Teachers Remain the Beating Heart of Our School
Seven Traits of a Life-Changing Faculty
STORY BY MICHAEL ULKU-STEINER // PHOTO BY MICHAEL BRANSCOM
Last June, we marked the retirements of eight teachers who had invested two, three or four decades of their lives in Durham Academy and its students, and who left big shoes to fill on campus.
While our 2015 Strategic Plan has catalyzed changes both conspicuous [new buildings!] and pervasive [more cohesive and cutting-edge curricula], we never forget that our teachers remain the beating heart
of our school — the single most important factor in our current strength and our future excellence.
Recruiting, sustaining and nourishing “a faculty full of life-changers” topped our list of strategic objectives in 2015. That work remains even more poignant today.
In the last four years, we have strengthened our recruiting, mentoring, evaluation and professional development of new teachers. We have found new ways to celebrate excellence in faculty and staff. We have created time, space and programming for faculty to connect with each other and with the broader community. We have fostered a culture of innovation in teaching and learning that has catalyzed bold changes in instruction. Beneath and behind those more visible reforms are hundreds of small but significant improvements — every one of them sparked by teachers asking and answering together, “How can we make this better for our students?”
The success of all this work still hinges on the quality of our teachers — the living, breathing, learning human beings who spend their days [and evenings, and weekends] investing in our students.
So ... what exactly are the traits of a life-changing teacher?
Below is my personal answer — the “Magnificent Seven” traits I seek and celebrate in so many of my DA colleagues:
1 — Ethical force of character: If we aim to prepare students for moral, happy, productive lives, then the primary determinant of effective teaching, advising and coaching should be this magnetic moral charisma. This quality is potent, memorable and unmistakable in the best teachers and mentors.
2 — Intelligence: There is no substitute for mental acuity, cognitive agility and neural connectivity. It can manifest as any of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” [musical, interpersonal, spatial-visual and linguistic]. Teacher “with-it-ness” means a combination of processing speed, alert intuition and good old common sense.
3 — Passionate, in-depth subject knowledge: Whether directed toward biology, Beowulf or basketball, this animating spirit should pull students irresistibly toward a field of inquiry and be backed with years of disciplined study and practice. This trait is often accompanied by eccentricity, or at least bold and unique personality. The best schools are, I think, full of strange individuals whose love of their fields radiates out to students and suggests that it is both cool and nourishing to care deeply about something other than themselves.
4 — Humility: Can you take responsibility for and learn from mistakes? Can you see your strengths and weaknesses? Do you make monuments of your past decisions, or are you always looking to improve? Can you tolerate or even appreciate the limitations of others? Can you laugh at yourself?
5 — Drive: Most teachers fulfill their roles responsibly and professionally. Many do so with spirited enthusiasm and a desire to improve their craft, their students and every program they touch. These are the teachers who go above and beyond the requirements of the job, who look for extra opportunities to help and new ways to improve the school.
6 — Positive team play: Optimism, flexibility, sense of humor, listening skills, patience — all these distinguish great team players. DA needs people who can work openly, intensely and joyfully with other adults.
7 — A commitment to the whole child and the long game: Excellent teaching means knowing students far beyond the classroom. It means attending student performances and competitions; learning about the hobbies, siblings, hopes and dreams of our students; conversing about
real-life topics and real-world lives; and then keeping in touch with students for years or even decades.
This list is neither official nor final. It will continue to evolve through experience and conversation with students, parents, alumni and colleagues. What does a “life-changing teacher” mean to you? What role might you play in continuing to help us recruit, support and nourish a faculty full of these curious, passionate, striving, generous learners who inspire and challenge students on their various paths to moral, happy, productive lives?