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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You have set the bar high

This morning was beautiful - cool, clear, sunny, breezy . . . and Memorial Day.

The morning grew even more beautiful when I read the following, an open letter to Sheppy Vann, retiring next month after 30 years of teaching and leading in our Preschool. It came from Dennis Cullen (Upper School Math Teacher, Math Department Chair, Varsity Boys and Girls Track and Cross Country Coach, and among the most astute appreciators around).

Enjoy the letter - and the far-reaching legacy of teachers who never stop learning.


Dear Sheppy,

On a late summer morning in 1990, I was in the teachers’ lounge at the 751 campus, putting something in the mailboxes of all the Middle School math teachers. Kevin, aged five, was with me. You walked in, carrying a few books. Kevin would be starting Readiness with you in just a few weeks. I introduced him to you. You put your books on the table, poofed out your dress, got into a crouch, and shook his hand. You asked if he would like to see his room, and when he nodded his approval, you took his hand and walked off down the hall.

The entire interaction took less than a minute, but I think it so richly demonstrated why you are such a wonderful teacher and person. It also gave me much to aspire to.

First, you put the books on the table. You obviously had work to do, but you would not let it interfere with your interaction with a child. I have thought of that so many times in the last several years. When a student comes in for extra help, my natural reaction is to ask the student to wait while I finish working a problem or finish writing an email. It has taken some effort, but I have tried to be more like you. I have tried to treat this student the same way you treated Kevin. I have tried to put the student first.

Second, you got down in a crouch that put your eyes at his level. You did not stand and look down at him. You did not bend at the waist, as so many adults do. When I was a boy, the Yankees began to play their catcher, Yogi Berra, in left field. I asked my father why the manager would be doing this, and he explained that once a catcher reaches his mid-thirties, the knees have a hard time enduring the stress of crouching for each pitch. But here you were, well beyond your mid-thirties, and you were still getting down into a crouch that would have made Berra proud. In doing so, you demonstrated to the child that you really cared about him. You looked him in the eye. Nothing else mattered; nothing would distract you. He had your undivided attention. You were keenly interested in him. He could trust you. You were on his side. Over the years, whenever I am interacting with any of my students, I have tried to remember the way you interacted with Kevin, and I think it has helped me.

Third, you asked him if he wanted to go see his room. Not “my room”. Not even “our room”. This would be his room, a wonderful space crammed with blocks and Legos, numbers and letters, books and friends. Twenty years later, when Kevin was married, his best man would be Tyler Wooden, his good friend since those days in “his room”.

Finally, you extended your hand and walked off with him down the hall, chattering as you walked. You were warm and welcoming. You sensed he might be apprehensive about a new experience, and you were ready to ease his fears and whet his appetite. He would soon be setting out on a wonderful journey, but he would not be alone. You would be with him every step of the way.

Over the years, I have thought about this brief interaction many times. It has had a profound influence on the way I teach. I have tried to be more like you in the way you interact with your students. I don’t often achieve the level of professionalism and love I saw in you that day, but I am still trying. You have set the bar high. We will all miss you more than you can imagine.

With Much Love and Best Wishes,


Posted by in Preschool, Upper School on Monday May, 26, 2014


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