Middle School PE Teacher Susan Ellis Honored with Distinguished Faculty Award

Story by Jessica Crowe Whilden ’00, Kindergarten Teacher

Susan Ellis exemplifies the best of teaching and coaching at Durham Academy. She is the perfect combination of perseverance, tenacity and dedication. She is an inspirational role model for our youth and her dedication to Durham Academy is undeniable. Susan Ellis is the epitome of a life-changing teacher, so it is only fitting that she was honored with the 2020 F. Robertson Hershey Distinguished Faculty Award.

Susan Ellis

Photo by Kathy McPherson

Since arriving at Durham Academy 16 years ago, Susan has impacted others with her ever-present enthusiasm, humor and positivity. She inspires enthusiasm and aspiration not just in the classroom or on the field, but in life. She finds a terrific balance of knowing when to “pull versus push,” and she teaches the all-important lesson that consequences and outcomes are so much more in our control than people sometimes want to realize. She connects to students in this way, with the attitude that no one is perfect. In a world of perfectionism that is especially difficult for young women, Susan tries to show them that our imperfections are to be celebrated. 

She challenges students to be their best on the field and in the classroom, and among their peers and teammates. Susan truly incorporates other life lessons and values into her teaching and coaching. Despite being an accomplished teacher and coach, she has the ability to be simultaneously humble, confident and focused. One of her colleagues reminds us that, “you have to stay relevant with today’s youth and she always helps us to remember to never take ourselves too seriously, just ask her to spell that word and you’ll get what I mean.” The fact that she is open and vulnerable about her own challenges makes her an even better teacher.

Susan’s colleagues watch and learn from her. “Over the years, I have watched her with countless students, some very athletic, others less so, and she never makes a student feel ‘less.’ Instead, she works with them to be their best selves, to really try, regardless of their athletic ability. Susan wants physical education and teamwork to be important, to not be seen as an extra in a student's day. It is clear that she is an educator and a teacher in the truest sense of our profession, not just a decorated soccer coach.” 

However, Susan’s success on the field cannot be overlooked. It is not surprising that she was inducted into the NC Soccer Hall of Fame in 2017. Her teams clearly win a lot, not because her teams have the best players but because she creates the best teams. In the age-old debate of “player development versus winning,” Susan navigates the challenges of both with expertise and genius, attaining both consistently year after year. Yet Susan cares far more about long-term character development than about any particular game or season. She cares more about joyous teamwork than individual achievement. She cares more about the health, wellness and flourishing of others than she does about herself.

While Susan’s physical “classroom” is usually a gymnasium, playing field or tennis court, her classroom is really everywhere. Not only do students and players she teaches and coaches benefit from her formal and informal lessons, but so do parents, faculty members and community members. One of her colleagues notes “her ability to connect with all who she encounters is equally inspiring, as she motivates all of us to be our best selves. In an almost magical way, she finds moments to address the whole class/team, a subset or individual who needs her attention at the appropriate time; she handles the challenging aspects of her many jobs with composure, excellence and a strong core value system. Susan can offer praise and criticism; the recipient trusts that it is handed out with heartfelt thought and care. It is uncanny for any one person to take the time, energy and effort she does with everyone she is involved with. She supports the high academic challenges of the Durham Academy community, and strives for everyone to give 100% to be their best selves.” 

Susan takes all of her duties seriously, with her special brand of infectious humor and caring. Her love and understanding of the balance of school, academics, teaching and coaching have reached well beyond the gym walls, soccer fields and tennis courts. Susan has had a profound impact on our community as a whole. Teaching physical education and health in addition to coaching were her goals since she was a young child, and here she is, continuing to do both extraordinarily well.

Susan Ellis represents the best of what DA is all about. She is a voice of compassion, reason and reassurance. She is an example of hard work, extra effort and character, with a blend of toughness and love. She is a perfect colleague and an outstanding role model for student athletes. She embodies the term that we strive for at Durham Academy, “life-changer,” and she follows through on the school’s mission statement of encouraging the “moral, happy, productive” life.

Editor’s Note: Jessica Crowe Whilden was the 2019 recipient of the F. Robertson Hershey Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award has been presented annually since 1989, and was established in honor of Rob Hershey, head of school 1978 from 1988. The award was presented in August 2020 at DA’s opening faculty and staff meeting. Watch a recording of the award presentation via Facebook.