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When Shannon Harris was about to graduate from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science, she put her research skills to work preparing for an interview for the Upper School librarian job at Durham Academy. She didn’t know much about independent schools, but as she delved into DA’s faculty she was impressed by how long many of them had worked at DA: 10 years, 20 years, 30 years and even more.
“I thought this has to be a wonderful place. No one leaves the school. The thought that I could work with people who love what they are doing and where they are working was too good to pass up.”
That had not always been the case for Harris, who took a job with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in 1995 when she graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in economics. She was assigned to Pacific Bell, working with computer programming, testing and trouble-shooting. “I made it about a year before I realized I did not want to be there at all.”
She realized that the parts of the job she liked best were when she had to explain what the computer program did, how to fix it, how to troubleshoot. “I enjoyed those ‘ah-ha!’ moments with people. It validated [the question of] why am I doing something I don’t enjoy? What’s stopping me from teaching?”
Harris quit her consulting job, began working full time as a substitute teacher and went back to school to get her teaching certificate.
“I’ve never been afraid to take a chance if I’m unhappy. Life is too short to not be happy. I don’t like feeling I’m stuck in something where I’m not learning, not growing, not enjoying myself. Being in that job where I was so miserable, I thought, why am I not teaching? It’s something I’ve always been interested in. I’m enjoying that one tiny bit of my job. Let’s just cut the cord now and be happy.”
Harris taught fifth grade for one year, then moved with her husband, Mike, also a teacher, to Southern California where she taught sixth-grade math for five years and earned a master’s in education from California State University at Fullerton. She taught part-time for a year after her son was born, then chose to stay home. Harris had grown up in Orange County, California, but with a second child on the way, the couple decided the area known as the locale for the television shows The O.C. and The Real Housewives of Orange County wasn’t where they wanted to raise their family.
They had spent time with Mike’s relatives in New Bern, North Carolina, and decided to consider moving to Chapel Hill. Mike checked out the area while a pregnant Shannon was in California on bed rest, called her to say “I love this place,” accepted a job offer and bought a house. They moved in summer 2005 and haven’t looked back.
“I’ve never felt more at home, even though I had lived in California my whole life. … The first day we moved in, someone brought us a pie. It was wonderful! That would never happen in California. It feels like home, a small town, quaint, friendly environment that we had never had.” It’s also been a great move for Mike, who teaches at Phillips Middle School and was named Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Teacher of the Year in 2013.
Harris has been at DA since fall 2012. She is the first librarian to work in the new Upper School Learning Commons, which opened in winter 2012, and this is her first job as a librarian. Harris pursued a master’s degree in library science at UNC after five years as an instructional designer and corporate trainer with Parata, a pharmaceutical automation firm. She loved that job but really missed kids, classrooms and teaching.
Working as a school librarian hit a sweet spot for her. “Being a librarian combines my business background and mathematics — there is lots of data organizing and analyzing, and being able to teach, too, brought everything together.”
The widespread use of technology has changed libraries a lot since Harris’ high school days searching the card catalogue to find sources for her reports. “What technology has changed the most is the way students do research, which I think is the most important part of my job.” Google has become students’ default search engine, and she teaches them how to efficiently and accurately research with or without Google. Harris created a semester-long information literacy course for ninth-graders that is a basis for their future studies, and she has refined the course each year she’s been at DA.
Harris’ life was shaped by her decision to live in another country the summer between her junior and senior year of high school. She chose to spend the summer in Guanare, Venezuela, rather than in Spain or somewhere more touristy, and she lived with a family that consisted of a mother, father, grandmother, two older brothers, a younger sister and an older sister who lived outside the home with her own family.
“It was an AFS program, and once they dropped you off, that was it until it was time to pick you back up. Of course back then there was no Internet, no cellphones, no nothing. I think I talked to my family once. I called from their home phone to say hello. It’s so different now — you are never disconnected. It’s so strange to think that I went an entire summer without my parents having any idea what I was doing.
“When I came back from that trip I knew more of who I was. I knew I wanted to see other cultures and experience other things. I realized there were other things out there besides where I lived. I think l have carried that perspective with me, and I have wanted my kids to know there’s more out there than your house, your school, your friends. … I think that’s part of why I like to travel so much, to expose myself to other peoples so I have a little more empathy for people, just am more tolerant of everyone and everything that’s out there.”
Her sense of awareness and empathy for others also comes from the experience of her mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Harris was in college and is now in a wheelchair.
Harris has been to every continent but Antarctica. Harris and her husband taught in year-round schools in California and were off the months of November, March and July. They went someplace new each vacation, traveling to Thailand, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Australia and Hawaii. They have taken their children to London, and a DA summer grant allowed Harris to visit Japan on a teachers’ trip organized by UNC.
Harris used to be fluent in Spanish and wishes she still was. “I think if I was immersed in it again it would come back. I understand most of what is said to me, but to process it and speak it back is really tough. A goal of ours as a family is to go somewhere, at least for a few weeks, and do a family immersion program where we all have to speak Spanish.”
She loves being outdoors, running and watching her kids play sports. Toby, a seventh-grader, plays rec league and AAU basketball and hopes to play for DA this year. Kendall, a DA fifth-grader, plays on a travel soccer team.
Harris ran track and cross country in high school and was a member of the rowing team in college. She had never rowed before, but really liked the sport. After college she joined an outrigging canoe team “because I missed being on the water. I did that for a year out of Dana Point. If I could find a rowing team that I could get to easily, I would probably do that again.”
Her sports are confined to land now. She ran her second marathon a year ago, determined to do the race before she turned 41. “I beat my time from before and decided that’s a great way to retire. I still run for fun, and trail running is my favorite.”
Harris likes to stay busy and to constantly learn. She serves as lead advisor for the 10th grade and is co-advisor for Student Council. Anytime there’s an opportunity or something that piques her interest, Harris is quick to get involved.
When she came to DA in 2012, she asked if she could have an advisory and took on the 11th-grade advisory of legendary teacher Dave Gould when he retired.
“They were an awesome group. They were wonderful, and I still stay in touch with several of them. I remember hearing one of them saying, ‘The librarian’s our advisor?’ And I said, ‘Yep, that’s me!’ ”
Harris went on the Civil Rights trip that first year with her junior advisory, and the second year went with them on Senior Challenge, a rigorous five-night, six-day backpacking trip. She accompanied her freshman advisory to Green River Preserve last year and went on the sophomore class trip to High Rocks this year. “I’m already mentally and physically thinking about [the next] Senior Challenge, but I do want to go again.”
Harris smiles when she remembers preparing for her DA job interview, thinking about the teachers who stay at DA for a long time.
“I want to be one of those who’ve been here for 20 years. I’ve never had an experience like that — it’s really nice.”