Faculty & Staff Profiles
Constanza de Radcliffe grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, speaking Spanish with her parents and younger sister. From age 4 to 18 she attended a nearby French school where all her subjects were taught in French. But she never took classes in English until she got to Davidson College, a top-10 U.S. liberal arts college, where she graduated with a degree in comparative literature.
The Upper School French and Spanish teacher not only has an impressive language pedigree and an academic background that includes a brief stint in law school and a master’s in journalism from Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. She has a résumé that many of her students would envy. When de Radcliffe moved to New York City in 2000, she was entertainment editor for a Spanish website, covering Latin American rock festivals and interviewing musicians and bands.
How did de Radcliffe find her way to an American college, migrate from journalism to teaching and end up at Durham Academy? The first two can be traced to her parents and the third to her husband’s family.
When de Radcliffe graduated from the French lycée, her father thought it was time for her to get serious about English. He had gone to graduate school in the United States and in England, and he wanted her to learn English. “I took English at school maybe twice a week with a teacher with a heavy French accent, whom I loved, but I was by no means fluent, not at all.”
And not just English, but American English and an American education. De Radcliffe’s maternal grandfather was an American who immigrated to Colombia, and American culture had always been part of her mother’s mindset.
With all that in mind, de Radcliffe signed up for an exchange program that placed her with a family in Asheville, North Carolina, where she audited classes at Carolina Day School.
“I lived with a wonderful family that I’m still in contact with, and they had a daughter who was a senior. I remember going to look at Duke with her and thinking the campus was so beautiful and the opportunities sounded amazing. The family saw that I was so charmed by the idea of going to school here in the States, so they took it upon themselves to research which schools had financial aid for undergrads who were not U.S. citizens, which is rare.”
The answer was Amherst College and Davidson, and because the North Carolina school was not far from Asheville, her American “dad” took her for a campus tour. She applied to Davidson and was wait-listed, “which kind of broke my heart.
“They said you’ve never been to school in English. Have you considered the fact that other than auditing these classes, all your education has been in French? That kind of made sense, but I said, if anything opens up, let me know.”
De Radcliffe went back home to Colombia, was admitted to law school and had already begun classes when she came home to find a phone message. A spot had opened for her at Davidson, there was a scholarship waiting and she had three days to let the school know her decision.
“When you are 18 or 19, you just have this sense of adventure. I wanted to see the world. Why not, I can do anything? Looking back, I definitely struggled with learning the language at the same time as keeping up with the workload. The professors were wonderful. I spent my whole junior year in France, so I was back into the system that I was programmed to be in. It felt so easy after trying to understand the American system.
“It’s a very different education than a French education. It’s two completely different systems. That took a lot of adapting for sure. I grew up speaking Spanish at home, went to a totally French school. To this day I can only understand math in French! It was stressful. I was used to school being easy for me and it was hard. There were some classes I absolutely loved. I had taken the French baccalaureate and that means it gives you two years of credit. I already had my math credit completed and some of my science. I focused on literature and comparative literature.”
By the time de Radcliffe finished Davidson, she had lived five years in the United States and in France. “I just had a real thirst for going back home and learning as much as I could about my own country, and I had a real thirst for learning to write in Spanish as well as possible. So I went home and I went to journalism school. I worked as a magazine editor and took editing courses. I had a job at British Petroleum with their corporate newspaper. It was a great way to see how the country works.”
Something else was also in the works. De Radcliffe had met her college sweetheart at Davidson, and a year later Blake Radcliffe moved to Colombia to learn Spanish and get to know her family. After marrying in Colombia, they moved back to the States, living in Baltimore and Washington before settling in New York. De Radcliffe worked for the Spanish website and a documentary film company before deciding she wanted to teach.
“I was turning 30. The world changed. We were in New York, it was 9/11, I was becoming a real grown-up instead of a young adult. I was reevaluating. What do I want from my life?”
Both of her parents were teachers — her father a college professor and her mother a ballet and art teacher — and “I was remembering how much my parents have loved teaching. I was thinking, in a profound sense teaching is a job where you are lifting up those you are interacting with. It’s less about competing or getting your own advantage. It’s a job about generosity. I wanted to keep on learning, and it gives you a certain freedom to continue to be a learner.”
De Radcliffe taught Spanish and French to middle school students at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School in Manhattan, then taught high school at Poly Prep in Brooklyn.
“What hits you when you start teaching is how incredibly difficult it is in terms of logistics, organization, interactions, managing your own emotions, managing somebody else’s emotions. I started working in middle school and loved it. I also taught really little kids. But there is something about teenagers, I feel like I can connect with them. I wasn’t the quietest student in the class, sometimes I drove my teachers crazy. Adolescence is a bumpy time and I certainly remember mine. I feel like I can connect with them.”
Life was good. “My husband was a literary editor in New York and we were really enjoying the cultural life there. My son Lucas was born, and when he got to be a toddler our priorities began to shift. You start thinking you want your child around nature, and we love his grandparents who live near Charlotte. It became clear that living a long way from both sets of grandparents was not practical.”
They began asking Davidson friends about independent schools, which led to de Radcliffe accepting a job at Durham Academy in 2008.
“It was really hard to leave Brooklyn, but we love the way the kids are growing up here. It’s wonderful.” Son Lucas is a fifth-grader at DA and daughter Soledad is in kindergarten. “I consider my greatest fortune having the kids here. It’s very convenient but beyond that, seeing what they have gained from a DA education, seeing that is really incredible. It gives you a perspective as a teacher as well.”
De Radcliffe has taught French and Spanish since she came to DA, and fall semester she taught an English elective, Latino Writers.
“Teaching creative writing in English was so exciting, exploring what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to go from one culture to another, teaching kids to write memoir and fiction. Fiction writing has been a passion of mine for 20 years.
“I’ve been taking [writing] classes for the last 10 years, have been published in three short story anthologies. That’s always been a passion of mine and something I’ve been able to study, especially with DA’s support. I’ve been taking online classes from a school in Spain. I write mostly in Spanish, going back to my native language, that’s my first love.”
De Radcliffe wrote book reviews for Kienyke, a Colombian online publication, for about 20 years. “It’s a way to keep my roots, keep some strong roots to my language and my country. With the internet era, it’s wonderful. I can take Spanish writing classes online, I can contribute to a magazine online. I can be in beautiful North Carolina, but I am not isolated to one culture.”
Not wanting to be tied to one culture is something that runs in her family.
“My dad always had a sense of adventure. My mother was the daughter of an American immigrant who settled in Colombia. My sister lives in Paris. We have this trait in my family, a gypsy gene, a nomadic gene. For two of three generations, we’ve gone to other places.”