Keeping the main thing the main thing


A friend and former colleague often repeated a nugget of advice that proves equally helpful when leading a school, building a barn, raising a child or living an ethical life. “The main thing,” he used to say, “is keeping the main thing the main thing.”

What is the “main thing” at Durham Academy? Are we a college prep school? A cauldron for character? An academy for the liberal arts and sciences? Do we exist to prepare students for success in universities? To help them excel in dynamic economies? To hone their intellects? To create servant leaders in communities across the globe?

The simple answer is “yes.” All these ideals resonate here. Each grows naturally from the vision of our founders in 1933. Not one of these missions, however, has meaning without a vibrant culture of teaching and learning. The academic program, one could argue, is the essential “main thing” on our campuses.

Our 2015 Strategic Plan confirmed our decades-long commitment to excellent teaching and learning. The beating heart of Durham Academy has always been our faculty. By prioritizing excellent teaching and committing to strengthen and harmonize our curricula, we are feeding the deepest roots of our school. Among the ways we have worked this year to strengthen academics at DA:

  • Broadening our candidate pools for teaching positions, intensifying our interview protocols, reducing interviewer bias and expanding faculty feedback into hiring decisions.
  • Clarifying our Standards of Professional Excellence for faculty and harmonizing the teacher evaluation rubrics across our four divisions.
  •  Initiating a biannual parent survey to funnel feedback directly to teachers and foster candid dialogue and a collaborative growth mindset.
  • Launching a comprehensive pre-kindergarten to 12 curriculum mapping process.
  •  Increasing our faculty professional growth budget (including curricular improvement projects for faculty teams and graduate school support for teachers in all divisions).
  • Maintaining nationally competitive faculty salary and benefit packages.  
  • Investing in instructional technology (hardware, software, training and teacher-led workshops).
  • Offering new courses and extracurricular activities in robotics and other STEM fields.
  • Strengthening college counseling efforts by increasing dialogue with ninth- and 10th-graders.
  • Finalizing ambitious construction plans to expand and improve our classrooms, labs and makerspaces.

We will continue to measure our progress through ERB, AP, SAT and ACT results; college admissions data; student course evaluations; application and student attrition data; and satisfaction surveys of our seniors, parents and alumni.

However, these quantitative measures — and indeed the academic program as a whole — are not the “main thing” at DA. Academic achievement is not an end in itself, but rather a means to our central purpose: the cultivation of virtue.

This purpose transcends the delivery of academic content. GPAs and SATs measure important things about the learning process, but measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning. We at DA seek not only temporal, quantifiable success, but rather long-term results with largely immeasurable qualities.

Morality, happiness and productivity – these are the ultimate goals of the DA experience. While it may sometimes seem to our students that DA cares most about homework and quizzes or soccer games and iPads, our central concern – arguably the only concern that matters at age 25 and 35 and 75 – is strong character.

With a mission to prepare students for moral, happy, productive lives, we have always cared about character education at DA. From fundamental habits (warm handshakes, eye contact, morning meetings, etc.) to multifaceted programming (advisory groups, community service, the Magnificent Seven awards, etc.), our teachers have, for 83 years, worked as purposefully on moral virtue as they have on intellectual virtue.

Never before, however, has Durham Academy articulated a schoolwide definition of good character.

What traits matter most in our community? What characteristics are most essential to live a moral, happy, productive life? Over the course of the year, faculty from all 14 grades labored to create an answer to these questions – a bold statement of character traits that animate our daily work and sustain a life well lived.

Led by Associate Head of School Lee Hark, this process included months of open-ended brainstorming; research on similar efforts in schools across the country; feedback from students, parents, alumni and trustees; and lots of haggling about individual word choices.

We eventually arrived at a potent constellation of attributes – arranged around the essence of our mission statement:

  • Morality (empathy, kindness, integrity, responsibility and courage)
  • Happiness (curiosity, engagement, authenticity, balance and joy)
  • Productivity (creativity, drive, resilience, generosity and wisdom)

Cynical adolescents don’t suffer sappiness gladly. And indeed, any list of character traits can seem to walk the razor’s edge between pure abstraction and mawkish cheesiness. But our students recognize that character matters deeply – outlasting facts and figures and outshining even the shiniest academic prizes. As Horace Greeley put it, “Fame is vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character.”

And so we bolster and enrich our academic program with all the resources, creativity and energy we can muster, remembering always to keep the main thing the main thing.

Michael Ulku-Steiner