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 


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Go west, old man.

A few weeks ago I traveled with DA’s Alumni Relations Director Tim McKenna to Oakland and San Francisco for two full days of reconnecting with Bay Area Cavaliers. The trip was varied, delightful and – I hope, but you can be the judge – worth recounting.

After dropping our bags at our hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf (where the selfie sticks are as numerous as the aggressive gulls), we headed to Oakland for an afternoon with Steve Snider ’88, Jonathan Crawford ’10 and Christopher Crawford ’12.

Steve is the Executive Director of the Downtown Oakland Association, a not-for-profit organization funded by local property owners. He and his team work to attract new businesses, residents and visitors to a 55-block area – helping the neighborhoods maximize their potential by improving safety, cleanliness and vibrancy. As Steve puts it, “the ultimate goal of our work is to facilitate the continued cultural and economic development of the city while working to maintain Oakland’s diversity and unique multicultural history.”

Steve ought to run for Mayor. For nearly two hours, he bounded through downtown Oakland, telling stories of redeveloped theaters, new business ventures, real estate investments (like Uber’s new corporate headquarters), dance clubs (some defunct and some still funky). We ran into a dozen people who knew - and clearly love - Steve. Click here to see more reasons why that’s true – in a nice profile from Oakland Local.

We finished our tour at Impact Hub Oakland, a hive of young entrepreneurs who sign on to some impressive core values:

  • Authenticity
  • Radical inclusivity
  • Creativity & Expression
  • Inspiration
  • Respect
  • Reciprocity
  • Effectiveness

It was downright inspiring to watch Steve so radiantly happy in his native habitat: the sidewalks and storefronts and entrepreneurs and artists of downtown Oakland.

It was just as fun to share the tour with the Crawford brothers. Sons of DA teacher Jennifer Crawford, Jonathan and Christopher have moved recently to San Francisco to chase their dreams of electronic music stardom. This might sound far-fetched, for Chris is a Princeton-educated computer scientist and Google software engineer and his older brother Jonathan was a philosophy, politics and economics major at Penn who consulted for Booz Allen for the last several years.

But this pair of Durhamites aspires to make the Bay Area dance clubs jump – with an audio and video experience like none they’ve seen before. You may recognize Jonathan from his DA video profile filmed a few years ago. You might also enjoy hearing some of his older beats on Soundcloud.

In any case, it was a treat to watch the Crawfords soaking up Oakland music scene lore from Steve, who moved there with aspirations as an MC and ended up running several music and dance venues.  

After dinner with my sister-in-law (who lives in San Francisco and works as a doctor at UCSF), I rejoined Tim and former DA parent and trustee Jeff Jones for a drink. Until yesterday, Jeff worked as President of Uber. News of Jeff’s departure made the front page of The New York Times (“It is now clear,” he wrote in an email, “that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.”). While Jeff did not disclose details that night to Tim and me, our conversation was fascinating – and made clear that Jeff’s reputation in Durham as a grounded, thoughtful, principled, curious and engaging guy is 100% accurate. Maybe we can draw the Joneses back to the Bull City!

The next morning I met one of my former students, Marie Jones ‘09, at the Google offices at the Embarcadero. With its multiple cafes, zen meditation room, elaborate gym, art installations, sunny verandas and hidden speakeasy (yep!), it’s hard to imagine that Googlers get any work done. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that they ever leave the office.

After graduating from Smith College with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and biology, Marie has worked at Google for three years – mostly in their “People Ops” team. She is currently training trainers around the world on Google’s famed unconscious bias curriculum.  

 We have plenty to learn from Google’s approach – whether as teachers in diverse classrooms or administrators hiring new colleagues. It was a treat to see Marie thriving in her professional life and just as satisfying to be picking the brain of my former student for ways to make DA stronger.  

Later that day I caught up with my old friend Mike Hanas (former DA teacher and beloved Principal at Carolina Friends School). Mike now serves as Head at San Francisco Friends School in the Mission District. He is as creative and curious as ever – diving into a new life as an empty nester in a full and exhilarating city. I miss him.

A few hours later I was heading to the home of Tom Beischer ’87, uncle to three current DA students and one of our most enthusiastic and generous alumni. Tom teaches architectural history at Stanford. His authentic interest in the life paths of younger DA alumni (especially those new to the Bay Area) has been inspiring to watch over a few years of alumni gatherings. Tom and his wife Lily were gracious hosts for what turned out to be a rocking Cavalier party. More than 25 alumni attended – spanning 25 graduating classes and involved in everything from coding to immigration law to biochemistry to angel investing. It’s easy to see why the region is so dense with tech start-ups and bold dreamers – and easy to understand that our current students will be entering a work force vastly different from the one Tom and I did a quarter century ago. I shared a few updates about DA’s Strategic Plan and the recent changes on our campus. Their questions and follow-up conversations (some continuing via email for weeks) have made clear that they care deeply about their alma mater and appreciate that we haven’t tried to freeze the curriculum in amber.

The next morning, Tim and I learned a painful lesson about surge pricing at Uber on our way to a campus visit to Marin Academy. There, a new Science and Innovation building offered a bundle of useful lessons as DA moves into the final stages of design for our own Science and Humanities Center. I snapped a hundred pictures as we toured the construction site with their Head of School, her Assistant and MA’s Facilities Manager. Despite the remarkably higher
construction costs in Marin County (about 4X what we see in Durham), the aspirations and design of their new building are
eerily similar to ours. Click here to see more about theirs and here to read more about ours.

On the way to the airport, over a Vietnamese lunch in the Mission, I caught up with Imani Hamilton ’06, whom I taught in Advanced Spanish advised for a year during the sabbatical of Dave Gould. After graduating from Lehigh, Imani has been working as a sustainable product designer in San Francisco. Her current work for Vital has her working on furniture for the new Googleplex in Mountain View.

Imani shared stories about researching conversation patterns around conference tables of various shapes. She told tales of her DA San Francisco friends and their weekend ski trips to Lake Tahoe. We laughed about “Gouldie” and his disturbing, hilarious, inspiring antics. And I headed for the airport – reassured that Imani and so many of her classmates have followed their bliss to professions that matter and nurtured friendships that keep mattering.  

I remain full of gratitude for the chance to

  • spend time in such a vibrant area (and visit a pair of interesting independent schools)
  • peek into the lives of our graduates,
  • see such abundant evidence that they are living moral, happy, productive lives,
  • hear them share thanks for beloved teachers, coaches and advisors who changed their lives, and
  • watch them connect with each other – across the decades and through their shared DA experiences.

As Mark Twain put it, "I have always been rather better treated in San Francisco than I actually deserved."

Posted by mulkus on Monday March, 20, 2017


Definitely worth reading - thank you for taking the time to chronicle your trip.  Imani was in my first class of students and made me a globe necklace which I used to wear to our geography bee assemblies (until it was broken by a certain toddler who is now a middle schooler!).  Wonderful to hear of the DA connections and impressive work going on out there.  Thank you again!
from Virginia Hall on 03/21/17 at 10:09AM
Well done, Michael!  It is great to see all the alum in their post-DA lives.  Tom was in my first 6th grade class at DA, Christopher traveled to France with me and helped me set up my blog before I headed to Arles for my sabbatical, we keep in touch with Steve, Imani was one of Jake's classmates...  I could go on and on.  It brings me such joy to see them all grown up!  Inspirational!
from Teresa Engebretsen on 03/22/17 at 06:07AM

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