For GPS Varsity Head Climbing Coach and French teacher Dr. Sean Caulfield, climbing and the French language play a symbiotic role in his life.
Although teaching French at GPS was what led Caulfield to coaching climbing at GPS, initially his childhood affinity for climbing drew him to the French language. Born in Waterloo, Iowa, Caulfield began climbing at the age of 12 while living in Andover, Massachusetts, during his Boy Scout years.
Serendipitously, Caulfield became a member of the same scout troop as the son of renowned climber Willi Unsoeld, who was a member of the first American expedition to summit Mount Everest in 1963. Caulfield remembers feeling a definite climbing buzz in the community—and then he received a copy of Gaston Rébuffat’s On Ice, and Snow, and Rock. The book had a magical effect, and Caulfield was enchanted by how this alpinist wrote about the mountains and climbing and the craft of guiding.
Caulfield’s love for climbing only increased, and this passion led him to the French language during his teenage years. Dreaming of work as an Alpine guide, the high school student was soon headed to France. Caulfield had earned a Rotary scholarship to study at a public lycée in Angoulême, France, for his junior year of high school.
Although Caulfield was entranced by his experience, it wasn’t until a gap year in college that he realized teaching French was his calling. Caulfield decided to take a year off and worked as a Nordic skiing instructor at the Jackson Hole Ski School in Teton Village, Wyoming. Hitchhiking back into town one day, he got a ride from a woman who happened to be the French teacher at the local high school. After sharing his experiences of living in France and speaking French, he was invited to talk to one of her French classes.
This experience served as the catalyst toward choosing a vocation. “As soon as I was there in front of the class, speaking French and talking about France with the students, and they were excited to hear about it, something clicked,” Caulfield says, “and I soon realized that I wanted to teach French.”
Following His Calling
Caulfield received a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Then he returned to France for a year to study in Strasbourg. After receiving his master’s degree in French from the University of Illinois, Caulfield went on to the University of Iowa, earning his PhD in French. Throughout his academic endeavors, Caulfield continued to climb when his location and time allowed, often spending part of his summers rock climbing in France and Germany and mountaineering in the French and Swiss Alps.
Before coming to Chattanooga, Caulfield and his wife lived in Charleston, South Carolina, where he taught at Ashley Hall, an independent all-girls school, and helped start that school’s outdoor program. When an opportunity opened at GPS, the Caulfields seized the chance to live in the mountains of Tennessee, and he continued his teaching at a single-sex institution. He had developed an appreciation for the educational environment at an all-girls school and its unique classroom dynamic.
“I realized I could be successful if I established a relationship with the girls,” Caulfield says. “Girls are motivated to do their best when they feel that the teacher wants them to be successful. Once I realized this was a fundamental component to doing well in the classroom, it made a difference.”
Caulfield also sees his students not just as learning French or Latin, but as engaging in multiple disciplines with outside interests. He recalls a French student who couldn’t be in class because of her role in the musical Cabaret. “I knew I had to go see the show,” Caulfield recalls. He saw her playing the violin, wearing a costume, and performing the splits. “This girl was more than just a student in my French class, and I came to realize that the same was true for each of my girls.”
That sense of respect for the whole girl—and all of her interests and pursuits—is reflected in Caulfield’s leadership of the climbing team at GPS.
Bringing a Climbing League to GPS and Chattanooga
Following his passion for climbing, Caulfield began working his first year here with the GPS Climbing Team, and he helped to found the Chattanooga Area Interscholastic Climbing League. Under Caulfield’s direction, the school was a strong presence in forming the league. He worked closely with Outdoor Chattanooga and the city’s climbing gyms to mirror a league similar to one in Knoxville, which both GPS and McCallie were part of before Chattanooga’s league was formed.
Caulfield was in the earliest meetings for the initiative. Climbing gym owners hadn’t foreseen that so many middle and high school students would want to do this; finally, the Urban Rocks gym agreed to host a competition. Now more than 12 schools in the area have students participating.
Caulfield remains optimistic as the popularity of competitive indoor climbing continues to grow. Last year there were 14 climbers—the most ever—on the GPS Climbing Team, and their coach is pleased by the number of rising ninth-grade students who want to join the 2019-20 team.
Former GPS climber Sarah Goodrich ’17 recently competed in nationals at the collegiate level. She’s been climbing nearly every day since she joined the climbing team in ninth grade at GPS and uses the sport as a way to blow off steam and balance her course load at the Rensselaer Institute of Technology. She is grateful for the experience of climbing with classmates and for Caulfield’s guidance and still connects with her past coach and teammates when she’s in Chattanooga. “Climbing is a great way to relieve stress,” Goodrich says. “I get to hang out with my friends and burn off extra energy.”
Now in its fifth year, the city’s Interscholastic Climbing League has gained a foothold. Caulfield recognizes the need for continuous improvements and reevaluation, as well as the flexibility to innovate and adopt some features of international competitive climbing. Just as the disciplines of climbing and bouldering have evolved from mountaineering, the GPS climbing program and the city’s league will continue to grow and evolve.