Collegiate Legend John Coates Carries On

Thanks, Mr. Coates

By Jordan Leibowitz

John Coates, my English teacher at Collegiate during eighth grade, taught me how to write. His English course was known as one of the most challenging classes the school offered. We read, discussed, and wrote about classics such as The Prince and the Pauper and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as several of Coates’s favorite sonnets. Each day, my peers and I would enter class anxious to hear whatever Coates was going to teach us that day.

Coates in his classroom. Photo courtesy of Collegiate School.

While Coates elevated me from struggling to complete a paragraph to being able to argue my point throughout a well-written five paragraph essay, his lessons about writing only scratch the surface of what he truly taught me, my peers, and his colleagues. This impact is described by Coates’s former assistant and current Middle School English and history teacher Charlie Williams. Williams describes Coates’s character by saying: Joy and gratitude – If you have ever seen Mr. Coates laugh, then you have seen what happens when joy and excitement take over someone’s body. It is impossible not to start laughing yourself, even if the root of the laughter was a terrible, terrible pun. Mr. Coates cares for his students more than about any teacher I know, and the sincerity of those feelings are evident as he thanked each of his students at the end of the year as well as his assistant at the end of each school day.”

Confined to a wheelchair for over two decades, Coates’s will to teach is incredible. He says that, “the most difficult thing I faced was how I going to cope with what you could legitimately describe as a catastrophic disorder.” Despite this, Williams described the true power that a positive attitude can have: “Mr. Coates inspired me by his toughness and dedication to his mission. Many tasks that most of us take for granted are tedious, tiresome, and painful for Mr. Coates. Mr. Coates inspires by refusing to back down or complain about his challenges. He just keeps going and is always determined to make the most out each opportunity.”

Coates describes his medical condition by saying, “I have a condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and it is the mildest form of [a disease] having to do with your extremities.” He cannot move his arms or his legs and uses a motorized wheelchair. Coates has been in and out of the hospital throughout the years since his diagnosis, and for many years he had a teaching assistant, often a new male Collegiate teacher, who would provide him with any assistance necessary, in addition to helping him teach. Despite his condition, Coates continued to teach with a passion for his subject and the love for his students that endeared him to the Collegiate community.

Coates attended Saint Christopher’s School in Richmond as a young man. He first noticed signs of his condition when, as a boy, he would have to lean on tables to avoid falling. After he earned a JV letter in track running the 8×80, Coates spent the next season bothered by rare injuries such as “a burned sole of my foot.” 

Coates taught for forty-six years, thirty-one of them at Collegiate. He described his motive to teach for so long as: “I saw it as the nicest way to spend a life that I could come up with.” His favorite parts of teaching were, “The one-on-one work I did with individual students and also teaching kids how to use all of their experiences, not just in English, to write.” Williams says, “Mr. Coates loves teaching, loves his colleagues, and loves discussing literature with students. He was always willing to do anything he could to help a student succeed, and he worked tirelessly to be the best teacher he could be.”

Coates was a notoriously tough grader. He claims to have had a reason for this. He said, “You have to get people’s attention before they change what they’re doing… in the back of a kid’s head, he needs to believe that if [he doesn’t] try pretty hard, they’re not going to make it.” Coates’s view of education is part of his success as a teacher. Williams describes how Coates saw education as “a marathon rather than a sprint; so many little improvements can eventually be transformative over a full school year.”

When I was in his class, before an essay was due I would stand in the line of students in order to hear his opinion of my paper. He would always send me back from these sessions with the task of having to rewrite my entire paper the night before it was due. I would be annoyed and upset about this, but now I cannot thank him enough.

Coates and Head of School Steve Hickman. Photo courtesy of Collegiate School.

Coates retired in 2015 and lives with his wife and dog in Richmond. He says that, “I miss the relationships, I think that most teachers will tell you that one of the things that they like the most is the feeling that they are impacting people’s lives in a positive way.” Coates initially envisioned himself as a teacher “when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.”

Coates’s former assistant and close friend, Middle School humanities teacher George Wickham, describes the impact that he feels that Coates had on students by saying, “He set a very high bar for each class and connected so well with students who had difficulty reaching that bar. I think that is a rare and ideal combination of skills for a teacher to have. I think students (and colleagues) learned from John what it looks like to throw yourself wholeheartedly into everything you do.”  

I recently joined a dog walk with Coates and Wickham. Throughout the walk, Coates greeted every other dog walker in his neighborhood with an illuminating smile. When I asked Coates what he has been doing since his retirement, he said: “I have been walking my dog twice a day, reading a fair number of books, and continuing to engage in the endless goal of living purposefully.” He expressed a great deal of gratitude towards Collegiate: “I think Collegiate is genuinely one of the class acts of day schools in the entire country. I’d like to thank the people at Collegiate for giving me a chance, and of course the one that I can say that the most about is [the first head of the Middle School] Mr. [Bill] Reeves.” The Middle School honors Coates’s service by giving an English award in his name every year at eighth grade graduation.

About the author

Jordan Leibowitz is a junior at Collegiate.