William Edwards is shaped by a deep sense of family, a love of nature and a spirit of inquisitiveness, and all three happily converge in his life as a teacher.
Edwards’ extended family encompasses the villagers he worked with in the Peace Corps in the 1980s and the students he teaches at Durham Academy. His “great outdoors” extends from Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula (and a summer job salmon fishing) to North Carolina’s Black Mountains and Linville Gorge (and DA’s Senior Challenge with his senior advisory). His spirit of inquisitiveness led him to pursue an apprenticeship with a log cabin builder, and DA’s culture of inquisitiveness keeps him curious even as a veteran teacher.
The oldest of three brothers, Edwards grew up in Tennessee on seven acres of woods with a huge creek that backed up to a nature preserve and a 110-foot waterfall. “From the time I was in grammar school until literally I left home, my afternoons and summers were spent traipsing through the woods, fishing and being outside. I was really kind of blessed in my environment and my upbringing.”
Both sets of grandparents lived nearby, as did uncles, aunts and 13 cousins. “It was a really tight-knit family, we did a lot of things together. I grew up with this sense of peace for home and a real strong sense of family. I think that has fed into some of the things that I’ve carried into the classroom.”
Edwards went to McCallie School, an independent school that reminds him of DA except that it was all male. “I was influenced by the teachers I had there. I had teachers I really resonated with and teachers I struggled with. My own experience, especially with teachers I really felt fondly for, has led me to want to be that same sort of teacher in the classroom as well.”
The summer after his sophomore year of high school, Edwards and a cousin visited an older cousin who was studying at Cambridge. “We spent a week-and-a-half hiking and camping through the Lake District of England. That was really my first taste of overseas travel. It kind of lit a fire under me in terms of the beauty of this area. I knew there was a lot more to see in the world, knew that later in life I was going to want to branch out and see more.”
Edwards didn’t have to wait long, traveling to Costa Rica the following summer with an Episcopal youth group. “We spent three weeks there, working with other youth groups helping to rebuild a school and a church. That was really an eye-opening experience, too. It was the first time I had traveled to an area of the world where I saw so much need. … I was taken by how simplistic people’s lives were, but how at ease they were with their lifestyle. These became big images to me later in life.”
When it was time for college, Edwards chose Sewanee, graduating in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in natural sciences and a minor in political science. “It felt so much like home because of the 10,000 acres of wooded domain [campus]. I really felt like this is where I needed to be. Something about it was peaceful for me.”
Edwards worked with the forest service near Sewanee his first two college summers, but by his final summer, he wanted to travel. He spent $25 for a round trip Greyhound bus ticket from Chattanooga to Seattle and told his parents he was heading to Alaska. After a four-day bus trip to Seattle, a friend helped him get to Anchorage on a small plane. He spent three months hiking, camping and working his way down the Kenai Peninsula, including a two-and-a-half month stint working with a small independent fishing company.
Edwards and two other men in their 20s lived in a small trailer on the Kenai Fjords, taking fishing nets about a half mile into the water at 4 a.m. and bringing them back at 4 p.m. so heavy with fish they had to use a bulldozer to move the haul. On his two days off each week, Edwards would travel to the Moose River range to fish, hike and commune with nature.
“I saw my first live black and brown bears up on the ridges, had my first experience with a moose and saws lots of waterfowl. It was a real defining moment for me. I like to think of it as my Thoreau time. I was very reflective on what it would be like to be a young man and be able to move around and see some of the world.”
More travel would come, but not until Edwards heeded advice from his grandfather. “My grandfather on my dad’s side had always been a real heavy influence on me. He was the one who got me interested in nature. … He said at some point in your life, learn a trade. Because being able to use your hands to support yourself is going to be one of the best things you ever do.”
So Edwards moved home after he graduated from college and apprenticed himself to a log cabin builder for a year-and-a-half. “He would literally build a cabin from the ground up. We would take the yellow popular trees down and slab them. We used chain saws to take them down and axes to slab them. We cut dovetails and notches so we could stack them to build walls. I learned about chinking to close the gaps between logs. It was really, really hard work. I learned a lot about this aspect of building and have used it to my advantage in other aspects of my life.”
The apprenticeship complete, Edwards began thinking about graduate school or travel. “Many of my friends were in grad school, but I decided to take this opportunity to travel. … The ensuing 12 years became my Odyssean adventures.”
First came Senegal, West Africa, with the Peace Corps. Edwards was assigned to Mbam, a village of 300 people. “I was living with people who literally have nothing. They live in mud brick huts, the roofs were thatched, weather affects everything, there’s no electricity, no running water. It’s a subsistence society, subsistence economy, people living off millet and groundnuts, growing a few vegetables. A few families had goats or chickens or a horse to pull a plow. We rarely ate meat. I lived with a family but had my own hut. I took on their last name while I was there.
“It was probably the most formative period of my life in terms of learning about people and learning about myself and realizing you can go a long way on a little and can still be really, really happy. The people I worked with I think so fondly of, they are so dear in my heart. … This was my graduate school experience.”
Edwards’ time in Mbam included “a locust infestation of almost biblical proportions. All the groundnuts were decimated, the crop that was sold to the government so the family could make extra money.” He saw children die of malaria and saw infections lead to amputations and even death. When his two-year assignment was up and it was time to go home, he felt like he was just getting started. The Peace Corps asked him to expand the scope of his work and stay for two more years, and he said yes.
When Edwards left Senegal, he headed to the San Francisco Bay area to visit Peace Corps buddies. He liked the area and stayed there four years working with the East Bay Conservation Corps.
“It was my first foray into education that was a little more formal. I was running a crew of 12 young adults, 14 to 17 years old, males and females. They were working under the National Park Service, doing erosion control, maintaining flood channels, planting trees. The secondary scope was to help these young adults who were coming from really bad home situations. Many of them had been in prison. One 17-year-old had spent a year in San Quentin. They were wonderful and I formed such a conducive camaraderie with them. I was the head of our crew, but we had to work together to get the job done. An evening component was working on getting their GEDs.”
Edwards took a leave from the California job to accept a three-month contract with the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands. His task was to access elementary school programs that were receiving funding from the U.S. government and also from UNICEF.
It wasn’t long before UNICEF asked Edwards to do the same kind of work in Turkey, and he was off to Turkey for four years. UNICEF’s programs were on the eastern Kurdish edge of Turkey, where there had been armed conflict and there was a lack of basic education for children in those villages.
“Like in the Peace Corps, it was so eye-opening to see people — living in a much colder environment — who took care of each other and seemed to be very satisfied with their life. They were subsistence farmers. I saw how the schools worked. They had next to nothing in terms of resources. Children were writing in the dirt with their fingers while they have someone reciting for them to copy.”
Edwards’ UNICEF work parlayed into a job with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
“The Gulf War was ensuing while I was in Turkey. Refugees from Iran were flooding into Turkey on a regular basis. They needed to be repatriated. They needed food, housing, clothing, safety and security. The High Commission was working 24/7 to try to accommodate them. … That was just devastating work, families that were coming in that had walked days through these mountain passes in snow, fathers who lost their fingers due to frostbite while carrying their children.
“I had never seen the amount of human devastation. I had never seen the vestiges of a war. There were nights I couldn’t sleep because of images I had in my mind of things I was seeing. There is so much we can do to help out, but how thankful I was because of where I had come from and what I had. This was a common theme in my travels.
“I stayed with High Commission for a year. The refugee situation, they were getting a handle on it, work was slowing down and I was at the point where I needed to be with family. I had had enough of that.”
Edwards came back to the States in 1999, spent time with family in Tennessee and then came to Chapel Hill to visit one of his best friends from high school, WRAL newscaster Cullen Browder. He stayed a week with Browder and his family, fell in love with the area and began researching the job situation.
“I had never formally taught in a classroom setting and had been thinking it might be something I would really enjoy. St. Thomas More had a job opening for a science teacher, which was a natural area for me. I had been thinking science or history. They needed a life and physical science teacher at the seventh- and eighth-grade level for a teacher who was going on maternity leave at Christmas time. I interviewed, and two days later they offered me the job. … I fell in love with the classroom. I fell in love with the idea of teaching.
“It was so invigorating to be around students who were asking questions and wanting to know more. It forced me to learn more. One part of teaching that I’ve always enjoyed is the fact that I’ve never felt I had enough knowledge to adequately answer a student’s question. I’m always looking for more information and a way to make ideas simpler, to simplify the learning process for them when you’re dealing with things that can be kind of technical.”
After four years teaching middle school, Edwards wanted to teach at the high school level. DA was looking for a ninth-grade biology teacher, and Edwards got the job.
“Moving to DA in 2004 is something I will never look back on. This is one of the best fits. I have thoroughly enjoyed the classroom, and I’m so enthralled by the peers I work with.”
Respect and family are bedrocks of Edwards’ teaching.
“Every child that walks through a classroom where I’m teaching is going to feel like they are respected, like they belong and are comfortable. Those are really strong tenets. That goes back to how I was raised. My travels just kind of instilled more of those ideas. The work that I do with SOCK Camp, the work that I do with the ASSIST Team, the work that I do in the classroom, all of that is really just a simplified way of trying to create secure spaces and safe spaces for students to know they can come, seek out information. I can’t always provide all the information they need but I can certainly be a teaching source or a big brother or a father figure to them.”
Edwards has been teaching biology to ninth-graders for 12 years, has been assistant director of DA Summer Programs for 11 years and also coaches JV boys tennis. His work with summer camps and tennis gives him an opportunity to get to know many DA students before they come to ninth grade.
“I get to see them as they progress and move through. I feel like I’m more a part of their life. Now that I have Stella, my own daughter, I’m so aware of how much time and energy is placed at every level into these students. I know what I put into teaching. Now I’m seeing all that Stella’s teachers put into her formation as a student and as a person. It’s so rewarding to see that other people share the same vision you have. You’re not crafting the individual, they craft themselves, but you help guide them through that process.”
Edwards’ three children are the apple of his eye. Stella is a DA third-grader, and Edwards walks her into the Lower School most mornings. Jed, 18, and Zeke, 16, live in Vietnam with their mother and have been attending the United Nations International School in Hanoi for five years. Edwards and his wife, Anna, a teacher at The Hill Center, welcome them to North Carolina each summer, and Stella skypes with her brothers daily when they are in Vietnam. Jed and Zeke are a part of DA Summer Programs, first as campers and now as staff. “You have to work to be a nuclear family when you’re not always a nuclear family.”
Edwards thinks teaching has changed since he was in school and even since he began teaching 16 years ago.
“At one time I felt like I was imparting information. Now I feel like that’s not really what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to help them to think about something a little bit differently and help them to ask questions. I think that’s become much more the focus of teaching, how to think and how to ask questions, what types of questions to ask. My hope is that you don’t necessarily walk out of biology with a lot of knowledge about biology, but you walk out with the knowledge about how to think, how to write and how to ask questions about anything. It doesn’t have to be about biology. I think that there’s a real kind of an art that you learn about asking questions over time. You have to be inquisitive to learn. If you’re not inquisitive then you just kind of stagnate.”
Serving as an Upper School advisor is important part of Edwards’ school life. Students and advisor stay together from the time that they're freshmen until they graduate, and this year is Edwards’ third round with a senior-year advisory.
“Having a senior advisory group is highly rewarding, but you begin to take on a parental mindset toward the end. You realize how much they have changed in four years. You appreciate them for the young adults they have become. You sense this loss you’re going to go through. It’s hard. Its hard enough when they are your own true children, I begin to think of them more as my children that I’m beginning to say goodbye to as they step out and graduate.
“This year is a little bit bittersweet from the aspect that my own son is graduating and I’m going to be there for his graduation. I’m leaving on the Tuesday prior to graduation on Friday. I’ll stay in Vietnam for 10 days. Jed will graduate the same day as DA and then he, Zeke and I will spend a week touring different areas of Vietnam. They are setting all that up. I’ll fly back in time for final exams and Summer Programs. I think as a father that’s where I need to be. I’m doing my best now to recognize all of my 10 advisees and to let them know how much I appreciate them for different qualities, one-on-one individually.”
It’s a little like what Edwards does every day at the end of each biology class. Ninth-graders learn the first day of classes that they will shake hands with Edwards at the end of each class.
“I could be teaching any subject. It’s about learning about life, the idea of walking out of a classroom and respecting the person who is teaching you and knowing that that teacher respects you.
“When students leave my classroom, they line up. Whether they want to or not, they have to shake my hand on the way out of the classroom. I stand at the door and I thank them for being there. The things I’m looking for, I want eye contact and a solid handshake.
“It’s interesting because students are kind of timid at the outset. A month or two in they’ll stand there, they may stand there awkwardly but they are still responding to me telling them I’m really glad you’re here today, saying you asked good questions today, you did a really good job today, have a great day today.
“At this stage of the game, if I’m in the middle of a presentation or something, they will wait for me to walk over and open the door. It means so much to me.