retirement, but even so, she still speaks of his teaching career in the present tense, as though it hasn’t ended.
Part of that, she said, is that she knows that he’ll still be available to offer advice and counsel to all the new teachers he has mentored over the year. Part of it is the unusual circumstances this school year is starting under, with students following hybrid schedules and social distancing rules in place.
In a telephone interview, Arellano pointed out that his retirement had nothing to do with the pandemic, and, in fact, this has turned out to be a less-than-ideal time to start his post-teaching life.
“Once things are back to normal, my wife and I might do some traveling,” Arellano said, adding that they hoped to be able to visit his daughters, one in New Orleans and one in Colorado. “Of course, we can’t do that now.”
In a press release announcing Arellano’s retirement, Fenwick principal Peter Groom said:
“Few people have impacted Fenwick students as much as Andy, and no one has impacted them more. Of all the courses that Fenwick offers, Mr. Arellano’s speech class is the one cited over and over again as the most beneficial in preparing our students for life. Andy’s passion and attention to detail are a small part of what has made him so incredibly successful. While being a great teacher, Mr. Arellano has also been a guardian angel for so many of our students that are trying to find their way. He has a unique ability to identify students that are hiding their pain and help them get the comfort that they need. He will be dearly missed.”
Arellano was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, where he attended St. Bernard Grade School (now St. Benedict the African Parish), St. Joseph and St. Anne Grade School (now Our Lady of Fatima Parish) and De La Salle Institute.
The Dominican-sponsored school estimates that Arellano taught more than 10,000 students during his career, as every student was required to take his one-semester speech class during their sophomore year.
The class is intended to help students learn to express their ideas effectively, Arellano said, something that is useful and necessary for people in all walks of life.
“Dominicans are the Order of Preachers, and there’s a connection there,” Arellano said of the school’s commitment to teaching speech. “I had teachers in graduate school and even in college who really got ticked off when people said, ‘It’s only communication.’ Everything is about communication. It’s important that students know how to communicate so they can express their ideas and knowledge. Hopefully, you can have a positive impact on the world and those around you if you can communicate your ideas.”
Whitman said Arellano’s positive impact is unquestioned.
As a teacher, she said, “he’s very no-nonsense, he’s very organized, he sets very high expectations for his students, and he holds them to those expectations and pushes them to go above and beyond. That could be intimidating, but by the end of taking that class, because of these expectations that he placed on us, most students became so much more confident.”
As a mentor to new teachers and a colleague, he emphasized the same things.
“When I started there, he was the person in charge of new teacher orientation, and he instilled in the new teachers the same things: being organized, being confident in what you’re doing, holding the kids to the same high standards,” Whitman said.
At the same time, he knew when students needed someone to lend an ear or offer support, she said.
John Schoeph, chair of the English Department and a 1995 Fenwick graduate, echoed Whitman’s praise, adding that Arellano would sometimes make a point of telling him he was doing a good job after overhearing some of Schoeph’s lessons from the corridor.
“He certainly did not have to take the time to be encouraging, but he did,” Schoeph wrote in an email. “Countless students have referred to the advantage they felt they had in college and in the workplace thanks to the speech and communication skills they had garnered from Mr. Arellano. The class is not fluff — Andy sees to that. Thanks to Andy’s instruction and no-nonsense approach to conducting class, students entering college and careers feel confident and secure, despite the nerves, to perform and speak in front of others or in group settings.”
Arellano said that one thing he saw change over his years of teaching is the pressure put on high school students.
“There is far more pressure in terms of doing well, especially with what they need to be involved in, activity-wise,” Arellano said.
In addition to teaching the sophomore speech course at Fenwick, Arellano also ran many of the school’s special-occasion speaking competitions, started a speech contest for area grade schools and received many awards.
Taurean, a senior at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School in the city’s Austin neighborhood, is excited about the new Innovation Center his school just opened, and especially the Maker Lab, which includes a recording studio.
Fifth grader Noah attended Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and was shot during the May 24 massacre that killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers. He is recovering and now attends Sacred Heart Catholic School, through a scholarship from Catholic Extension. In a letter to Pope Francis, he wrote, “When I started school last week, I felt safe and loved.”
Students at St. Symphorosa School can tackle new challenges this year by putting their heads together and figuring out how to make things work.