Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


Bookmark and ShareShare

Why we play

Thirty six hours ago, our school climbed one of the most inspiring emotional peaks of its history. The valley that preceded it was just as deep – and profound valleys remain ahead of us. But Friday’s “Middle School Spirit Night” was a shining example of community in action.

The basic story is here, in the Durham Herald’s recap article: “DA Packs House For Injured Players.”   

More of the story is below, in the grateful email sent yesterday to our faculty from Athletic Director Steve Engebretsen.

34 years X 400+ DA athletic events attended per year.

Throw in dozens of amazing concerts, plays, and special programs and assemblies in those years.

Add at least 100 chaperoning duties during that time.

Through all those DA events, many very memorable and moving, and I’ve never felt the sense of pride in being a Cavalier as I did last night in Kirby gym.

My guess is we had 500 of our total MS and US student body here, and close to 1000 overall. We had close to 60 faculty members here.  We had alumni here and parents of alumni here.  All primarily to show support, after a tough week, for the boys basketball team and to remember Ryan, Cam and Alston as they continue to recover.  Our MS students, parents and faculty were here in force to celebrate, and remind us that they are an important part of the DA “family”.  They also sensed and participated in the importance of the night for our upper school students and basketball teams.

The quilt project, with hand prints from all US students, for Ryan being made by Sharon Van Horn (mom of Sarah and Naomi Lerner) was on display.  Helping and caring hands were everywhere!

Watching our MS and US student body executing with amazing discipline the “silent night strategy”, remaining silent - not cheering at all until Jordan Davis scored our “12th point”  (Ryan is number 12) and then EXPLODING with enthusiasm and noise.  Then after the game seeing our students, coaches, team and parents embracing in joy, emotion and remembrance………  I don’t think I’m alone describing last night as a goose bump event.

Thanks for all who came last night and who have been supportive all week.

Special thanks and admiration to Tim McKenna, Andy Pogach, Kemi Nonez, Lindy Frasher, Lanis Wilson!

Feeling a little stronger now,


Behind the story of Friday night, and beneath the story of memorable Friday nights in high schools around the country, is the larger story of athletics in our schools.

Last week I read a timely piece about “The Purpose of Sports” by The Reverend W.L. “Chip” Prehn, Headmaster of Trinity School of Midland, Texas. I wrote to Chip and asked his permission to share his thoughts in my blog. He happily agreed, and I’m happy to share them with you here.

While we are very proud of our athletes who have the talent to play at the next level, and we do prefer winning to losing, most independent school leaders will say that it is no special part of our school’s mission to produce NCAA athletes or to win at any cost. We find ourselves saying, “We are an academic school.”

Yet we know better than anyone that sports are crucial to the mission of our schools because sports are a time-honored and effective means to building character, and character formation is central to the educational task. I often tell parents that everything we do every day on our campus—including the academic and fine arts programs—is a means to a higher end. When a parent looks puzzled, I reiterate that every pursuit at the school is a means to developing character. 

We define character comprehensively. It is both moral goodness and real-world effectiveness.  It is both integrity and that constellation of attitudes, resolves, virtues, skills, and confidence that make a person effective in the real world. Thus I assume that character requires as many different means and tools as we educators can find.  Interscholastic athletics and a fulsome physical education program are not only an efficient means to the desired end; students enjoy them and will give themselves to them.  Sports help young people make progress and mature. 

Just as our mission drives us to offer a rich and challenging course of study or a top-drawer performing arts program, so our mission requires that we find superb coaches and offer the best athletics programs we can muster. It may sound quixotic but I do believe that independent schools have an opportunity to show America what healthy amateur athletics can look like. To do this, we cannot be “church league” in our approach to sports. We want each of our students to gain the wonderful formative experience of great coaching and participation in a top-flight program.

There is a huge difference between a school that uses character as a means to academic and programmatic excellence and a school that uses academic and programmatic excellence as a means to character. One of the paradoxical “secrets” of the great school heads I admire the most is that they took it for granted that, when character is the first purpose of education, more students than ever enjoy academic achievement also. 

The difference between the two types of school may be subtle but it is profound.  From the days of Socrates and Plato to our own time, the best thinkers on education—even the most modern and least idealistic—insist that teachers must direct the attention of students to transcendent goals that we might gather in the single concept character. Schools may use “character class” or a “character education program” as one means to academic excellence, but it is in fact a higher aim than academic excellence that sheds the proper light on academic pursuits and brings learning, knowledge, and academic skills into their proper relationship with human values and needs. In both mysterious and not so mysterious ways, sports can be a big help in this objective.  

President Theodore Roosevelt was a terrific student and an early Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, but he realized the large difference between the two types of schools referred to above. He told a crowd more than a hundred years ago, “There is not in all America a more dangerous trait than the deification of mere smartness unaccompanied by any sense of moral responsibility.” Roosevelt sent his sons to Groton, then a newly founded independent school in New England, because the founding headmaster promised that every program in the school was but a means to character. Roosevelt appreciated the premier academic foundation his sons gained as a “byproduct” of the higher aim.

In most of our schools, varsity team members put a great deal of effort into their athleticism: the “wake-up call” of early morning practices; the pain attendant upon getting back into shape and getting prepared for the first game; the excitement and anticipation of being spotted this year—at last!—by the varsity coach: These experiences form a veritable rite of youth. I believe that the students engaged in this ritual and in interscholastic athletics in general actually do comprehend the higher value of it—perhaps more than their parents.

All over the country, students in independent schools are utterly dedicated to their sport, most of them without any expectation that they will be invited higher up by college coaches. They play for the enjoyment of it. They play for glory. They play for a coach and for the ole alma mater. They play because it feels good.

These kids know that competitive athletics will give them character. They prove to themselves every day that sanely pursued amateur athletics will give them the energy, health, strength, clear-headedness, self-esteem, courage, confidence, loyalty, and school pride that tends to make a person faithful, well-rounded, resilient, academically adept, patriotic, happy, and grown-up enough to actually change the world.

Posted by mulkus on Sunday January, 18, 2015

1 Comment:

Well said Mr. Ulku-Steiner (as it always seems!). We are only 93 days into our DA experience and (in all cases) from the teachers, students, curriculum (culturally responsive, extra-curricular, and academic), community/global activism and beyond ….we couldn’t be more impressed with the ‘complete package’ that DA offers. Even more so now, as we have been deeply moved by the recent US events and were witness to the mobilization of this community at large in its response, in all ways, to these events. We are, officially, in complete awe to say the very least.  The best part of this? Our child has come home from each and every one of those 93 days happy, content and learned!

from Dori Mitzi on 01/22/15 at 11:17AM

Choose groups to clone to:

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
email page print page small type large type
powered by finalsite