Faculty & Staff Profiles
Elizabeth Allan has had an adventurous spirit since she was no older than the kindergarten students she teaches at Durham Academy.
She attended elementary school on the campus of Stanford University with the children of graduate students from many countries, and she delighted in “learning a lot of words in different languages and having friends from all over the world.”
When it was time for college, she left Palo Alto for Williams College in Massachusetts. “I wanted to try something new. I thought, New England, I’ve never lived there. I wanted to find out what it’s like to be a part of that culture, which is a different culture really. ”
Allan studied abroad in Kenya during her junior year of college, where she learned to speak Swahili and helped build a school. “That was an incredible experience. I was there five months and stayed with families in their homes, both in the city in Nairobi and in the country in a little village called Ndolo.”
So how did the California native end up in North Carolina? “I picked it randomly off the map.”
California’s “crazy expensive” real estate market prompted the move. Allan had been teaching for five years in the Palo Alto area, and she realized housing prices there would make it hard to ever afford a house on a teacher’s salary. With relatives in Florida and college friends in the Northeast, North Carolina seemed like a good location. Her roommate in California had visited Chapel Hill and said it was a neat town.
Without knowing a soul, Allan flew east, got a teaching job in Carrboro and found a place to live, then drove from California to North Carolina accompanied by her chicken, Fluffosaurus. “I have pictures of Fluffosaurus at the Grand Canyon and all across the country.”
Allan has been teaching first grade or kindergarten since 1996. She came to DA in 2002 to teach first grade, then switched to kindergarten in 2013. She hadn’t originally planned on a teaching career — her college major was psychology — but after graduating from Williams, “I fell back on what I was familiar with.” Her mother had been a teacher, and Allan “spent a lot of time in her classroom helping out.”
A year as a teaching assistant for a new first grade teacher confirmed that teaching was the right career. California required teachers to have a graduate degree, so Allan earned a master’s in education from Notre Dame de Namur University. She did her practice teaching in first grade and fourth grade in the same Palo Alto elementary school she had attended as a student. “I had an amazing master teacher who was my mentor in first grade. That’s what got me hooked on first grade. I loved it so much.”
Her first teaching job was in a very small school district near Palo Alto that had one school for kindergarten to grade three and one middle school for fourth through eighth. “It had a lot in common with Durham Academy. … It was great, a real family feeling. We really got to know the families. It was such a fun start.”
She missed that feeling the year she taught in Carrboro, in a larger school system, and “started looking around. I just happened to drive by the Middle School, saw the Durham Academy sign and, thought let me check it out. I read about the school online and thought, I’ll try it out and see what happens.” DA was getting ready to open the new Lower School on Ridge Road, and was expanding from three to four classrooms in grades one through four. Allan was hired as the new first grade teacher.
“I love North Carolina. … Coming from California, people think I’m crazy. It’s always 70 degrees and sunny there, but I like it better here. I like the seasons, the foliage. I like the fact that it gets so exciting when it snows. I really love it out here. It’s been a great place to grow as a teacher, but also to raise the kids. I told my mother, Chapel Hill is the Palo Alto of 40 years ago. My kids are kind of getting to grow up in the way that I grew up. Now that Silicon Valley is so big and crowded and urban, it’s not the way it used to be when I was young.”
Allan and her husband, Dan, are the parents of twins Griffin and Sophie, who turned 5 in September. Being the mother of twins is what led her to move from teaching first grade to kindergarten.
She took a year off from teaching after the twins were born, and returned to first grade as they were turning 1. “I was hoping I could do it all, but I was feeling I didn’t have enough, I was stretched too thin.” When she heard that a kindergarten teacher would be retiring, she applied for the kindergarten job. “I didn’t want to quit teaching. I’ve been teaching so long now. It really is a career for me, it’s not just a job. … Having a kindergarten schedule, where’s it’s almost full time but not quite, was just what it took for me to feel a little more balanced.
“As an added bonus, I’ve always been really into child development. Being in kindergarten has given me an opportunity to kind of mesh that in. Not that I didn’t in first grade, but there are so many more things that happen in kindergarten that they’ve kind of outgrown by the time they get to first grade.”
Having twins also had an effect on Allan’s hobby of keeping chickens. “I’d had chickens since my second year of teaching when a parent set up an incubator in the classroom. We hatched five chickens and I kept all of them. Ever since then, I’ve had chickens, and I’ve gone through a lot of chickens over the years. We had chickens until right up before the twins were born. We gave them to (Middle School art teacher) Fran Savarin when the twins were on their way. I thought I can’t handle twins and chickens at the same time.”
Allan has always loved to travel — she lived in Tel Aviv for five weeks and has traveled in Europe — and Dan shares that love. They have traveled to India for the wedding of a family friend, and want to take the twins to India when they are older. Allan’s husband was born in India in an orphanage established by Mother Teresa, before being adopted at age 7 and moving to Virginia.
“I really want to take them to India, to learn more about where their dad is from and where he grew up. I haven’t been to the town where Dan lived a young baby. … He got to go back as a teenager and meet Mother Teresa and thank her for giving him a start in life.”
Allan also loves to read and is a big mystery fan. “From a very young age I decided I’d read all the Agatha Christie books. I started at about age 11, and I made it through eventually. I don’t know how many years it took. I think she wrote 80-some books. She was my first love. Then I read Sherlock Holmes and all those British authors. Recently I’ve been listening to M.C. Beaton, who is another British mystery writer.”
The library has long been a favorite place for Allan, whether it’s Durham Academy’s Kirby Library or the library she grew up with at Escondido Elementary in Palo Alto.
“When I student-taught at my own elementary school, my librarian, Mrs. Krueger, was still there. I’ve always loved the library. I told her when I read a story you read to us when we were little, I hear it in my head as your voice!”
Allan always loved school, and thinks that very positive school experience is part of what drew her to teaching.
The children in Allan’s kindergarten class certainly have a positive experience, and she also hopes they leave her class with a sense of responsibility.
“For me, it’s really important to instill a sense of responsibility to the world, taking care of each other. We talk about that a lot. Go out and do something that will really make a difference to other people, too. … You know, they are already amazing people, even at age 5.”