I want to write a post reflecting on the school year that has come and almost gone, but I feel like I need to get a few days distance before I do. In the meantime I wanted to share some of the great words of wisdom about teaching I’ve heard, especially from a 17 year old. Will, a senior at the school where I taught last year, shared the following words with new faculty on a hot August afternoon. I was a newly minted law and divinity school grad who had substituted for high school and middle school and been a youth minister but had no real classroom teaching experience. My excitement was tamped by the gnawing sense of dread that I had gotten myself into something much larger than I could handle. By the end of Will’s remarks, I felt my heart rate return to normal.
My name is Will Ramsey, and I am a senior here at DA. I am also a musician – I play saxophone in the Upper School jazz and rock ensemble In The Pocket. Music is a great passion of mine, providing both an outlet for stress and a medium through which to unite and channel the creative energies of like-minded individuals. I am always looking to learn more, so this summer I decided to enroll in a five-week performance seminar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The five-week program is intended to give interested students the chance to expand their musical abilities, become familiar with the Berklee curriculum, and, of course, meet student musicians from all over the country and all over the world. Needless to say, most of the participants plan to pursue a career in music. Despite sustaining a stress fracture in my right foot and spending four days in Massachusetts General Hospital with a severe urinary tract infection, I finished the program with improved technique and mostly excellent memories under my belt. So significant, in fact, was my time at Berklee, that when scrambling to prepare for this address, I felt it would be just the type of anecdote I needed. I regard the five-week program as a wonderfully enlightening experience because it showed me that I couldn’t tolerate living with a bunch of musicians. For me, attending a school of music is like eating chocolate cake for every meal of the day, every day of the week. By the end, I was almost glad to go home, if only to escape hearing one more joke about guitar players or one more mention of modal interpolation, substitute dominants or the imaginary bar line. Just like our mothers tell us, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, regardless of how much it makes us practice. I am sure that by this point you are asking yourselves; what the heck does this have to do with Durham Academy? Where is this guy going? Why am I here? Why did I even interview for this job? Not to worry. My point in telling you about Berklee comes to this: I realized that although music brought beauty and joy to my life, it could never be more than an avocation. Durham Academy – my home since kindergarten – has provided me with such a diverse spiritual and intellectual diet that anything less just makes me feel undernourished. Although I imagine most high schools maintain a certain number of interdisciplinary requirements, the environment at DA is such that students feel excited about stretching themselves across multiple fields of study, art, and thought. You’ll find truly remarkable kids here at DA – the cello-playing math prodigy who runs cross-country and still enjoys English class; the student body president who plays softball and finds time to tech for theater productions; the track-running poet/historian who also happens to play violin in the school chamber music ensemble; the star soccer player and devoted science student who skillfully entertains his friends and peers with magic. Students like these are not exceptions, although they are often exceptional – they are common at Durham Academy.
What is it, then, that you as teachers need to know, coming into an environment such as I’ve described? First: be yourself. The teachers I remember, the ones I consider superior, were and still are willing to share their interests and experiences with students and with the school community. Whether it’s the calculus teacher who readily discusses his passion for Schubert, the English teacher who goes out for the winter musical or the history professor who talks about his days working for the CIA in the Soviet Union, DA teachers make an impact simply by contributing their unique selves to the mix. I won’t say be funny, because that may not be exactly who you are – but it doesn’t hurt.
Second: remain open to all the school has to offer. Teachers have the opportunity to extend themselves far beyond their individual disciplines – advising clubs, coaching teams, assisting with musical or theatrical productions and even starring in them. A great teacher, as you can probably tell, is one who forms a personal connection with the school and students and who constantly strengthens this connection by investing his/her time in as much as he/she can. Third: be honest to your students and to yourself. This applies not only to your policies in the classroom, but also to your relationships outside. Teachers that are clear in their expectations garner respect from their students, as do teachers that are clear in their principles – clarity in both areas will immeasurably help class productivity.
Finally: remember this school’s oft repeated but still potent mission statement: “to provide each student an education that will enable him or her to live a moral, happy and productive life.” Every aspect of the schooling process at DA should and does, in my opinion, contribute to the fulfillment of this mission statement – and every aspect of the schooling process starts with the teachers. There is no manual that I know of that describes how new teachers should go about establishing themselves. A lot of it is, I think, stumbling around and making mistakes until one gets the hang of it.
I could give you many more tips, beyond just four, that I think are important, but you’d probably forget them and resent me for presuming to dictate to my superiors. That’s why I’ll leave you with one overarching piece of advice – don’t be afraid to make your own way in this school. You may find that only some or none of my points apply in your case, and that a different approach is needed. That’s okay – in fact, given the unique diversity of this community, I might expect it. It’s entirely possible that I’m just starry-eyed, that I have an overly romantic view of the school – one born of isolation from other perspectives, perhaps. But I think that you’ll find, as I have, that this is a very special place. Good luck.