Faculty & Staff Profiles

Faculty Spotlight: Upper School English and Art History teacher Jordan Adair
Posted 09/01/2016 02:15PM

Ask alumni which teachers made the biggest impact on them, and Jordan Adair is a name you’ll often hear mentioned. They talk about the Upper School teacher’s passion and enthusiasm, and some say his class on war in literature is life-changing. 

Adair is a man who leads a drastically changed life. The English and art history teacher is known for his challenging and probing classes, yet for years he thought of himself as an athlete, not an academic or intellectual. He expects the best from his students, but lacked confidence in his own abilities. He is a truth-teller who hid his own truth. He has traveled the journey from angry teenager to confidant of teens and has “come to believe in this sort of mystical, hokey thing that everything happens for a reason, and to also know that every experience I have is critical to shaping who I am.”

Adair grew up the youngest of four children in Washington, North Carolina, named for his grandfather, Charles Ottis Jordan, who was mayor of the small town. His family lived in Durham for four years while his dad pursued a Ph.D., moved to Pennsylvania when his father accepted a position at Franklin & Marshall College and then relocated to Williamsburg in 1971 for an appointment at William & Mary. Adair had just finished his sophomore year of high school, and was not happy to be uprooted from friends and a school where he was doing well.

A basketball player since age 6 — he attended basketball camps at both Duke and UNC — Adair headed straight for the gym the summer he arrived in Williamsburg, and that’s where he made his first friends. He played on his high school team, focusing more on the court than the classroom. He graduated with a so-so academic record and was admitted to William & Mary as a day student. Not wanting to live at home, he headed to Towson State in Baltimore where he did very well academically but was miserable. Good grades meant he was able to transfer to William & Mary, complete with a dorm room, for second semester freshman year.

“My struggles with drug and alcohol addiction started when I was in high school. When I was 16, I started smoking pot with friends I met in Williamsburg when I was a junior in high school. Senior year in high school, I sort of stopped briefly because I dated a girl who didn’t do any of that stuff. Then I went to William & Mary in the second semester, and I did it a lot and did it all through college. How I was able to physically continue to do that and actually compete at a very high level is, I guess, one of the wonders of youth.”

Adair played four years of Division I lacrosse at William & Mary, had a lot of fun and “was a very, very mediocre student except in courses that got me excited. … I was at the bottom of my class, literally.” The classes that excited him were anthropology and English, and he graduated with a double major, writing his senior thesis in anthropology on Émile Durkheim and Auguste Comte, two of the most difficult theorists.

“It was the first time I really felt like I had achieved something as an academic and as an intellectual because I was encouraged by two professors who saw something in me and said ‘you’re not stupid, you’re smart.’ My mother had always supported that. My dad … he and I had an antagonistic relationship because we were so much alike.”

With his college graduation, Adair felt a sense of achievement that wasn’t reflected in his class rank, felt he had grown as a person and had grown a lot intellectually, “but I carried out of William & Mary this issue with drugs and alcohol that continued.”

Adair had no idea what he wanted to do with his degree. “My dad had suggested I try teaching. I said forget it, you suggested this, I’m going to Boston, I’m not going to listen to you.” He had waited tables at Williamsburg’s Kings Arms Tavern during college, so he moved to Boston and spent a year working as a waiter and bartender and playing ultimate Frisbee. “I was just miserable. Something came to me. Dad was in my head saying ‘teaching, teaching.’ I decided to give teaching a try.” He returned to William & Mary for nine weeks of classroom work and nine weeks of student teaching at a local public school.

“I had an absolutely amazing student teaching experience.” Adair was paired with a young, charismatic English teacher. “She was amazing, creative, innovative, and the kids absolutely adored her. She taught me how to interact with kids, how to be human with your students, how to talk to kids who come from places where their lives may not be very good and where they are looking to you to provide some comfort or some guidance or some discipline.”

When a teacher left midyear at a nearby school, Adair got the job, teaching 130 students in five classes, including an AP class. “I had no idea what I was doing. I walked into this having just finished my student teaching. It was trial by fire. I loved my time there.”

It was another kind of love that led Adair to Massachusetts after two-and-a-half years at Bruton High School. He had met Pam Brown at a workshop in June 1981, proposed to her in November, married her in June 1982 and moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where she was an administrator at Phillips Academy.

He was hesitant to move to Massachusetts without a job and public schools hadn’t begun hiring yet, so he took a job at Walnut Hill, a small performing arts school where most of the students were female. “They were really creative kids, really interesting kids. I taught there for two years. It was a hellish commute, but I absolutely loved the job there. I realized if I wanted to coach I couldn’t be there, and I realized I needed to get a graduate degree.”

Adair left to pursue a master’s degree at Northeastern University, and tells the story of how he got there “because I think it is reflective of me as a person. Pam, who has been sort of a lifesaver for me and was key, I think, in my getting sober, was also my biggest cheerleader. Because I had so little faith in myself — this goes back to being an athlete and all that kind of stuff — she said you need to apply to Northeastern, it’s a great program. I had done my research, so I applied and started to write a personal statement [to go with the application]. … My first draft was basically saying I was useless at William & Mary and was at the bottom of my class, so why don’t you reject me now. Pam said you can’t send them this, this is crazy — they are going to reject you if you do this.

“So basically I retooled it and said here’s what I can offer your program. Instead of saying what my deficiencies were, which was my tendency, I said here are some strengths that I bring to your program. I got a letter saying I’d been admitted and I’d been offered a graduate assistantship, which meant they were paying for everything. I had to read it three or four times to make sure they hadn’t sent it to the wrong guy.”

He left Northeastern with an M.A. in English with a concentration in American literature. “It was as great experience for me intellectually, academically. It was a confidence booster for me to believe that I can write. I just didn’t have any faith in myself.”

Adair credits his advisor, a specialist in 20th century modernist poetry, with helping him learn how to write and how to think. “My method of critiquing student writing comes from him because he was — some people would call it harsh — but he was honest with me, he never sugar-coated anything in his comments to me.”

Adair took his new master’s degree to St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic school, where he taught English and coached basketball. When he interviewed for the job, Adair, who is not Catholic, was asked if he could sign a contract that said he would have to teach as Jesus taught. “I said I’m not 100 percent sure what that means but I think it means to be open to all people, to be accepting of all others.”

It was during his eight years at St. John’s that Adair spent his first summer at Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. “I took an acting class and a film class, and it was just transcendent. … After the first summer, I said I have to keep doing this.” He was admitted to the master’s program and took two classes a summer over the next five summers, paying his way with professional development money from St. John’s and by working as a waiter in the Middlebury dining hall.

When students graduate from Bread Loaf, they ask a faculty member to walk with them, and Adair chose his acting teacher. He had her for just one course, and that had been in his first summer there, but “she had such a profound impact on me as a teacher. She helped me become comfortable in my own skin and to be comfortable doing silly stuff.”

He has acted in more than 10 shows — from Pirates of Penzance and Into the Woods in Massachusetts to Grease and West Side Story at DA — and likes getting to know students in a context that’s very different from the classroom.

Adair’s six summers at Bread Loaf served as “a fertile intellectual environment that was unlike anything I’d ever known.” It was at Bread Loaf that he was exposed to the idea that “you can talk about anything in an English class, you can bring in poetry, photography, film, art, all of it is related to exploring human nature and that’s what literature does. I said great, that’s what I like, this is all the stuff I like doing anyway. It was in that class, in the early to mid ’90s, that I made a fundamental shift in the way that I teach my classes, and that is to bring in art, film, literature, music as part of a course., I call it a cultural studies model. I bring all these things to bear into a discussion of what it means to be human.”

It was during his years at St. John’s that Adair made a pivotal change in his personal life. He became sober.

His struggles began as a teenager when his family moved to Williamsburg. “I was angry at my father for moving me. … I spent the next 15 years being mad at my dad for making me move. I was just really angry. I was an angry kid, moody. I sought refuge in pot. … It was a hard transition for me. I got hooked on the drugs.”

Adair’s parents had not been aware of his problem, and neither was his wife. “I kept it really hidden. I was not this kind of person who was crashing his car left and right, but I was a maintenance pot user. … I just maintaining this very difficult balancing act between being a professional and dealing with this addiction.

“Pam and I were married for four years when she said you need to get help — she doesn’t remember saying it but that’s how I interpreted it — and if you don’t get help I’m leaving, I’m out of here. In ’86 I stopped pot and all those other drugs — and I was doing a whole bunch of different kinds of drugs. But then I started drinking more. From ’86 to ’88, my first couple of years at St. John’s Prep, I was starting to drink more and more. On April 1 of ’88, I had this revelation. We went to a party and I got absolutely drunk. I couldn’t drive the car. Pam had to drive us home. I went out that night to walk the dogs. I couldn’t walk the dogs, I had to sit down under a tree. I couldn’t get up. Pam had to come get me. That night she stayed there with me and I haven’t had a drink since.”

Adair came to Durham Academy in 1995, and his past is integral to his life here. He is a member of the Upper School’s Assist Team that helps students reflect on their potential use of alcohol and other drugs before any health, disciplinary or relationship issues arise, and he has spoken at student assemblies.

“I think the sobriety part was the last piece in shaping who I am. I tell people the reason why I do the Assist program, the reason why wellness matters to me so much, the reason why when I came down here I started talking about wellness programs in ’95-’96 and I’ve been talking about them ever since, the reason I do that is wanting to help students who may be struggling like I did and to put in place a program that can help people so they don’t have to go what I went through. Or if they are going through what I went through, we can give them help because there wasn’t anything like that in the ’70s.”

He talks about human nature and things that are personal in his classes. “I have kids write memoir pieces and I have them do portfolio projects, and a lot of that is driven by one of the most important things that I think a teacher can do, and that is to help students explore themselves. That’s part of my job, I think.

“For me, sobriety shapes my world view. I don’t go a day where I don’t think about it. So I try to be grateful for everything I have. I try to ask my students to probe their own actions, their own motivations and why they think and say the things they think, why they do what they do because you have to ask those questions of yourself. That’s why I do journal writing. I’ve been doing journal writing for 25 or 30 years myself and I ask my students to do it because it’s in journals that they can do some of their best exploring.”

Adair has just started his 22nd year at DA, and he feels at peace with himself.

“I feel that this place has given me a lot, and I feel like I need to give a lot. Working hard as a teacher and spending hours talking to students or grading papers or planning is the nature of the beast, and you either are suited for it or you’re not. … The greatest dividend is the students that I get to teach, and I mean that in every sense of the word. I get more back from the students than I could ever imagine.”

When August rolls around, he still gets excited about starting the school year.   

“You have to want to go to work. I don’t want to be in this classroom if I can’t bring my A game every day and if I can’t bring my passion and my desire to do the right job. I have a really important job. Teaching these kids. It’s really critical, what I do, and I can’t take that lightly.”

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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