Faculty & Staff Profiles

Faculty Spotlight: Second-grade teacher Karen Lovelace
Posted 05/19/2016 03:26PM

Karen Lovelace vows she was never good at math. In fact, she credits college-age tutors from Wake Forest with helping her through geometry and algebra when she was a student at Winston-Salem’s Reynolds High School, but three numbers instantly come to mind about her career. This school year marks her 10th year in second grade, her 24th year at Durham Academy and her 37th year of teaching. 

Lovelace has known she wanted to be a teacher “since I was a tiny little person.” Her three younger brothers were her students when she set up school in the family room. They lived next door to their elementary school, so education must have been in the air.

Lovelace is comfortable in her DA classroom, with a warm smile and calm manner that make students feel at ease. But don’t get the idea that comfort equals complacency.

“I love the new energy that young faculty bring. I love bouncing ideas off of them. I’ve always been so afraid I’d be that grumpy old teacher that nobody wanted to be in her class anymore and she’s just no fun. That’s one reason why I’ve really pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone and never be afraid to try anything new. When somebody brings an idea, I’m ready to try it if they feel like it would be something great to do. That’s what keeps you vibrant and excited and learning.

“The day I’m ever happy with status quo, then I really should get out of the classroom because that would be a terrible thing for kids to have a teacher like that. I’m a lifelong learner. I love that part about school.”

Lovelace has been working with children since she was an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill and tutored students at St. Thomas More. She moved to Atlanta for a teaching job fresh out of college in 1973. She taught in Gwinnett County, in a school out in the woods on a dirt road that would be drizzled with oil to keep the dust down.

“It was a new school with open classrooms and two teachers in one gigantic room. It was a great way to start my teaching career because I was paired with a woman who had been teaching for a while. She is still a dear, dear friend. … She kind of showed me the ropes. I can’t imagine [as a new teacher] going into a classroom all alone now.”

Lovelace taught in Georgia for several years, including a stint teaching and working on her master’s degree in Athens, before coming back to North Carolina in 1979. She was ripe for a change, so she moved to Nags Head, where her father and brothers had a summer business renting sailboats at Whalebone Junction.

Lovelace had first visited the Outer Banks in 1977, and she has vivid memories of her trip there.

“My dad had a Navy sea plane. We flew from Winston-Salem to the Outer Banks and landed right on the sound near Jockey’s Ridge. One of my brothers sailed out in a Sunfish and picked us up from the plane. I look at the sound now and think we landed in a plane there? It’s a miracle we didn’t die. It’s so busy now, but it was so unpopulated then. … No wonder I wanted to live there. It was such a glamorous way to arrive!”

Lovelace lived in the sailboat cabin when her brothers went back to school, working as a bank teller in Manteo when no teaching job was available. “It was a great way to meet people because back in those days everybody had to come to the bank. There was no ATM.”

Friends introduced her to Chuck Lovelace, a UNC grad who was also working at the Outer Banks, and they were married in 1980. They lived at the beach and she taught kindergarten at Manteo Elementary before moving to Atlanta in 1982. Lovelace got a job teaching second grade at her old school in Gwinnett County and was amazed at how the area had changed. The school on a dirt road in the woods was in a big neighborhood now.

Chapel Hill beckoned in 1984, with a position at the Morehead Foundation for Chuck and a job teaching first grade at Frank Porter Graham School for Karen. Two years later she met a Durham Academy teacher at a dinner party, and learned there would be an opening for a first-grade teacher at Durham Academy.

Lovelace got the job and began her DA tenure in 1986. She remembers that Sterling Mah Ingui, then a first-grader and now the mother of a DA first-grader and pre-kindergarten student, toured her around the Lower School!

She loves the family connections that are so much a part of Durham Academy. Lovelace has been to weddings of former students and has celebrated the births of their children. She has yet to teach the child of a former student, but she has taught the nephew of one of her former first-graders.

“I love the fact that at this school you get to watch the kids matriculate all the way through. I can go watch them at sporting events or in a performance.”

Lovelace has been a constant in the Lower School other than the six years she stayed home with her daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who was born in 1989. When Mary Elizabeth came to DA for kindergarten in 1995, Lovelace returned as a teaching assistant for Libby Lang, who was a new second-grade lead teacher. A first-grade teaching job opened up the next year, and Lovelace taught first grade for nine years before moving to second grade in 2005.

“I really loved first grade, but I was at a point where I wanted to reinvent myself and get out of my comfort zone.”

Lovelace stays fresh in her teaching by always looking for better ways to do things. She embraced Reading and Writing Workshop for teaching language arts, and has been to New York twice for training with the program’s founder, Lucy Calkins, at Teachers College, Columbia University. The program uses both a group and an individual approach, and that is one of the ways teaching has changed since Lovelace first went into the classroom.

“We really look at the whole child. We really try to figure out ways we can differentiate instruction with students and try to meet them at their level. We work with their strengths to support them as learners, to help them move forward when they get stuck on things or have areas of weakness.”

Lovelace looks back to her own school days and cringes when she remembers teachers “publicly humiliating a child. Teachers weren’t good at keeping children’s dignity intact. That made a huge impression on me. I knew I would never do that. I approach a child in an empathetic, kind, quiet way if we need to talk about something that isn’t going well. I tell them I know this is hard, but you’re going to figure this out, we’re going to find a way, just don’t give up.”

Teaching today is much more one-on-one than it was when Lovelace first came to the classroom, and she is grateful for the resources DA provides for both students and teachers.

“I have friends teaching in other schools and when I hear the things they are going through, I am almost embarrassed that we have the resources we do and the professional development opportunities. I had life-changing experiences at the reading and writing workshops at Columbia.”

Another landmark experience was a 2011 trip to Brazil with World View, a global awareness program for teachers that is based at UNC. Lovelace had been recognized with an Excellence in Teaching Award, a program established by then-DA parents George and Julia Brumley, and she used the award’s cash prize for the Brazil trip.

“It was a very different kind of existence. It made me very appreciative of my own upbringing and an understanding for people who are so much less fortunate. It was a really good experience to be in a culture that was so radically different than ours.”

Traveling with her family is one of Lovelace’s favorite activities. “We love going to art museums and walking everywhere. I love to go walking with my family on trails around Chapel Hill.”

Reading is another favorite pastime, and Lovelace says her sixth grade teacher — who had been the school librarian — “opened the world of reading to me in ways I had not previously experienced. I think she is the reason I love reading today.”

She’s just finished All the Light We Cannot See, a book she highly recommends, but her “favorite book of all time is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. … You have to work hard to get through his books, you have to stop and pay attention to his language, but it’s worth it because the story is so good.”

Lovelace said she and her husband often talk about “how we’ve been so lucky to be in careers that we love. I can’t imagine being in a job I hated. Every day is a new day, and if today is a challenging day, I think tomorrow is going to be a better day and it usually is.”

What she loves most about teaching is “just being with the kids, watching them grow and develop. I look at where they were when we started the year together. I think about where they are at the end of the year and how independent they have become. I remind them of that all the time and they feel they are ready [to move on].

“It’s sort of bittersweet. You get really attached and then you have to say goodbye.

"I tell them you’re going to be so great in third grade, you’re going to have so much fun.”

With the school year drawing to a close, she’s been taking her second-graders upstairs to visit third-grade classrooms.

“They are meeting the teachers and getting psyched about third grade, and that’s what you want.”  

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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