Former teacher brings rock climbing passion to Syracuse’s Central Rock Gym

Ex-teacher brings rock climbing passion to Syracuse gym

From the classroom to the gym, Youth Programs Coordinator Greg Sommer continues to teach rock climbing.
Published: December 16, 2018

Greg Sommer, the Youth Programs Coordinator at Syracuse's Central Rock Gym, teaches a rock climbing course in 2018.

For most of his life, Greg Sommer has been freely expressing himself without a wisp of care. Even as a child, Sommer recalls that the blocks of time that he spent outdoors, scaling trees and reaching other perches that were “much too dangerous.” Many years later, Sommer brought his passion for climbing into his workplace.

Sommer taught at a public school for a decade before transferring to a private school. While there, Sommer’s students recognized him for his engaging and unique teaching practices. He constantly used his hands-on teaching styles to enliven the entire learning community. “I didn’t just want to do workbooks. I wanted it to be a unique experience, boom up the creativity that kids were already bringing naturally,” said Sommer.

Whereas most teachers instructed their students to flip to a page in their history textbooks, Sommer had a different vision for the colonization unit. Instead, Sommer made a replica of the Earth by creating a massive bubble with polyurethane wrap and duct tape, powered by a fan. “[We created] a whole new planet. We then colonized and discussed the type of government we wanted, food to eat and how we would trade,” Sommer said.

One day, Sommer also realized how much space he occupied in the classroom as a teacher. In response to this epiphany, he removed his desk filing cabinets and everything related to his position, because he felt that it created an “invisible boundary distinguishing student from teacher.” From that day forward, everything in the room was made by and voted upon by the students.

Sommer was met by opposition from the school administration when he planned and erected a rock wall on the actual wall of his classroom. “My approach to teaching was bodily kinesthetic, so a lot more hands-on, a lot more movement. That’s how I am as a learner and how I saw kids be able to be at their best in [their] learning experiences,” said Sommer.

Sommer utilized the wall as a teaching tool for nearly every subject. Naturally, his young students were excited, and they began to do research on bouldering and youth climbing. They eventually asked Sommer to form a climbing team. The classroom became too constrained, and its limitations led Sommer to start bussing students over to a nearby indoor rockwall center in Oswego, New York.

Due to a conjunction of Sommer’s unconventional nature and other outside factors, the headmaster of the school ultimately let Sommer go. “It was a big shock,” said Sommer. “That was a really difficult time to go through, because [I] put so much into it, and… it was just done… I was just trying to make the learning experience amazing.”

Shortly after Sommer was laid off from his teaching position, he took a year off to start homeschooling his kids. Since then, Sommer has been loosely involved in some other new projects with several former colleagues. However, he continues to gravitate towards rock climbing.

Since December 2017, Sommer has been working at Central Rock Gym as the Youth Programs Coordinator. His general responsibilities include coaching various youth climbing teams and running afterschool programs. While Sommer may not be teaching anymore, he feels satisfied. “I could not be happier,” said Sommer on his experiences at Central Rock Gym. “I go from having to clean toilets, to [wiping] down equipment. But I could not be happier.”

Through difficult and trying periods of his life, Sommer has never let go of his charisma and his confidence. “For what it’s worth, every day, I remind myself to do five things: free the fear, flow forward, live fun, live kind, and live grateful. Those five things have gotten me to this point,” said Sommer.

The Central Rock Gym is located at 600 N Franklin St in Syracuse, New York and is open 7 days week.